Messiness, museums and methods: thoughts from #DH2012 so far…

I’m in Hamburg for the 2012 Digital Humanities conference.  The conference only officially started last night, but after two days of workshops and conversations I already feel like my brain is full, so this post is partly a brain dump to free up some space for new ideas.

The first workshop was one I ran on ‘Learning to play like a programmer: Web mash-ups and scripting for beginners’ – I’ve shared my slides and notes at that link, as well as links for people to find out more about starting with basic code and computational thinking and to keep learning.

The second workshop, Here and There, Then and Now – Modelling Space and Time in the Humanities, was almost a mini-conference in itself.  The wiki for the NeDIMAH – Space Time Working Group includes links to abstracts for papers presented at the workshop, which are also worth a look for pointers to interesting projects in the spatial humanities.  The day also include break-out sessions on Theory, Methods, Tools and Infrastructure

The session I chaired on Methods was a chance to think about the ways in which tools are instantiations of methods.  If the methods underlying tools aren’t those of humanists, or aren’t designed suitably for glorious but messy humanities data, are they suitable for humanities work? If they’re not suitable, then what?  And if they’re used anyway, how do humanists learn when to read a visualisation ‘with a grain of salt’ and distinguish the ‘truthiness’ of something that appears on a screen from the complex process of selecting and tidying sources that underlies it?  What are the implications of this new type of digital literacy for peer reviews of DH work (whether work that explicitly considers impact of digitality on scholarly practice, or work that uses digital content within more traditional academic frameworks)?  How can humanists learn to critique tool choice in the same way they critique choice of sources?  Humanists must be able to explain the methods behind the tools they’ve used, as they have such a critical impact on the outcomes. 

[Update: ‘FairCite‘ is an attempt to create ‘clear citation guidelines for digital projects that acknowledge the collaborative reality of these undertakings’ for the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations.]
We also discussed the notion of academic publications designed so that participation and interaction is necessary to unlock the argument or narrative they represent, so that the reader is made aware of the methods behind the tools by participating in their own interpretive process.  How do we get to have ‘interactive scholarly works’ in academia – what needs to change to enable them?  How are they reviewed, credited, sustained?  And what can we learn from educators and museum people about active reading, participation and engagement?

Our group also came up with the idea of methods as a bridge between different experts (technologists, etc) and humanists, a place for common understanding (generated through the process of making tools?), and I got to use the phrase ‘the siren’s lure of the shiny tool’, which was fun.  We finished on a positive note with mention of the DH Commons as a place to find a technologist or a humanist to collaborate with, but also to find reviewers for digital projects.

Having spent a few days thinking about messy data, tweets about a post on The inevitable messiness of digital metadata were perfectly timed.  The post quotes Neil Jeffries from the Bodleian Library, who points out:

we need to capture additional metadata that qualifies the data, including who made the assertion, links to differences of scholarly opinion, omissions from the collection, and the quality of the evidence. “Rather than always aiming for objective statements of truth we need to realise that a large amount of knowledge is derived via inference from a limited and imperfect evidence base, especially in the humanities,” he says. “Thus we should aim to accurately represent the state of knowledge about a topic, including omissions, uncertainty and differences of opinion.”

and concludes “messiness is not only the price we pay for scaling knowledge aggressively and collaboratively, it is a property of networked knowledge itself”.  Hoorah!

What can the digital humanities learn from museums?

After a conversation over twitter, a few of us (@ericdmj, @clairey_ross, @briancroxall, @amyeetx) went for a chat over lunch.  Our conversation was wide-ranging, but one practical outcomes was the idea of a ‘top ten’ list of articles, blog posts and other resources that would help digital humanists get a sense of what can be learnt from museums on topics like digital projects, audience outreach, education and public participation.  Museum practitioners are creating spaces for conversations about failures, which popped up in the #DH2012 twitter stream.

So which conference papers, journal articles, blogs or blog posts, etc, would you suggest for a top ten ‘get started in museums and the digital humanities’ list?

[For further context, the Digital Humanities community is interested in working more closely with museums: see point 3 of the Association for Computers and the Humanities (ACH)’s ‘Next Steps’ document.

‘Engaging digital audiences in museums’ conference

A quick report and Storify summary from Wednesday’s joint Museums Computer Group (MCG) and Digital Learning Network (DLNet) conference, ‘Engaging digital audiences in museums‘, which was held on 11 July 2012 at the University of Manchester.  I’m the Chair of the MCG and was on the Programming Committee for this event so I make absolutely no claim to impartiality, but I thought it went really well – great speakers and workshop leaders, enthusiastic and friendly participants and a variety of formats that kept energy levels up during the day.

My notes are sketchier than usual as I was co-chairing some of the sessions and keeping an eye on the running of the event, so this is more of an impressionistic overview than a detailed report.  There are already a number of other posts out there, and we’ll have the post from our official event blogger and illustrator up soon for more comprehensive accounts.

