Archives For history

Operation War Diary Screenshot

Working at the Zooniverse means that I get to indulge many of my interests beyond astronomy, like history. In January we launched a project in partnership with the Imperial War Museum and the National Archives called Operation War Diary. It’s a ‘citizen history’ site that asks the public to tag and transcribe more than one million war diaries, and other handwritten notes, produced on the western front during the First World War. 2014 is the centenary year of the start of the war and we hope that this project will recover information that had been all but lost over the last one hundred years.

The results of this project are starting to appear now. The project is meant to run for several years, but there are already new ways to explore and understand the data thanks to effort of the tens of thousands of people who have taken part in Operation War Diary. As an example, the video below is an animation of the casualties reported in the diaries tagged so far. You can also see this map online at

This map was created by Operation War Diary developer Jim O’Donnell and it’s not a final map by any means but it shows the power of crowdsourcing these kinds of tasks. If that all intrigues you, you can involved here – and read more about the project in this blog post. You can follow Operation War Diary on Facebook and Twitter too!

I shared this today, in a presentation, as an example of the many projects created by the Zooniverse team, which could be described as ‘Social Machines’. I work as part of a project called SOCIAM, which is investigating these Social Machines as a research topic.

Social machines were predicted in the early days of the web and are an emergent, social entity typified by large group of people working together online to achieve things neither the machine nor the human network could otherwise achieve. Zooniverse projects are a great example of a social machine for scientific discovery, which is why we were invited to join this collaboration.

Dave DeRoure's 'classic' social machines explanation chart

Dave DeRoure’s ‘classic’ social machines explanation chart


Social machines often involve very large-scale human participation; they may generate large volumes of data; and they may try to solve social or technical problems from the reverse perspective. Wikipedia is a social machine too, for example, as is Reddit, eBay, and Ushahidi.

Operation War Diary and the other Zooniverse projects combine people in a way that can only be achieved through the web, and many of the participants then contribute in new and unexpected ways*, enriching the overall output of the platform. This makes it a notable social machine, and a great citizen science platform.

Sorry – this has been a rather rambling post. So to conclude here’s a link to many more Operation War Diary maps, prodded by Jim, on CartoDB:

[* See Spanish Flu in Old Weather, Yellow Balls in MWP, Green Peas in Galaxy Zoo]


April 8, 2008 — 1 Comment

I recently had the opportunity to visit a place called Moundville in Alabama. Moundville is a prehistoric site of the Creek People. In this region, prehistoric means anything prior to about 1600 and the site itself dates from 1000 to 500 years old.

The region is a kind of large, flat park that has been cleared out from the surrounding woodland. A lovely grassy lawn has been allowed to grow all over it and so it is a very pleasant. Almost startling as you drive up to the park are a number of large hills, rising abnormally from the flat lawn. These are the mounds for which the park is named.


Each of them could be mistaken for hills if they weren’t so square. If you imagine a rectangular pyramid with the top cut off not too far from the base, then you have the idea. The mounds are clearly man-made and when they were discovered in the woodland, archaeologists took a keen interest.

It is thought that they were constructed over many years, by highly organised, manual labour. In this respect they are like the many pyramids and mounds found in Mexico and Central America. However, they do not seem to have any cultural connection to these other sites. All but one of the mounds are arranged in a north-to-south fashion. By that, i mean than the sides of the rectangles align to the cardinal points such that each face of the mound faces north, south, east or west.

The only mound that doesn’t align in this way is one the largest mounds, placed centrally in the arrangement, called Mound A. This mound is at a bearing just shy of 30 degrees from north.We walked up Mound A to have a look around. From this position you feel very much like you are in the middle of the park and high above it.


It is thought that the Moundville site was at one time a kind of city. The mounds are thought to have been important locations in a very large settlement of people, positioned near to the Black Warrior River, important for transportation and trade. The Creek people spread widely over much of the Eastern United States at one time and Moundville may have been just one a several important cities.

As an astronomer it obviously caught my attention because of the alignment of the mounds. The most intriguing being Mound A. I have been playing about on Google Earth and trying to align the stars of Orion’s belt or of some other important asterism. Alas, I cannot make anything work obviously.


After some further reading, I found that one of the important artifacts found at the Moundville site known as a Rattlesnake Disk (shown here), actually represents an astronomical object. The symbol of the eye-in-the-hand is said the be a symbol for the Creator. It represents the Orion nebula, with the fingers being Orion’s belt.

So I shall continue to try to align the site to something related to Orion’s belt. I have also included the information here that you would need to do the same if you wish to try it out.

Download the Google Earth placemark here and the map of the site here.