Sunrise to sunset on the day of digital humanities

[I’ve copied my post from the official Day of DH (‘A Day of the Life of the Digital Humanities’) 2012 site so it can be integrated with my other posts on digital humanities and general blogging.]

Gumtrees in carparks. Just one of the things I miss about Australia.
Gumtrees in carparks. Just one of the things I miss about Australia.

I feel like a bit of a cheat, as through an accident of timing my Day of Digital Humanities has been far, far more glamorous than my usual working day (which tends to involve sitting at a desk in Oxford or Milton Keynes analysing websites; reading books, blog posts and articles; or interviewing people for my PhD).

But today I happened to be in Australia so it was all a bit more exciting…  I left for Sydney’s Central station as the sun was rising, heading for the 8am bus to Canberra. On the bus I tidied my Digital Humanities Australasia 2012 (DHA2012) conference paper and slides for tomorrow’s presentation on historians and crowdsourcing, and wrote a blog post about the week just past (Geek for a week: residency at the Powerhouse Museum).

After checking into my room at the ANU (Australian National University), I scanned my email for anything vital, uploaded my draft blog post and hit publish, then tweeted the link as I headed over to the National Museum of Australia where I was taking part in a playtest for a new game called Sembl.

photo
Play-testing Sembl on iPads

After the playtest was over we walked back to the ANU campus for a DHA2012 drinks reception and a LODLAM (linked open data in libraries, archives and museums) mini-bar meetup. An early night for me so I’m sorted for the first day of DHA2012 tomorrow!

Defining Digital Humanities
I was asked to define ‘digital humanities’ when I signed up for this site, came as a bit of a surprise and I don’t think I did a terribly good job. So here’s another, very personal definition based on my work in digital history and digital heritage:

Digital humanities is thinking through making, as well as writing… for me, it’s currently about thinking critically about the impact of digitality on scholarly practice in addition to applying digital techniques to the concerns of the humanities.

Notes on current issues in Digital Humanities

In July 2011, the Open University held a colloquium called ‘Digital technologies: help or hindrance for the humanities?’, in part to celebrate the launch of the Thematic Research Network for Digital Humanities at the OU.  A full multi-author report about the colloquium (titled ‘Colloquium: Digital Technologies: Help or Hindrance for the Humanities?’) will be coming out in the ‘Digital Futures Special Issue Arts and Humanities in HE’ edition of Arts and Humanities in Higher Education soon, but a workshop was also held at the OU’s Milton Keynes campus on Thursday to discuss some of the key ideas that came from the colloquium and to consider the agenda for the thematic research network.  I was invited to present in the workshop, and I’ve shared my notes and some comments below (though of course the spoken version varied slightly).

To help focus the presentations, Professor John Wolffe (who was chairing) suggested we address the following points:

  1. What, for you, were the two most important insights arising from last July’s colloquium?
  2. What should be the two key priorities for the OU’s DH thematic research network over the next year, and why?
Notes on the colloquium and current issues in the Digital Humanities
 

Introduction – who I am as context for how I saw the colloquium
Before I started my PhD, I was a digital practitioner – a programmer, analyst, bearer of Zeitgeisty made-up modern job titles – situated in an online community of technologists loosely based in academia, broadcasting, libraries, archives, and particularly, in public history and museums. That’s really only interesting in the context of this workshop because my digital community is constituted by the very things that challenge traditional academia – ad hoc collaboration, open data, publicly sharing and debating thoughts in progress.

For people who happily swim in this sea, it’s hard to realise how new and scary it can be, but just yesterday I was reminded how challenging the idea of a public identity on social media is for some academics, let alone the thought of finding time to learn and understand yet another tool. As a humanist-turned-technologist-turned-humanist, I have sympathy for the perspective of both worlds.

The two most important insights arising from last July’s colloquium?
John Corrigan‘s introduction made it clear that the answer to the question ‘what is digital humanities’ is still very open, and has perhaps as many different answers as there are humanists. That’s both exciting and challenging – it leaves room for the adaptation (and adoption) of DH by different humanities disciplines, but it also makes it difficult to develop a shared language for collaboration, for critiquing and peer reviewing DH projects and outputs… [I’ve also been wondering whether ‘digital humanities’ would eventually devolve into the practices of disciplines – digital history, etc – and how much digital humanities really works across different humanities disciplines in a meaningful way, but that’s a question for another day.]