For the MCG, this event was experimental in a number of ways – in running an event with another practitioner organisation, in the venue, in running parallel workshops, buying in commercial wifi, and in devoting part of the day to an unconference – and I’m curious to know what response we get in the evaluation from the day.  (If you were there, our short feedback form is online.)

The event was designed to bring museum learning and technology staff together because we felt we were missing opportunities to benefit from each others skills and experience. I know technologists are grappling with measuring impact, and learning people with reaching new audiences in different ways – hopefully each group would have something to offer and something to learn, though it might mean seeing past each others jargon and understanding different views of the world. (This ‘Interloper Report‘ and comments from MW2012 provide some insight into the potential.) We planned the day as a mixture of inspiring talks and opportunities to get stuck into conversation about topical issues. It was also a day for making connections so we’d included coffee breaks, lunch and the unconference so that people could find others interested in similar things or to put faces to names from the MCG and DLNet lists and social media.
The various tweets I’ve added to storify do a reasonable job of covering the day, but I’ve left out things like the QR code discussion. Other conversations about generic learning outcomes have taken on a life of their own – for example, Rhiannon’s post ‘Generic Learning Outcomes – friend or foe?‘ seeks to understand why non-learning people don’t seem to like them.

I thought Nick Winterbotham‘s presentation of the Group for Education in Museums (GEM) ‘self-evident truths’ was interesting, and some of his points were picked up and retweeted widely:

  • Our heritage is not about things it is about people
  • Everyone has a right to know about and be at ease with heritage
  • Heritage embraces the past and present of all cultures
  • Heritage is essential as the cradle of everyone’s tomorrow
  • Heritage encompasses all literature, science, technology, environments and arts
  • The multiple narratives of heritage deserve respect
  • Learning is an entitled journey, not a destination
  • Heritage learning is an entitlement for everyone
  • The development of heritage learning skills must be a perpetual excellence
  • Learning is not simply a justification for cultural spending, it is THE justification for cultural spending

Nick advocated for a world where no-one hesitates at taking a risk in learning, and said that we love art, digital culture because of how we feel about it, not what we know about it. He urged us to focus on how your audiences live, learn and love your subject matter; to acknowledge the intellectual generosity needed; and find the big idea that will transform your organisation.

Matthew Cock talked about the challenges of audiences, particularly around mobile. The three-pronged model for audiences in museums: attract -> engage -> impact.  He asked, when you see someone in a museum with a phone, what space are they in? Are they engaged, distracted, focused? Is it a sign of disrespect and disengagement or a sign of bonding with the group they’re with? And how do you know?

He talked about the work Morris Hargreaves McIntyre had done to understand their audiences and their varying motivations for visiting: social – museums as enjoyable place to spend time with friends and family; intellectual – interested in knowledge; emotional – experience what the past was like; spiritual – creative stimulation, quiet contemplation, etc.  (See also MHM’s Culture Segments report). How does this connect to using mobiles to engage people? People have different activities – chat, read, recording audio or photo, playing media back, share something via social media etc. Each fulfills a different need. The challenge is to match specific things you can do on a mobile with your motivations for visiting. He referred to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to think about the needs a museum satisfies in our lives and the experience economy.

People are seeking venues and events that engage them in a memorable (and authentic?) ways – we’re shifting from buying lots of stuff to seeking unique and engaging experiences. The visitor wants to walk away with the engagement having effected a transformation (the impact point of the three-pronged model). Measuring that impact is really hard. Evaluation can look at lots of things but it’s hard to understand the needs of our visitors and what works for them in this space.

Later I asked what Learning people like Nick could tell us technologists about measuring impact, but it seems like it’s the holy grail for their field too. Nick did mention that we go from a stage of cognitive to affective impact over time after an experience, which is a good start for thinking about this.  Judging from the response on twitter, I’m not the only one who thinks that measuring the impact of a museum experience and understanding whether it’s ephemeral or lifelong is one of the big tasks for museums right now.

John Coburn‘s presentation on the Hidden Newcastle app harked back to the buzz around storytelling
a few years ago, but it also resonated with conversations about the different types and purposes of museum websites – an app that’s not about sharing collections or objects but about sharing compelling stories fits firmly in the ‘messy middle‘.  In this case, ‘it’s the story that creates the impact, not the object. The value of the object is as the source for the story’. I love that they wanted to create intrigue about the people and the times in which they lived and compel exploration.

It was a difficult choice but I popped into the ‘tech on a budget’ workshop where Shona Carnall and Greg Povey presented some interesting ways to use existing, readily available technologies to create interactive experiences.

