Crowdsourcing a nation

Sandra Corbeil, Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation, Canada, Fiona Smith Hale, Canada Science and Technology Museums, Canada, Christopher Jaja, Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation, Canada


In 2017, Canadians from coast to coast will celebrate Canada's 150th birthday. To mark this milestone, five of this country’s top science organizations have joined together in a year-long, nationwide celebration of our innovative past, and our exciting future. In 2016, the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation, along with its STEM partners, began to create a digital storybook that would help create, connect and celebrate Canada's story of innovation. Rather than solely pushing out stories "we" felt were worthy of sharing, we took a different approach. We decided to take a more participatory approach, which required us to built a platform that would allow Canadians to share "their" stories of innovation through user-generated content. In this session, attendees will learn: - How to identify your audience and their needs - How to entice users (the public and partners) to submit user-generated content (e.g. campaigns, partnerships, etc.) - How to continuously engage a community - How to let go while maintaining relevant and quality content - How to embrace a participatory approach - How to build the required tools for successful user-generated platform - How to measure success - How to build a culture of innovation

Keywords: user-generated content, ugc, crowdsourcing, digital platform, participatory

Crowdsourcing a nation: Building a platform that drives participation and user generated content


In 2017, Canadians from coast to coast to coast are celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday. As a celebration of the sesquicentennial of Canada the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation (CSTMC) set out to capture stories of innovation and how innovation has shaped this nation. The CSTMC is a family of three national museums which have recently devoted significant effort to support digital cultural collaboration.

Rather than solely pushing out stories “we” felt were worthy of sharing, we took a different approach. Opting for a more participatory approach, we built a platform that would allow Canadians to share “their” stories of innovation through user-generated content. We chose to crowdsource these stories.

We saw the Canada 150 crowdsourced platform as an opportunity for digital cultural collaboration and engagement. The user-generated content approach, where we invited the public to publish their innovation story, reposition the role of a museum within broader society.

This paper explores the questions faced by the museums as they created this platform from identifying audiences, approaches, the opportunities presented as well as the tools required and explores how museums can become sites of collaborative, participatory innovation, allowing more participants to help fulfill the mission of the museum.

Crowdsourcing and Museums

Museums are becoming more open to the participation of their audiences and stakeholders. In her call for museums to be become more audience centred, Nina Simon (2010) shares how user’s participation can invigorate as well as inform. Being open applies not just to the traditional visitors or users but partners and stakeholders, such as academia, industry, government, and other cultural organizations. Crowdsourcing embodies this open approach.

Crowdsourcing has existed for centuries but, over the past decade, tools for collaboration have been radically transformed. Couple that with the open movement and the result is an unprecedented climate for crowdsourcing. When is crowdsourcing effective and when does it help a museum be relevant to its visitors, participants and audiences? What role does crowdsourcing play in the shifting role of a museum? These are some questions this initiative we explored with this initiative.

As Canada approached its 150th birthday in 2017, the National Heritage Committee established new cultural objectives for museums, stating they should play a leading role to ‘promote pride and belonging amongst all Canadians and (…) to promote education and sharing of culture across the country’ (Grincheva, 2015). Early plans for the platform aligned with these objectives as we embraced a highly participatory approach.

Origins – Digital Crowdsourced Storybook on Innovation

The theme of ‘innovation’ established a focus without being too rigid was important to create an ideal inclusive and collaborative community. Innovation proved to be an inspiring, inclusive, open theme that invited users and partners contributions that could be historical, contemporary or even future-focussed.

With the power of a crowdsourced storytelling approach we began by considering the kinds of stories we desired. As a collection-based organisation were were highly inspired by the objects in the collection. We began with the concept of “Canada: a work in progress” which evolved into people-places-objects then people-places-innovation.

We then developed profiles for our target audiences. Specific audiences were identified under the banner “the curious Canadian” that included:

  • Students: where we would invite youth 15+ to highlight their innovative research and provide online content and activities to help them connect and engage with others
  • Parents and Teachers: who would be inspired by the platform but also find inspiration and ideas to equip them as influencers of youth
  • Innovation-philes, Experts and Historians (amateur or professional: where they would find a platform to share their passion, research insights and ideas as well as contribute to engagement opportunities.

Decisions around moderating – Canada’s got treasures review identified how posts there were reviewed by a project team which undermined the democratic principles of the project

The fully bilingual (English and French) beta site went live a full 18 months before the 150th. From the beginning we developed a mobile friendly site, which allows visitors to connect from any device and from anywhere.

Embracing an agile development approach (release quickly, iterate often) we built an inclusive community with the community and not for it. A huge amount of learning, testing and improvements happened before Jan 2017.