In my notes, it was the discussion around Chris Bissel‘s paper on ‘Reality and authenticity’, Google Earth and archaeology that also stood out – the questions about what’s lost and gained in the digital context are important, but, as a technologist, I ask us to be wary of false dichotomies. There’s a danger in conflating the materiality of a resource, the seductive aura of an original document, the difficulties in accessing it, in getting past the gatekeepers, with the quality of the time spent with it; with the intrinsic complexity of access, context, interpretation… The sometimes difficult physical journey to an archive, or the smell of old books is not the same as earned access to knowledge.

What should be the two key priorities for the OU’s DH thematic research network over the next year?
[I don’t think I did a very good job answering this, perhaps because I still feel too new to know what’s already going on and what could be added. Also, I’m apparently unable to limit myself to two.]
I tend to believe that the digital humanities will eventually become normalised as just part of how humanities work, but we need to be careful about how that actually happens.

The early adopters have blazed their trails and lit the way, but in their wake, they’ve left the non-early adopters – the ordinary humanist – blinking and wondering how to thrive in this new world. I have a sense that digital humanities is established enough, or at least the impact of digitisation projects has been broad enough, that the average humanist is expected to take on the methods of the digital humanist in their grant and research proposals and in their teaching – but has the ordinary humanist been equipped with the skills and training and the access to technologists and collaborators to thrive? Do we need to give everyone access to DH101?

We need to deal with the challenges of interdisciplinary collaboration, particularly publication models, peer review and the inescapable REF. We need to understand how to judge the processes as well as the products of research projects, and to find better ways to recognise new forms of publication, particularly as technology is also disrupting the publication models that early career researchers used to rely on to get started.

Much of the critique of digital working was about what it let people get away with, or how it risks misleading the innocent researcher. As with anything on a screen, there’s an illusion of accuracy, completeness, neatness. We need shared practices to critique visualisations and discuss what’s really available in database searches, the representativeness of digital repositories, the quality of transcriptions and metadata, the context in which data was created and knowledge produced… Translating the slipperiness of humanities data and research questions into a digital world is a juicy challenge but it’s necessary if the potential of DH is to be exploited, whether by humanities scholars or the wider public who have new access to humanities content. ‘natural order of things’.

Digitality is no excuse to let students (or other researchers) get away with sloppy practice. The ability to search across millions of records is important, but you should treat the documents you find as rigorously as you’d treat something uncovered deep in the archives. Slow, deep reading, considering the pages or documents adjacent to the one that interests you, the serendipitous find – these are all still important. But we also need to help scholars find ways to cope with the sheer volume of data now available and the probably unrealistic expectations of complete coverage of all potential sources this may create. So my other key priority is working out and teaching the scholarly practices we need to ensure we survive the transition from traditional to digital humanities.

In conclusion, the same issues – trust, authority, the context of knowledge production – are important for my digital and my humanities communities, but these concepts are expressed very differently in each. We need to work together to build bridges between the practices of traditional academia and those of the digital humanities.

Quick PhD update from InterFace 2011

It feels like ages since I’ve posted, so since I’ve had to put together a 2 minute lightning talk for the Interface 2011 conference at UCL (for people working in the intersection of humanities and technology), I thought I’d post it here as an update.  I’m a few months into the PhD but am still very much working out the details of the shape of my project and I expect that how my core questions around crowdsourcing, digitisation, geolocation, researchers and historical materials fit together will change as I get further into my research. [Basically I’m acknowledging that I may look back at this and cringe.]

Notes for 2 minute lightning talk, Interface 2011

‘Crowdsourcing the geolocation of historical materials through participant digitisation’ 

Hi, I’m Mia, I’m working on a PhD in Digital Humanities in the History department at the Open University.

I’m working on issues around crowdsourcing the digitisation and geolocation of historical materials. I’m looking at ‘participant digitisation’ so I’ll be conducting research and building tools to support various types of researchers in digitising, transcribing and geolocating primary and secondary sources.

I’ll also create a spatial interface that brings together the digitised content from all participant digitisers. The interface will support the management of sources based on what I’ve learned about how historians evaluate potential sources.

The overall process has three main stages: research and observation that leads to iterative cycles of designing, building and testing the interfaces, and finally evaluation and analysis on the tools and the impact of geolocated (ad hoc) collections on the practice of historical research.

My PhD proposal (Provisional title: Participatory digitisation of spatially indexed historical data)

[Update: I’m working on a shorter version with fewer long words. Something like crowdsourcing geolocated historial materials/artefacts with specialist users/academic contributors/citizen historians.]