I’ll leave the detail of the other presentations to the storify below and other people’s posts and skip to the unconference.  Because time was short we asked for session ideas and votes from the podium, rather than letting people write ideas and put their votes up on a shared board.  After the unconference we all gathered again to hear what had been discussed in each group. The summaries were:
  • Commercial side of commissioning cool things: reluctant to put a price on it, but UK has cultural expectations around free museums which makes it harder to charge. Digital is received as god given right, something that should be free. But how come the West End theatre is able to charge so much for a ticket? Museums providing paid-for entertainment not just a browsing experience. We pay for entertainment but we don’t expect to be entertained in museums. 
  • Learning outcomes: friends or foe? Attitude is sometimes that learning outcomes are rubbish – decided generic learning outcomes (GLOs) are a really good thing. It’s not about shoe-horning facts into everything or pure knowledge transfer – it’s also about inspiration, experience, skills, wonderment. The wondrous Romans! Trying to change the stigma about what learning actually is, it’s an experience as much as formal education. Maybe ‘aims and objectives’ a better term than ‘learning outcomes’.
  • How do you evaluate wonderment – with difficulty. What is it? Element of surprise, something being visceral, physiological responses. Are adults too cynical for wonderment? ‘Smiling Victorians’ – challenge expectations. Imagine writing a budget to get iris recognition to measure wonder! Hard to measure or evaluate it but should always aspire to it.
  • Coherent experience, call to action in gallery to online with mobile in gallery: talked about pressure museums are under to introduce next tech, be whizzy, or is it addressing a real need? Can you piggyback on software that’s already out there?
  • Reaching different audiences: particularly teenagers: find out what inspires them, tap into that. What are the barriers to engaging them? They’re creative, maybe we should work with them to create digital offers, empower them. Apps for apps sake – under pressure to deliver them.
  • Big ideas: intellectual generosity. (Goodness! There was a long list of the characteristics MCG and DLNet would have if they were an animal or a tool…)  We are intricate explosions. Intricate – all the stuff we’re talking about is detailed and a little fragile but explosive because the world will catch fire with what we’re doing.
  • Failure confessionals: web content management systems – maybe simple is the way to go. Failure is a good thing, and at least we didn’t screw up like the bankers.
  • Social media audiences: does it make sense just to have one FB, twitter, etc account per org? Keeping a brand together is good but it doesn’t always make sense to lump all audience conversations into one channel.

And with the final thanks to the student volunteers, programme committee, unconference organisers and speakers (and particularly to Ade as local contact and Rhiannon as the tireless organiser that made it all happen), it was over.

We’re already looking ahead to the MCG’s Spring 2013 meeting, which may be an experimental ‘distributed’ meeting held in the same week or evening in different regional locations.  If you’re interested in hosting a small-scale event with us somewhere in the UK, get in touch!  We’re also thinking about themes for UK Museums on the Web 2012, so again, let us know if you have any ideas.

Drinking about museums: the Manchester edition, July 10

A few years ago the Museums Computer Group committee started inviting people attending our events to join us for drinks the night before. For locals and people who’ve travelled up the night before an event, it’s a nice way to start to catch up with or meet people who are interested in technology in museums. These days people around the world are organising events under the #drinkingaboutmuseums label, so we thought we’d combine the two and have a #drinkingaboutmuseums in Manchester on Tuesday July 10, 2012. Come join us from 6:30pm at the Sandbar, 120 Grosvenor Street, Manchester M1 7HL.

And of course, the reason we’re gathering – on Wednesday July 11, 2012, the MCG (@ukmcg) are running an event with the Digital Learning Network (@DLNet) on ‘Engaging digital audiences in museums‘ in Manchester (tickets possibly still available at http://mcg-dlnet.eventbrite.com/ or follow the hashtag #EngageM on twitter) so we’ll have a mixed crowd of museum technologists and educators. You’re welcome to attend even if you’re not going to the conference.

If you’ve got any questions, just leave a comment or @-mention me (@mia_out) on twitter. We’ll also keep an eye on the #drinkingaboutmuseums tag. You can find out more about #drinkingaboutmuseums in my post about the June New York edition which saw 20-ish museum professionals gather to chat over drinks.

Slow and still dirty Digital Humanities Australasia notes: day 3

These are my very rough notes from day 3 of the inaugural Australasian Association for Digital Humanities conference (see also Quick and dirty Digital Humanities Australasia notes: day 1 and Quick and dirty Digital Humanities Australasia notes: day 2) held in Canberra’s Australian National University at the end of March.

We were welcomed to Day 3 by the ANU’s Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington (who expressed her gratitude for the methodological and social impact of digital humanities work) and Dr Katherine Bode.  The keynote was Dr Julia Flanders on ‘Rethinking Collections’, AKA ‘in praise of collections’… [See also Axel Brun’s live blog.]

She started by asking what we mean by a ‘collection’? What’s the utility of the term? What’s the cultural significance of collections? The term speaks of agency, motive, and implies the existence of a collector who creates order through selectivity. Sites like eBay, Flickr, Pinterest are responding to weirdly deep-seated desire to reassert the ways in which things belong together. The term ‘collection’ implies that a certain kind of completeness may be achieved. Each item is important in itself and also in relation to other items in the collection.

