The DRAW of Citizen Science | Data Rescue: Archives and Weather at McGill

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By Jazmine Aldrich and Victoria Slonosky

Charts showing how the temperature has changed over time are a staple feature of discussions of climate change, but the stories, people and history behind each point making up those lines in graphs have often been lost to time. Yet each data point was observed by someone, using some type of instrument or procedure, written down, checked and transmitted to form part of a larger weather story, before being stored in an archive to ultimately come down to us today and becoming part of our climate change narrative in 2021.

How do we encompass the mind-boggling billions, or on some estimates, trillions of these historical observations in the various archives around the globe, which we need in order to make sense not only of our changing climate, but of the extreme or high impact events and natural hazards that affect our society and infrastructure? We can only start one project at a time.

At McGill University, DRAW (Data Rescue: Archives and Weather) is an interdisciplinary project involving researchers and students from across the campus, in the Faculties of Science, Arts and the Library and Archives. Our aim is to make the meteorological observations of the McGill Observatory, founded in 1863 by Dr. Charles Smallwood, digitally available for scientific analysis by asking volunteers to help us transcribe them into a database, using a custom-built web platform (no experience necessary: you can sign up here). At the same time, we’re working to preserve the historical context and archival integrity of the collection.

Our logo features the former McGill Observatory, with Mt. Royal in the background.

The McGill Observatory collection covers over a century of observations, recorded up to eight times a day, with up to 40 or more individual elements recorded at each observing time. There are hundreds of register books, translating into tens of thousands of digital image files representing each of the observation pages, containing millions of observations.

Given the enormity of the task, and our interest in public outreach and citizen science, the idea of asking the Montreal public to help transcribe the observations via citizen science was a key component from the outset. Could citizen scientists help us turn these millions of handwritten observations into computer crunchable data? How could we persuade ordinary people off the street (or Facebook, as the case may be) that we needed their help to build climate knowledge?

This citizen science approach influenced our project design. A web app was designed to enable transcription directly from the digital images of the logbooks to a back-end database linked to the website user interface, thus avoiding intermediary steps, such as spreadsheets.

The weather registers were initially microfilmed in the 1970s, and digital images captured from the microfilms in the early 2000s. For the observations to be accurately transcribed, a transcription environment had to be devised that matched the layout of each different way the observations were recorded. This required painstaking cataloguing of each change in the way the observations were recorded over the hundred-year history of the Observatory, and coding a register type for each change. The good news is that the observation sheets were printed by the Meteorological Service of Canada, so this cataloguing should hold for similar observing stations across the country. As one of our goals was to ensure transparency and traceability of each data element throughout the data rescue process, we devised methods and protocols for cataloguing both the paper and digital images, including an image filename system that refers to the original archival reference, the newly devised register type catalogue, and a parsing system that the transcription app could use to associate each register type to the appropriate transcription setup.

Building a custom transcription platform has allowed us to attract and keep the attention of many volunteer transcribers, whom we know as “Citizen Scientists.” With every keystroke, they transcribe handwritten weather observations into computer-crunchable data; in doing so, our citizen scientists contribute to the understanding of historical weather patterns and help build better knowledge of our climate. We view DRAW as one small way for anyone to make a big impact on climate science.

The DRAW transcription platform (February 2021).

Students from McGill’s Schools of the Environment and Information Studies have been extensively involved in DRAW since its inception in 2015, preparing, scanning and cataloguing image files, and testing the web app to incorporate user feedback. A student project from December 2017 reported 96% accuracy on DRAW’s citizen science transcribed data. DRAW was also the basis of part of a course module at Dawson College on the connections between historical climate and social science research in the spring semester of 2018. 

Another aspect of DRAW we feel strongly about is preserving and communicating the social history of the early meteorologists who observed Canadian weather and climate. In 2020, we launched our Educator’s Corner that provides resources to build lesson plans and tools including a thematic guide, timeline, slide decks and curriculum book. We are now in the transcription and outreach phase of DRAW, as we explain the DRAW project and appeal for volunteer transcribers (citizen scientists) through traditional and social media. DRAW hosts three monthly webinars – “What is DRAW?” – “How to DRAW: Transcribe like a Pro” – and “What is DRAW? The Project and How to Transcribe,” which combines the content of the first two. You can find the dates for the next round of webinars on our Events page.

One of our monthly webinars – “What is DRAW? The Project and How to Transcribe”

Besides our monthly webinars, we are also offering webinars by request to community organizations, social groups, and schools. We share a variety of content in our bi-weekly blog posts, ranging from transcription tips, to historical topics, to citizen science, and everything in between. We offer quarterly updates to the DRAW community through our email newsletter, DRAW Together, which is timed to reach our community’s inboxes on the first day of each new season. We have a dedicated citizen response, with over a million observations and an estimated 18% of the total pages in the collection transcribed. We don’t collect information about our citizen scientist transcribers, but from the information they volunteer, we can see they come from a variety of backgrounds, from high school students to retirees. We are constantly trying to find new ways to appeal to new user communities and improve the overall user experience. Last year, for example, we added a Participation Certificate feature, which allows student volunteers to translate their transcribing efforts into volunteer hours to be recognized by their school.

Plans for future research include analyzing citizen science participation, motivation and accuracy, evaluating the durability and flexibility of the database and app design, considering how it could be applied to other archival datasets to make them more accessible for research and available to the public, testing methods of validating the data, and evaluating historical aspects of climate change in Montreal.

If you are interested in helping DRAW transcribe historical weather records while also learning how past weather has impacted people and societies, you can sign up on our website. Feel free to reach out to us with questions, comments, or ideas!

Find Us Here:


Facebook: @DRAWMcGill or DRAW McGill

Twitter: @DRAWMcGill #DRAWMcGill

Instagram: @draw_mcgill

Feature image: D. MacGregor, [McGill Observatory clocks and barometer], November 22, 1961. McGill University, Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences.

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McGill University citizen science project, making historic weather data from the McGill Observatory digitally available for scientific analysis.

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