Britain from Above: User engagement between the digital and ‘real’ world

This paper gives an overview of the engagement programme of Britain from Above, a partnership project aimed at conserving and making freely available the first 95,000 images of the Aerofilms collection of historic aerial photographs, which ended in November 2014. It reviews the engagement programme’s approach of interlinking digital participation on with face-to-face events and community engagement projects and summarises crucial lessons learnt.

Britain from Above and the Aerofilms collection

Britain from Above has been a four year Heritage Lottery funded project between English Heritage and its partners, the Royal Commissions on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland and Wales. The project conserved, digitised and catalogued the oldest and most fragile negatives dating from 1919 to 1953 as well as some overseas coverage. Overall, this unique collection comprises of over 1.2 million aerial photographs of Britain, taken between 1919 and 2006.

The project’s website aims at making the Aerofilms collection available as well as encouraging the wider public to help interpret the collection. By adding layers of interpretation to the original image in the form of personal memories, factual information, photographs and other media, the website users significantly enhance the collection’s accessibility for an audience unfamiliar with aerial photographs and thus widen its potential reach.

The website’s crowdsourcing element asks users to help identify aerial photographs which cataloguing were not able to locate. Although only less than 2% of images remained unlocated, the crowdsourcing element was particularly successful in retaining users and encouraging interaction online.

The engagement framework

The project’s activity programme was developed around its target audiences and specific engagement methods. All outreach work combined to some degree a ‘traditional’ programme of face-to-face events and projects with a strong digital focus in order to engage with a broad range of audiences from existing archives users to the wider public or audiences at risk of digital exclusion.

Research as part of the funding bid as well as finds from a study on the potential of user engagement on the Britain from Above website (Clari 2013) informed the team’s approach in terms of applying and further developing good practice.

Digital engagement: Moderation and online activities

Website moderation was undertaken by all project team members on a rota, successfully kick-starting discussions with users on an equal level, acknowledging and encouraging contributions. Social media campaigns supported the delivery of targeted online activities, aimed at demonstrating rarely used website functions, rewarding existing users and reaching out to new audiences. Using Twitter, Facebook and special interest blogs, the ‘Knit for Britain from Above’ campaign was first trialled as a limited pilot project before being launched countrywide and attracted a female audience for a website predominantly used by men.

Audiences at risk of digital exclusion: events and traditional volunteering

Existing archive audiences often suffer from a lack of IT skills preventing them from confidently making use of online offers. The team ran over 130 hands-on internet workshops and talks nationwide in partnership with local gatekeepers such as libraries, history centres or museums to address this issue. Unexpectedly, volunteers came forward to help meet the demand for those events. A dedicated contact person and a specifically developed toolkit provided support and guidance.

Behind the Scenes: Fostering online relationships

‘Super-Users’ is the term for the website’s top contributors. It is common for crowdsourcing projects that 10% of users do most of the work (Holley 2010). As of October 2014, Britain from Above’s Top 10 users provided 50% of contributions. In order to reward, retain and motivate the most dedicated contributors, the team regularly organised special events, adding a face-to-face dimension to the relationships that had begin to build amongst the users and with staff. The events strengthened the interaction online, developed the users’ sense of community and ownership of the website and allowed for crucial consultation on the engagement programme.

Lessons learnt

  • The benefits of mixing digital and face-to-face engagement include, amongst others, more and higher quality website contributions, the retention and motivation of users, motivation for staff and word of mouth marketing.
  • Successful partnership working over the distance needs clear joint objectives, thorough and pro-active communication and time to build reliable partnership links.
  • Reaching out to audiences at risk of digital exclusion requires better than average portable IT equipment and staff with a thorough working knowledge of how to make it work.
  • A high percentage of existing archive audiences are excluded from digital services. What can the sector collaboratively do to tackle this problem?
  • Virtual volunteering poses a new set of challenges compared to ‘traditional’ ways of volunteering. An internal volunteering policy needs to consider Health and Safety implications, support and training as well as monitoring and rewarding volunteer contributions over the distance.
  • Motivation is THE key to success when working with virtual volunteers.
  • Regularly consulting with the user base helps to develop an effective engagement strategy. Piloting projects and activities in collaboration with users allows adjustments and getting to know the audience.

BfA_partners_colourFoyle logo MASTER final HiRes

References and further reading

Carletti, L., McAuley, D., Price, D. et al. (2013) ‘Digital Humanities and Crowdsourcing: An Exploration’. Conference paper for MW2013: Museums and the Web 2013 [online]. [13 November 2014]

Clari, M. (2013) Britain from Above: A Study of User Engagement with Digital Aerial Photography. Unpublished: University of Edinburgh

Heritage Lottery Fund (July 2012) Using Digital Technology in Heritage Projects [online]. [13 November 2014]

Holley, R. (2010) ‘Crowdsourcing: How and Why Should Libraries Do It?’ D-Lib Magazine [online] 16, (3). [13 November 2014]

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