There’s a suite of expected activities and interactions in the genre of digital collections, projects, etc. They’re deliberate aggregations of materials that bear, demand individual scrutiny. Attention is given to the value of scale (and distant reading) which reinforces the aggregate approach…

She discussed the value of deliberate scope, deliberate shaping of collections, not craving ‘everythingness’. There might also be algorithmically gathered collections…

She discussed collections she has to do with – TAPAS, DHQ, Women Writers Online – all using flavours of TEI, the same publishing logic, component stack, providing the same functionality in the service of the same kinds of activities, though they work with different materials for different purposes.

What constitutes a collection? How are curated collections different to user-generated content or just-in-time collections? Back ‘then’, collections were things you wanted in your house or wanted to see in the same visit. What does the ‘now’ of collections look like? Decentralisation in collections ‘now’… technical requirements are part of the intellectual landscape, part of larger activities of editing and design. A crucial characteristic of collections is variety of philosophical urgency they respond to.

The electronic operates under the sign of limitless storage… potentially boundless inclusiveness. Design logic is a craving for elucidation, more context, the ability for the reader to follow any line of thought they might be having and follow it to the end. Unlimited informational desire, closing in of intellectual constraints. How do boundedness and internal cohesion help define the purpose of a collection? Deliberate attempt at genre not limited by technical limitations. Boundedness helps define and reflect philosophical purpose.

What do we model when we design and build digital collections? We’re modelling the agency through which the collection comes into being and is sustained through usage. Design is a collection of representational practices, item selection, item boundaries and contents. There’s a homogeneity in the structure, the markup applied to items. Item-to-item interconnections – there’s the collection-level ‘explicit phenomena’ – the directly comparable metadata through which we establish cross-sectional views through the collection (eg by Dublin Core fields) which reveal things we already know about texts – authorship of an item, etc. There’s also collection-level ‘implicit phenomena’ – informational commonalities, patterns that emerge or are revealed through inspection; change shape imperceptibly through how data is modelled or through software used [not sure I got that down right]; they’re always motivated so always have a close connection with method.

Readerly knowledge – what can the collection assume about what the reader knows? A table of contents is only useful if you can recognise the thing you want to find in it – they’re not always self-evident. How does the collection’s modelling affect us as readers? Consider the effects of choices on the intellectual ecology of the collection, including its readers. Readerly knowledge has everything to do with what we think we’re doing in digital humanities research.

The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around (pdf). Searching produces a dynamically located just-in-time collection… Search is an annoying guessing game with a passive-aggressive collection. But we prefer to ask a collection to show its hand in a useful way (i. e. browse)… Search -> browse -> explore.

What’s the cultural significance of collections? She referenced Liu’s Sidney’s Technology… A network as flow of information via connection, perpetually ongoing contextualisation; a patchwork is understood as an assemblage, it implies a suturing together of things previously unrelated. A patchwork asserts connections by brute force. A network assumes that connections are there to be discovered, connected to. Patchwork, mosaic – connects pre-existing nodes that are acknowledged to be incommensurable.

We avow the desirability of the network, yet we’re aware of the itch of edge cases, data that can’t be brought under rule. What do we treat as noise and what as signal, what do we deny is the meaning of the collection? Is exceptionality or conformance to type the most significant case? On twitter, @aylewis summarised this as ‘Patchworking metaphor lets us conceptualise non-conformance as signal not noise’

Pay attention to the friction in the system, rather than smoothing it over. Collections both express and support analysis. Expressing theories of genre etc in internal modelling… Patchwork – the collection articulates the scholarly interest that animated its creation but also interests of the reader… The collection is animated by agency, is modelled by it, even while it respects the agency we bring as readers. Scholarly enquiry is always a transaction involving agency on both ends.

My (not very good) notes from discussion afterwards… there was a question about digital femmage; discussion of the tension between the desire for transparency and the desire to permit many viewpoints on material while not disingenuously disavowing the roles in shaping the collection; the trend at one point for factoids rather than narratives (but people wanted the editors’ view as a foundation for what they do with that material); the logic of the network – a collection as a set of parameters not as a set of items; Alan Liu’s encouragement to continue with theme of human agency in understanding what collections are about (e.g. solo collectors like John Soane); crowdsourced work is important in itself regardless of whether it comes up with the ‘best’ outcome, by whatever metric. Flanders: ‘the commitment to efficiency is worrisome to me, it puts product over people in our scale of moral assessment’ [hoorah! IMO, engagement is as important as data in cultural heritage]; a question about the agency of objects, with the answer that digital surrogates are carriers of agency, the question is how to understand that in relation to object agency?

GIS and Mapping I

The first paper was ‘Mapping the Past in the Present’ by Andrew Wilson, which was a fast run-through some lovely examples based on Sydney’s geo-spatial history. He discussed the spatial turn in history, and the mid-20thC shift to broader scales, territories of shared experience, the on-going concern with the description of space, its experience and management.

