NYT asks readers to help identify print ads, using a platform for crowdsourcing called Hive

A new project built by the New York Times‘ research and development lab went live on Tuesday, known as Madison: Named after the avenue in New York that is home to the world’s most powerful advertising agencies, it asks readers to help identify and tag scanned print ads from the paper’s vast archives. The project is also the first to be built on an open-source platform developed by the Times specifically for such crowdsourcing purposes, a platform it calls Hive.

The Times has provided access to a digital archive of its print stories since 2008, when it launched TimesMachine, an online repository similar to the old micro-fiche collections libraries used to have, which goes back to 1851. Although the software is good at indexing news stories, it’s not as good at recognizing ads — which in cultural terms can be almost as interesting as the actual journalism.

Madison was designed to help fix that problem, Alexis Lloyd of the NYT’s research lab told Advertising Age. The project started with ads from the 1960s, in part because ads from that era have become popular again with the success of the TV show Mad Men, but will be adding advertising from other periods soon.

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Readers can volunteer to identify whether a scanned section of a page shows a single ad or multiple ads, or no ads at all, and they can also tag advertisements with a category and company names. A third section asks them to transcribe the actual text in the ad. There’s a “gamification” aspect to the challenge as well, as readers are given titles based on how many tasks they’ve completed.

Crowdsourcing points and membership

The first thing that occurred to me when I saw the gamification element was whether the points awarded might be used for some kind of membership-related program the Times has in mind. Melody Kramer, a digital strategist at National Public Radio, came to much the same conclusion after reading about the project:

Kramer has talked in presentations to journalists about the potential for using membership in a media-based community — something NPR relies on for its livelihood — as the foundation of a broader approach to journalism and the news business. I’ve written about this before as well: that is, the necessity for media outlets like the New York Times to build strong relationships with their readers by allowing them to become part of the journalistic process, even in a small way.

Some media entities have had considerable success with crowdsourcing around journalistic efforts, including the Guardian‘s legendary MP Expenses project from 2009, which got tens of thousands of people to read and fact-check expense claims submitted by members of parliament. ProPublica also had some success with its Free The Files project, in which readers were asked to go and request public records of political ad spending from local TV stations.

Not everyone is going to want to help tag advertisements, of course — but if other crowdsourcing projects involving astronomy and mathematics are any guide, there are probably more than you might think.

One of the most interesting aspects of the project is a reference at the end of the Madison “about” page to Hive, which is described as a “modular, flexible, open-source platform… on which any number of crowdsourced applications and tools can be built.” Hopefully we’ll be hearing more about that in the future, and seeing more such experiments from the Times around things other than just advertising.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Everett Collection