3 minute read

When the Office of Research Outreach contacted to us about creating a citizen research project in the humanities, a great conversation opened up.

We wanted to build a project dealing with a topic of great interest to many people, but also a topic that reflected the superdiverse region in which we live, but also from which citizen researchers anywhere in the world could learn. It was also very important to us that we design a project to be sustainable.

Everyone is interested in food!

The inspiration for the project

The inspiration for DishbyDish is a long-standing project from New York Public Library known as “What’s on the Menu?”. As of May 2023, citizen researchers have transcribed more than 1.3 million dishes from more than 17000 menus! The project has documented so much food culture for research and general interest, that we wanted to recreate it for the United Arab Emirates where food culture is so rich and diverse.

There are three key differences with the “What’s on the Menu” project. First, and very important, we were not beginning with an existing archive of digitized menus. This means that our menus have been collected in situ, by project participants, and they have in many cases been sourced by volunteers and from places as familiar as the kitchen drawers in which they pile up. This lack of an existing archive also means that the kind of temporal depth you get in “What’s on the Menu” will be slow to come in our project.

We are building the archive as we transcribe it!

Second, whereas the “What’s on the Menu” project began in 2011 when there were not web-based, customizable crowdsourcing platform, we were quite lucky to begin in 2023. We have chosen to use the FromThePage platform, used by many archives and libraries for the crowd transcription of their digitized collections. Citizen researchers working on this project can make a free account and participate without any cost to them.

Third, we are in the midst of a moment of digital transformation of the restaurant industry with the rise of the numerous delivery services and cloud kitchens (also known as dark or ghost kitchens). This also means that the menu as we know it is undergoing a transformation. In this new environment, we have chosen to formulate a statement on data ethics, about how we collect, process and represent the data, but also how we aim to return value to the food establishments of the country. More on this to come at our blog.

Project Design with Sustainability in Mind

For an institution that does not have lots of infrastructure for digital humanities projects, one of the main concerns was how we use the infrastructure we have, and how we disseminate information about the project in a sustainable way.

In order to get this project going we have:

  • organized our files in Workspace and Drive, which has been our institution’s persistent data management system
  • used scanners at our institution for menus which arrived to us undigitized, although in some cases we have received digital image files which needed to be cropped and manipulated
  • employed paid student research assistants for work on the project, their contribution is acknowledged on the Team tab of this site.
  • created a Github static site using the Minimal Mistakes theme

Since our transcription guidelines use a simple encoding scheme known as Markdown to structure the data in tabular format (see the FromthePage guidelines here), the project data is easily downloadable and processable in a variety of formats.

The same can be said of our web development strategy. Using a GitHub static site allows datasets derived from the menus to be shared in the very same place where we disseminate other information about the project. The markdown posts on the site are easily transferable to other environments as well.