He referenced Deconstructing the map, Harley, 1989, ‘cartography is seldom what the cartographers say it is’. All maps are lies. All maps have to be read, closely or distantly. He referenced Grace Karskens’ On the rocks and discussed the reality of maps as evidence, an expression of European expansion; the creation of the maps is an exercise in power. Maps must be interpreted as evidence. He talked about deriving data from historic maps, using regressive analysis to go back in time through the sources. He also mentioned TGIS – time-enabled GIS. Space-time composite model – when have lots and lots of temporal changes, create polygon that describes every change in the sequence.

The second paper was ‘Reading the Text, Walking the Terrain, Following the Map: Do We See the Same Landscape?’ by Øyvind Eide. He said that viewing a document and seeing a landscape are often represented as similar activities… but seeing a landscape means moving around in it, being an active participant. Wood (2010) on the explosion of maps around 1500 – part of the development of the modern state. We look at older maps through modern eyes – maps weren’t made for navigation but to establish the modern state.

He’s done a case study on text v maps in Scandinavia, 1740s. What is lost in the process of converting text to maps? Context, vagueness, under-specification, negation, disjunction… It’s a combination of too little and too much. Text has information that can’t fit on a map and text that doesn’t provide enough information to make a map. Under-specification is when a verbal text describes a spatial phenomenon in a way that can be understood in two different ways by a competent reader. How do you map a negative feature of a landscape? i.e. things that are stated not to be there. ‘Or’ cannot be expressed on a map… Different media, different experiences – each can mediate only certain aspects for total reality (Ellestrom 2010).

The third paper was ‘Putting Harlem on the Map’ by Stephen Robertson. This article on ‘Writing History in the Digital Age’ is probably a good reference point: Putting Harlem on the Map, the site is at Digital Harlem. The project sources were police files, newspapers, organisational archives… They were cultural historians, focussed on individual level data, events, what it was like to live in Harlem. It was one of first sites to employ geo-spatial web rather than GIS software. Information was extracted and summarised from primary sources, [but] it wasn’t a digitisation project. They presented their own maps and analysis apart from the site to keep it clear for other people to do their work.  After assigning a geo-location it is then possible to compare it with other phenomena from the same space. They used sources that historians typically treat as ephemera such as society or sports pages as well as the news in newspapers.

He showed a great list of event types they’ve gotten from the data… Legal categories disaggregate crime so it appears more often in the list though was the minority of data. Location types also offers a picture of the community.

Creating visualisations of life in the neighbourhood…. when mapping at this detailed scale they were confronted with how vague most historical sources are and how they’re related to other places. ‘Historians are satisfied in most cases to say that a place is ‘somewhere in Harlem’.’ He talked about visualisations as ‘asking, but not explaining, why there?’.

I tweeted that I’d gotten a lot more from his demonstration of the site than I had from looking at it unaided in the past, which lead to a discussion with @claudinec and @wragge about whether the ‘search vs browse’ accessibility issue applies to geospatial interfaces as well as text or images (i.e. what do you need to provide on the first screen to help people get into your data project) and about the need for as many hooks into interfaces as possible, including narratives as interfaces.

Crowdsourcing was raised during the questions at the end of the session, but I’ve forgotten who I was quoting when I tweeted, ‘by marginalising crowdsourcing you’re marginalising voices’, on the other hand, ‘memories are complicated’.  I added my own point of view, ‘I think of crowdsourcing as open source history, sometimes that’s living memory, sometimes it’s research or digitisation’.  If anything, the conference confirmed my view that crowdsourcing in cultural heritage generally involves participating in the same processes as GLAM staff and humanists, and that it shouldn’t be exploitative or rely on user experience tricks to get participants (though having made crowdsourcing games for museums, I obviously don’t have a problem with making the process easier to participate in).

The final paper I saw was Paul Vetch, ‘Beyond the Lowest Common Denominator: Designing Effective Digital Resources’. He discussed the design tensions between: users, audiences (and ‘production values’); ubiquity and trends; experimentation (and failure); sustainability (and ‘the deliverable’),

In the past digital humanities has compartmentalised groups of users in a way that’s convenient but not necessarily valid. But funding pressure to serve wider audiences means anticipating lots of different needs. He said people make value judgements about the quality of a resource according to how it looks.

Ubiquity and trends: understanding what users already use; designing for intuition. Established heuristics for web design turn out to be completely at odds with how users behave.

Funding bodies expect deliverables, this conditions the way they design. It’s difficult to combine: experimentation and high production values [something I’ve posted on before, but as Vetch said, people make value judgements about the quality of a resource according to how it looks so some polish is needed]; experimentation and sustainability…

Who are you designing for? Not the academic you’re collaborating with, and it’s not to create something that you as a developer would use. They’re moving away from user testing at the end of a project to doing it during the project. [Hoorah!]

Ubiquity and trends – challenges include a very highly mediated environment; highly volatile and experimental… Trying to use established user conventions becomes stifling. (He called useit.com ‘old nonsense’!) The ludic and experiential are increasingly important elements in how we present our research back.