A few people have asked me about my PhD* topic, and while I was going to wait until I’d started and had a chance to review it in light of the things I’m already starting to learn about what else is going on in the field, I figured I should take advantage of having some pre-written material to cover the gap in blogging while I try to finish various things (like, um, my MSc dissertation) that were hijacked by a broken wrist. So, to keep you entertained in the meantime, here it is.

Please bear in mind that it’s already out-of-date in terms of my thinking and sense of what’s already happening in the field – I’m really looking forward to diving into it but my plan to spend some time thinking about the project before I started has been derailed by what felt like a year of having an arm in a cast.

* I never got around to posting about this because my disastrous slip on the ice happened just two days after I resigned, but I’m leaving my job at the Science Museum to take up the offer of a full-time PhD in Digital Humanities at the Open University in mid-March.

Provisional title: Participatory digitisation of spatially indexed historical data

This project aims to investigate ‘participatory digitisation’ models for geo-located historical material.

This project begins with the assumption that researchers are already digitising and geo-locating materials and asks whether it is possible to create systems to capture and share this data. Could the digital records and knowledge generated when researchers access primary materials be captured at the point of creation and published for future re-use? Could the links between materials, and between materials and locations, created when researchers use aggregated or mass-digitised resources, be ‘mined’ for re-use?

Through the use of a case study based around discovering, collating, transforming and publishing geo-located resources related to early scientific women, the project aims to discover:

  • how geo-located materials are currently used and understood by researchers,
  • what types of tools can be designed to encourage researchers to share records digitised for their own personal use
  • whether tools can be designed to allow non-geospatial specialists to accurately record and discover geo-spatial references
  • the viability of using online geo-coding and text mining services on existing digitised resources

Possible outcomes include an evaluation of spatially-oriented approaches to digital heritage resource discovery and use; mental models of geographical concepts in relation to different types of historical material and research methods; contributions to research on crowdsourcing digital heritage resources (particularly the tensions between competition and co-operation, between the urge to hoard or share resources) and prototype interfaces or applications based on the case study.

The project also provides opportunities to reflect on what it means to generate as well as consume digital data in the course of research, and on the changes digital opportunities have created for the arts and humanities researcher.

** This case study is informed by my thinking around the possibilities of re-populating the landscape with references to the lives, events, objects, etc, held by museums and other cultural heritage institutions, e.g. outside museum walls and by an experimental, collaborative project around ‘modern bluestockings’, that aimed to locate and re-display the forgotten stories around unconventional and pioneering women in science, technology and academia.

On ‘cultural heritage technologists’

A Requirements Engingeering lecture at uni yesterday discussed ‘satisfaction arguments’ (a way of relating domain knowledge to the introduction of a new system in an environment), emphasising the importance of domain knowledge in understanding user and system requirements – an excellent argument for the importance of cultural heritage technologists in good project design.  The lecture was a good reminder that I’ve been meaning to post about ‘cultural heritage technologists’ for a while. In a report on April’s Museums and the Web 2009, I mentioned in passing:

…I also made up a new description for myself as I needed one in a hurry for moo cards: cultural heritage technologist. I felt like a bit of a dag but then the lovely Ryan from the George Eastman House said it was also a title he’d wanted to use and that made me feel better.

I’d expanded further on it for the first Museums Pecha Kucha night in London:

Museum technologists are not merely passive participants in the online publication process. We have skills, expertise and experience that profoundly shape the delivery of services. In Jacob Nielsen’s terms, we are double domain experts.  This brings responsibilities on two fronts – for us, and for the museums that employ us.

Nielsen describes ‘double usability specialists’ or ‘double experts’ as those with expertise in human-computer interaction and in the relevant domain or sector (e.g. ref).  He found that these double experts were more effective at identifying usability issues, and I’ve extrapolated from that to understand the role of dual expertise in specifying and developing online and desktop applications.
Commenters in the final session of MW2009 conference described the inability of museums to recognise and benefit from the expertise of their IT or web staff, instead waiting until external gurus pronounced on the way of the future – which turns out to be the same things museum staff had been saying for years.  (Sound familiar?)

So my post-MW2009 ‘call to arms’ said “museums should recognise us (museum technologists) as double domain experts. Don’t bury us like Easter eggs in software/gardens. There’s a lot of expertise in your museum, if you just look. We can save you from mistakes you don’t even know you’re making. Respect our expertise – anyone can have an opinion about the web but a little knowledge is easily pushed too far”.