Enticing Users to Contribute Content

Research began in 2012 with the collection and research team identifying stories they felt should be found in such a platform. The team also recognized that some of these should be told by others and not the museums so a selection process was required to establish diversity for the seed stories – as we would be setting a tone, style and representing our aspirations of diverse content. From this work 55 stories inspired largely by the objects in the collection were identified as our ‘seed’ stories. Research, writing and identification of images from the museums’ archives or other collections was conducted and they strove to give each story a hook. A plan was developed to release these stories in phases, in order for CSTMC contributions to not dominate the platform. With the initial 10 stories the platform went quietly live in June 2015 and an outreach campaign to key partners began.

To entice users to contribute content we targeted a variety of sectors including government research departments, universities, science communication organisations and industry.

Growth – Innovation 150

Outreach gained momentum as the number of contributors and stories grew. Initially it was challenging to entice partners but over time these contacts evolved from being almost exclusively initiated by the CSTMC to including a significant portion of contacts from interested partners wanting to be a part of this platform. Shortly after going live we began conversations with 4 other leading science organisations in Canada and eventually formed a 5 way partnership, united in our vision of celebrating innovation in Canada in 2017. Our “Innovation 150” partners are working alongside the CSTMC for the sesquicentennial. As their activities wrap up in 2018 the CSTMC will continue to manage the platform. Collectively the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation, The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, the Institute for Quantum Computer out of the University of Waterloo, Actua and the Canadian Association of Science Centres are committed to engaging with audiences across the country, sharing past innovation and driving the innovative future of Canada.

Maintaining Community Engagement

Continuous engagement was our goal. With this in mind we identify key strategies to support this goal. We developed 55 CSTMC stories, and only released 10 initially. The remaining 45 were shared over the next 18 months, helping to ensure the site had a more regular influx of content as we developed the community. The rate of new content coming influences not only community engagement and traffic but also community contributions. With this in mind we created a notification feature that would alert users of “relevant” notifications, such as comments on their stories or replies to their comments.

With our agile approach the project team was very actively using and monitoring the platform in order to continuously observe, and to implement improvements quickly. Working with key partners as contributors of content we benefiting from their experiences and feedback. As the platform’s initial bugs were resolved we continued to to engage with content partners on a regular basis ensures a strong relationship and motivates them to continue to contribute to the platform.

Once the basics of story contributions on the platform resolved additional elements were added to the platform ahead of 2017. In the fall of 2016 we hired a Community Manager to respond to the community’s online activities. The Community Manager drives conversations and continuously engages with our audience. Community engagement plans were developed and implementation began in January 2017. These plans included promoting via social media and traditional marketing mediums, such as events and exhibitions helps drive traffic and excitement for the initiative.

  • Contests to drives participation and engagement such as the “In Every Classroom” that invites classes to submit a short video of their favourite demonstration or experiment showcasing innovation or “Canadian Life Hacks” which seeks ideas for ways of using everyday material to make things better.
  • Social media campaigns for Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook tied together with the #Innovation 150 hashtag.
  • Media communications and official announcement events and releases
  • Festivals
  • Platform is mobile friendly, which allows visitors to connect from any device and from anywhere

How to let go while maintaining relevant and quality content

As we set about creating tools for the Innovation 150 platform we knew that we must keep this simple. We also recognize that collaborative communities flourish when when participants can share, recombine ideas, create a collection and contribute to each other’s contributions freely.

Keeping the “Story submission” process simple is key. A simple process that removes unnecessary obstacles makes it easier and quicker for users to contribute content. We recognize that our current submission process isn’t as simple as it could be, we continue to modify and simplify it as we receive feedback. From the beginning we adopted an Agile approach – release quickly, iterate often. Having something to show in June 2015 allowed us to build a platform that was already vibrant by January 2017 – its official “launch”.

From the beginning we set out to build the required tools for successful user-generated platform while maintaining an approach that attracted relevant and quality content. It’s important to note that letting go does not mean allowing and accepting poor content. Letting go, we discovered, plays a large role in supporting the culture of innovation. Some moderation tools and measures were required, and are in place to prevent spam, offensive, and irrelevant content to be contributed. Some of the tools and measures we included:

  • A flagging feature where any user can flag inappropriate content to the Community Manager
  • A robotic feature that scans content for foul language prior to allowing a user to upload a story or comment
  • The Community Manager and other admins receive “recent activity” notifications by email so that they can not only stay with what’s happening, but also scan and flag any inappropriate content to the Community Manager.

We opted for a light approach to our moderation strategy. Users can upload and publish stories to the our platform without having it vetted or approved by the Community Manager and Administrators first. In doing this we removed barriers and delays so that users can were empowered and have a stronger sense of ownership of the platform. We wanted users to fully shape the community and the story of Canada we were co-creating. By choosing to not control, by letting go we created a community where innovation could happen. One might say we chose to play a facilitation role rather than the traditional authoritative moderation role.