Mapping Medieval Chester took technology designed for delivering contextual ads and used it to deliver information in context without changing perspective (i.e. without reloading the page, from memory).  The Gough map was an experiment in delivering a large image but also in making people smile.  Experimentation and failure… Online Chopin Variorum Edition was an experiment. How is the ‘work’ concept challenged by the Chopin sources? Technical methodological/objectives: superimposition; juxtaposition; collation/interpolation…

He discussed coping strategies for the Digital Humanities: accept and embrace the ephemerality of web-based interfaces; focus on process and experience – the underlying content is persistent even if the interfaces don’t last.  I think this was a comment from the audience: ‘if a digital resource doesn’t last then it breaks the principle of citation – where does that leave scholarship?’

Summary

So those are my notes.  For further reference I’ve put a CSV archive of #DHA2012 tweets from searchhash.com here, but note it’s not on Australian time so it needs transposing to match the session times.

This was my first proper big Digital Humanities conference, and I had a great time.  It probably helped that I’m an Australian expat so I knew a sprinkling of people and had a sense of where various institutions fitted in, but the crowd was also generally approachable and friendly.

I was also struck by the repetition of phrases like ‘the digital deluge’, the ‘tsunami of data’ – I had the feeling there’s a barely managed anxiety about coping with all this data. And if that’s how people at a digital humanities conference felt, how must less-digital humanists feel?

I was pleasantly surprised by how much digital history content there was, and even more pleasantly surprised by how many GLAMy people were there, and consequently how much the experience and role of museums, libraries and archives was reflected in the conversations.  This might not have been as obvious if you weren’t on twitter – there was a bigger disconnect between the back channel and conversations in the room than I’m used to at museum conferences.

As I mentioned in my day 1 and day 2 posts, I was struck by the statement that ‘history is on a different evolutionary branch of digital humanities to literary studies’, partly because even though I started my PhD just over a year ago, I’ve felt the title will be outdated within a few years of graduation.  I can see myself being more comfortable describing my work as ‘digital history’ in future.

I have to finish by thanking all the speakers, the programme committee, and in particular, Dr Paul Arthur and Dr Katherine Bode, the organisers and the aaDH committee – the whole event went so smoothly you’d never know it was the first one!

And just because I loved this quote, one final tweet from @mikejonesmelb: Sir Ken Robinson: ‘Technology is not technology if it was invented before you were born’.

Quick and dirty Digital Humanities Australasia notes: day 2

What better way to fill in stopover time in Abu Dhabi than continuing to post my notes from DHA2012? [Though I finished off the post and re-posted once I was back home.] These are my very rough notes from day 2 of the inaugural Australasian Association for Digital Humanities conference (see also Quick and dirty Digital Humanities Australasia notes: day 1 and Slow and still dirty Digital Humanities Australasia notes: day 3). In the interests of speed I’ll share my notes and worry about my own interpretations later.

Keynote panel, ‘Big Digital Humanities?’

Day 2 was introduced by Craig Bellamy, and began with a keynote panel with Peter Robinson, Harold Short and John Unsworth, chaired by Hugh Craig. [See also Snurb’s liveblogs for Robinson, Short and Unsworth.] Robinson asked ‘what constitutes success for the digital humanities?’ and further, what does the visible successes of digital humanities mask? He said it’s harder for scholars to do high quality research with digital methods now than it was 20 years ago. But the answer isn’t more digital humanists, it’s having the ingredients to allow anyone to build bridges… He called for a new generation of tools and methods to support the scholarship that people want to do: ‘It should be as easy to make a digital edition (of a document/book) as it is to make a Facebook page’, it shouldn’t require collaboration with a digital humanist. To allow data made by one person to be made available to others, all digital scholarship should be made available under a Creative Commons licence (publishers can’t publish it now if it’s under a non-commercial licence), and digital humanities data should be structured and enriched with metadata and made available for re-use with other tools. The model for sustainability depends on anyone and everyone being able to access data.

Harold Short talked about big (or at least unescapable) data and the ‘Svensson challenge’ – rather than trying to work out how to take advantage of infrastructure created by and for the sciences, use your imagination to figure out what’s needed for the arts and humanities. He called for a focus on infrastructure and content rather than ‘data’.

John Unsworth reminded us that digital humanities is a certain kind of work in the humanities that uses computational methods as its research methods. It’s not just using digital materials, though it does require large collections of data – it also requires a sense of how how the tools work.

What is the digital humanities?

Very different versions of ‘digital humanities’ emerged through the panel and subsequent discussion, leaving me wondering how they related to the different evolutionary paths of digital history and digital literature studies mentioned the day before. Meanwhile, on the back channel (from the tweets that are to hand), I wondered if a two-tier model of digital humanities was emerging – one that uses traditional methods with digital content (DH lite?); another that disrupts traditional methods and values. Though thinking about it now, the ‘tsunami’ of data mentioned is disruptive in its own right, regardless of the intentional choices one makes about research practices (which might have been what Alan Liu meant when he asked about ‘seamless’ and ‘seamful’ views of the world)…. On twitter, other people (@mikejonesmelb, @bestqualitycrab, @1n9r1d) wondered if the panel’s interpretation of ‘big’ data was gendered, generational, sectoral, or any other combination of factors (including as the messiness and variability of historical data compared to literature) and whether it could have been about ‘disciplinary breadth and inclusiveness‘ rather than scale.