However, I’m also very aware of our responsibilities. A rough summary might be:

Museum technologists have responsibilities too.  Don’t let recognition as a double domain expert make you arrogant or a ‘know it all’. Be humble. Listen. Try to create those moments of understanding, both yours from conversation with others, and others from conversation with you – and cherish that epiphany.  Break out of the bubble that tech jargon creates around our discussions.  Share your excitement. Explain how a new technology will benefit staff and audiences, show them why it’s exciting. Respect the intelligence of others we work with, and consider it part of our job to talk to them in language they understand. Bring other departments of the museum with us instead of trying to drag them along.

Don’t get carried away with idea that we are holders of truth; we need to take advantage of the knowledge and research of others. Yes, we have lots of expertise but we need to constantly refresh that by checking back with our audiences and internal stakeholders. We also need to listen to concerns and consider them seriously; to acknowledge and respect their challenges and fears.  Finally, don’t be afraid to call in peers to help with examples, moral support and documentation.

My thoughts on this are still a work in progress, and I’d love to hear what you think.  Is it useful, is it constructive?  Does a label like ‘cultural heritage technologist’ or ‘museum technologist’ help others respect your learning and expertise?  Does it matter?

[Update, April 2012: as the term has become more common, its definition has broadened.  I didn’t think to include it here, but to me, a technologist ia more than just a digital producer (as important as they are) – while they don’t have to be a coder, they do have a technical background. Being a coder also isn’t enough to make one a technologist as it’s also about a broad range of experience, ideally across analysis, implementation and support.  But enough about me – what’s your definition?]

The UK as a knowledge-based economy

Rather off-topic, but I wonder what role cultural heritage organisations might have in a knowledge economy. I would imagine that libraries and archives are already leading in that regard, but also that skills currently regarded as belonging to the ‘digital humanities’ will become more common.

In less than three years time, more than half of UK GDP will be generated by people who create something from nothing, according to the 2007 Developing the Future (DtF) report launched today at the British Library.

The report, commissioned by Microsoft and co-sponsored by Intellect, the BCS and The City University, London, sets out the key challenges facing the UK as it evolves into a fully-fledged knowledge-based economy. The report also sets out a clear agenda for action to ensure the UK maintains its global competitiveness in the face of serious challenges.

The report identifies a number of significant challenges that the technology industry needs to address if these opportunities are to be grasped. Primarily, these are emerging markets and skills shortages:

  • At current rates of growth China will overtake the UK in five years in the knowledge economy sector.
  • The IT industry faces a potential skills shortage: The UK’s IT industry is growing at five to eight times the national growth average, and around 150,000 entrants to the IT workforce are required each year. But between 2001 and 2006 there was a drop of 43 per cent in the number of students taking A-levels in computing.
  • The IT industry is only 20 per cent female and currently only 17 per cent of those undertaking IT-related degree courses are women. In Scotland, only 15 per cent of the IT workforce is female.

BCS: Developing the future.

The report also suggests that the ‘IT industry should look to dramatically increase female recruitment’ – I won’t comment for now but it will be interesting to see how that issue develops.

File under ‘fabulous resources that I doubt I’ll ever get time to read properly’: the Journal of Universal Computer Science, D-Lib Magazine (‘digital library research and development, including but not limited to new technologies, applications, and contextual social and economic issues’) and transcripts from the Research Library in the 21st Century symposium.

On the other hand, Introduction to Abject-Oriented Programming is a very quick read, and laugh-out-loud funny (if you’re a tragic geek like me).

I came across a mention of ‘Digital Object Identifiers’ in a paper on digital humanities, and discovered DOI.org:

A DOI name – a digital identifier for any object of intellectual property. A DOI name provides a means of persistently identifying a piece of intellectual property on a digital network and associating it with related current data in a structured extensible way.

A DOI name can apply to any form of intellectual property expressed in any digital environment. DOI names have been called “the bar code for intellectual property”: like the physical bar code, they are enabling tools for use all through the supply chain to add value and save cost.

A DOI name differs from commonly used internet pointers to material such as the URL because it identifies an object as a first-class entity, not simply the place where the object is located. The DOI name identifies an entity directly, not some attribute of an object (an address is an attribute of a thing, whereas the thing itself is a first class object).

At some stage I have a big post to write about stable, permanent URIs for museum objects, and I’ll be re-visiting this site when I start that.