Embracing a Participatory Approach

The CSTMC’s mandate, in part, is to foster scientific and technological literacy throughout Canada. Like many other Museums, engagement is central to our vision to inspire Canadians to celebrate and engage with their scientific, technological and innovative past, present and future. Delivering on our mandate – and engaging with our visitors – means acknowledging that traditional stewardship of knowledge is breaking down.

It also means that there are changing expectations for how we share our work and messages as well as a shift towards new ways of delivering on our heritage mandate. In this new paradigm museum engagement is designed to encourage, creativity and foster collaboration with a view to new content and knowledge creation – not just consumption of content.

Measuring Success

The platform began with 10 stories from the CSTMC in June 2015. In the first 12 months, still 6 months away from official launch, it has 17 content contributors. These ranged from research organisations like the National Research Council Canada to universities, other museums and individuals. Some published only one story, others published up to 35, some published in both languages as well. One journalism class created a group account to share stories written by their students. When all Innovation 150 activities (exhibitions and touring programming) launched in January 2017 the platform received a boost in visitors as the hub of all partner activities. Clearly this partnership helped drive community engagement for the storytelling platform. You can see how the number of accounts (needed to share content, comment) is increasing in tandem with the number of stories and images or video shared.

Figure 1: Platform Story Statistics (February 8, 2017)

From the official launch of the partner initiative on January 20th to February 2nd, 2017 the entire hub enjoyed more than 100K page views and has more than 17K users.

These quantitative results are good, and they’re complimented by the calibre of contributions, social media engagement and conversations happening outside the platform. While this initiative is early in its 2017 year of celebrations it’s clear that the work that was done in the years leading up to this which focused on strategic partnerships and networks, quality content, agile delivery and built on a foundation of engagement are already achieving good results.

Building a Culture of Innovation

As this platform evolves, it becomes clear that it is an aggregator of sorts. From the time we shared the first platform in 2015 interest in partnership and collaboration were shared regularly. We welcomed such partnerships and continuing to take advantage of these opportunities will clearly help the collective vision of celebrating and inspiring innovation. By collaborating and not working independently we are achieving more. By the time we present this paper in may this platform will be aligned with a published book, with events associated with that book and major innovation festivals hosted in three major cities in Canada.

Open Innovation at CSTMC

The Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation has a number of open initiatives. CSTMC information is living in an increasingly open ecosystem. People’s expectations are changing and the desire – even need – to have immediate access to information and knowledge is evident. The CSTMC library catalogue has been accessible online for more than a decade, the artifact collection went online in Spring 2015. It was the first national museum in Canada to release its complete artifact collection data as open data, in 2014. CSTMC launched Open Heritage portal that works in real-time, where the majority of our workings documents are open by default and released to an unrestricted web portal. You could say, in essence, that our firewalls are down! Open Archives – our latest initiative – which hosts images from our Archives will “officially” launch in 2017. In the past 6 months, we moved from a traditional closed by default system– where content is hidden behind a firewall – to an open by default one.


Go big or go home some say, a philosophy we embraced when we decided to crowdsource a nation. In developing the platform we gained valuable experience (and continue to) on how to entice audiences to contribute, we experienced the rich levels of engagement that become possible when you let go, and we witnessed that letting go doesn’t have to compromise relevance or quality. Through Innovation 150 we know that crowdsourcing does present challenges but the opportunities outweigh these. User generated content and participation do invigorate as well as inform. When we dive into crowdsourcing again (as I am certain we will) we will release quickly, innovate and update often, we’ll act as stewards of the space we create and not masters of it, we’ll choose open themes and ensure regular influx of energy to maintain engagement. But mostly I think we’ll watch with curiosity and amazement at what letting go will do.


Dawson, Brian and Fiona Smith Hale (2017). “Open Innovation: Open movements and the role of a museum in the 21st century.” MW2017: Museums and the Web 2017. Pre-published version. Consulted February 15, 2017.

Government of Canada (2016). Canada 150 Fund. Consulted January 30, 2017.Available

Grincheva, Natalia (2015). “‘The World Beach Project’ Going Viral: Measuring Online Influence—Case Study of the Victoria and Albert Online Museum Project.” In Journal of Creative Communications, Vol 10, Issue 1, 2015. Available:

Maxwell, Elliot (2006). “Open Standards, Open Source, and Open Innovation: Harnessing the Benefits of Openness.” Innovations / summer 2006, 119-176.

Simon, Nina (2010). The Participatory Museum. Santa Cruz: Museum 2.0.

Cite as:
. "Crowdsourcing a nation." MW17: MW 2017. Published February 16, 2017. Consulted .

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