Data morning session

The first speaker was Toby Burrows on ‘Using Linked Data to Build Large‐Scale e‐Research Environments for the Humanities’. [Update: he’s shared his slides and paper online and see also Snurb’s liveblog.] Continuing some of the themes from the morning keynote panel, he said that the humanities has already been washed away in the digital deluge, the proliferation of digital stuff is beyond the capacity of individual researchers. It’s difficult to answer complex humanities questions only using search with this ‘industrialised’ humanities data, but large-scale digital libraries and collections offer very little support for functions other than search. There’s very little connection between data that researchers are amassing and what institutions are amassing.

He’s also been looking at historians/humanists research practices [and selfishly I was glad to see many parallels with my own early findings]. The tools may be digital rather than paper and scissors, but historians are still annotating and excerpting as they always have. The ‘sharing’ part of their work has changed the most – it’s easier to share, and they can share at an earlier stage if they choose to do that, but not a lot has changed at the personal level.

Burrows said applying applying linked data approach to manuscript research would go a long way to addressing the complexity of the field. For example, using global URIs for manuscripts and parts; separating names and concepts from descriptive information; and using linked data functions to relate scholarly activities (annotations, excerpts, representations etc) to manuscript descriptions, objects and publications. Linked data can provide a layer of entities that sits between research activities and descriptions/collections/publications, which avoids conflating the entities and the source material. Multiple naming schemes are necessary for describing entities and relationships – there’s no single authoritative vocabulary. It’s a permanent work in progress, with no definitive or final structure. Entities need to include individuals as well as categories, with a network graph showing relatedness and the evidence for that relatedness as the basic structure.

He suggested a focus on organising knowledge, not collections, whether objects or texts. Collaborative activities should be based around this knowledge, using tools that work with linked data entities. This raised the issue of contested ground and the application of labels and meaning to data: your ‘discovery’ is my ‘invasion’. This makes citizen humanities problematic – who gets to describe, assign, link, and what does that mean for scholarly authority?

My notes aren’t clear but I think Burrows said these ideas were based on analysis of medieval manuscript research, which Jane Hunter had also worked on, and they were looking towards the architecture for HuNI. It was encouraging to see an approach to linked data so grounded in the complexity of historians research practices and data, and is yet another reason I’m looking forward to following HuNI’s progress – I think it will have valuable lessons for linked data projects in the rest of the world. [These slides from the Linked Open Data workshop in Melbourne a few weeks later show the academic workflow HuNI plans to support and some of the issues they’ll have to tackle.]

The second speaker was the University of Sydney’s Stephen Hayes on ‘how linked is linked enough?’. [See also Snurb’s liveblog.] He’s looking at projects through a linked data lens, trying to assess how much further projects need to go to comfortably claim to be linked data. He talked about the issues projects encountered trying to get to be 5 star Linked Data.

He looked at projects like the Dictionary of Sydney, which expresses data as RDF as well in a public-facing HTML interface and comes close to winning 5 stars. It is a demonstration of the fact that once data is expressed in one form, it can be easily expressed in another form – stable entities can be recombined to form new structures. The project is powered by Heurist, a tool for managing a wide range of research data. The History of Balinese Painting could not find other institutions that exposed Balinese collection data in programmable form so they could link to them (presumably a common problem for early adopters but at least it helps solve the ‘chicken or the egg’ problem that dogs linked data in cultural heritage and the humanities). The sites URLs don’t return useful metadata but they do try to refer to image URLs so it’s ‘sorta persistent’. He gave it a rating of 3.5 stars. Other projects mentioned (also built on Heurist?) were the Charles Harpur Critical Archive, rated at 3.5 stars and Virtual Zagora, rated at 3 stars.

The paper was an interesting discussion of the team work required to get the full 5 stars of linked data, and the trade-offs in developing functions for structured data (e.g. implementing schema.org’s painting markup versus focussing on the quality of the human-facing pages); reassuring curators about how much data would be released and what would be kept back; developing ontologies throughout a project or in advance and the overhead in mapping other projects concepts to their own version of Dublin Core.

The final paper in the session was ‘As Curious An Entity: Building Digital Resources from Context, Records and Data’ by Michael Jones and Antonina Lewis (abstract). [See also Snurb’s liveblog.] They said that improving the visibility of relationships between entities enriches archives, as does improving relationships between people. The title quote in full is ‘as curious an entity as bullshit writ on silk’ – if the parameters, variables and sources of data are removed from material, then it’s just bullshit written on silk. Visualisations remove sources, complexity and ‘relative context’, and would be richer if they could express changes in data over time and space. They asked how one would know that information presented in a visualisation is accurate if it doesn’t cite sources? You must seek and reference original material to support context layers.

They presented an overview of the Saulwick Archive project (Saulwick ran polls for the Fairfax newspapers for years) and the Australian Women’s Register, discussed common issues faced in digital humanities, and the role of linked data and human relationships in building digital resources. They discussed the value of maintaining relationships between archives and donors after the transfer of material, and the need to establish data management plans to make provision for raw data and authoritative versions of related contextual material, and to retain data to make sense of the archives in the future. The Australian Women’s Register includes content written for the site and links out to the archival repositories and libraries where the records are held. In a lovely phrase, they described records as the ‘evidential heart’ for the context and data layers. They also noted that the keynote overlooked non-academic re-use of digital resources, but it’s another argument for making data available where possible.

Digital histories session

The first paper was ‘Community Connections: The Renaissance of Local History’ by Lisa Murray. Murray discussed the ‘three Cs’ needed for local history: connectivity, community, collaboration.

Is the process of geo-referencing forcing historians to be more specific about when or where things happened? Are people going from the thematic to the particular? Is it exciting for local historians to see how things fit into state or national narratives? Digital history has enormous potential for local and family history and to represent complicated relationships within a community and how they’ve changed over time. Digital history doesn’t have to be article-centric – it enables new forms of presentation. Historians have to acknowledge that Wikipedia is aligned to historians’ processes. Local history is strongly represented on Wikipedia. The Dictionary of Sydney provides a universal framework for accessing Sydney’s history.

The democratisation of historical production is exciting but raises it challenges for public understandings of how history undertaken and represented. Are some histories privileged? Making History (a project by Museum Victoria and Monash University) encourages the use of online resources but does that privilege digitised sources, and will others be neglected? Are easily accessible sources privileged, and does that change what history is written? What about community collections or vast state archives that aren’t digitised?

History research methodologies are changing – Google etc is shaping how research is undertaken; the ubiquity of keyword searching reinforces the primacy of names. She noted the impact of family historians on how archives prioritise work. It’s not just about finding sources – to produce good history you need to analyse the sources. Professional historians are no longer the privileged producers of knowledge. History can be parochial, inclusive, but it can also lack sense of historical perspective, context. Digital history production amplifies tensions between popular history and academic history [and presumably between amateur and academic historians?].

Apparently primary school students study more local history than university students do. Local and community history is produced by broad spectrum of community but relatively few academic historians are participating. There’s a risk of favouring quirky facts over significance and context. Unless history is more widely taught, local history will be tarred with same brush as antiquarians. History is not only about narrative and context… Historians need to embrace the renaissance of local and community history.

In the questions there was some discussion of the implications of Sydney’s city archives being moved to a more inconvenient physical location. The justification is that it’s available through Ancestry but that removes it from all context [and I guess raises all the issues of serendipity etc in digital vs physical access to archives].

The next speaker was Tim Sherratt on ‘Inside the bureaucracy of White Australia’. His slides are online and his abstract is on the Invisible Australians site. The Invisible Australians project is trying to answer the question of what the White Australia policy looked like to a non-white Australian.  He talked about how digital technology can help explore the practice of exclusion as legislation and administrative processes were gradually elaborated. Chinese Australians who left Australia and wanted to return had to prove both their identity and their right to land to convince officials they could return: ‘every non-white resident was potentially a prohibited immigrant just waiting to be exposed’. He used topic modelling on file titles from archival series and was able to see which documents related to the White Australia policy. This is a change from working through hierarchical structures of archives to working directly through the content of archives. This provides a better picture of what hasn’t survived, what’s missing and would have many other exciting uses. [His post on Topic modelling in the archives explains it better than my summary would.]

The final paper was Paul Turnbull on ‘Pancake history’. He noted that in e-research there’s a difference between what you can use in teaching and what makes people nervous in the research domain. He finds it ironic that professional advancement for historians is tied to writing about doing history rather than doing history. He talked about the need to engage with disciplinary colleagues who don’t engage with digital humanities, and issues around historians taking digital history seriously.

Sherratt’s talk inspired discussion of funding small-scale as well as large-scale infrastructure, possibly through crowdfunding. Turnbull also suggested ‘seeding ideas and sharing small apps is the way to go’.

[Note from when I originally posted this: I don’t know when my flight is going to be called, so I’ll hit publish now and keep working until I board – there’s lots more to fit in for day 2! In the afternoon I went to the ‘Digital History’ session. I’ll tidy up when I’m in the UK as I think blogger is doing weird LTR things because it may be expecting Arabic.]

See also Slow and still dirty Digital Humanities Australasia notes: day 3.

Quick and dirty Digital Humanities Australasia notes: day 1

As always, I should have done this sooner and tidied them up more, but better rough notes than nothing, so here goes… The Australasian Association for Digital Humanities held their inaugural conference in Canberra in March, 2012.  You can get an overall sense of the conference from the #DHA2012 tweets (I’ve put a CSV archive of #DHA2012 tweets from searchhash.com here, but note it’s not on Australian time) and from the keynotes.

In his opening keynote on the movements between close and distant reading, Alan Liu observed that the crux of the ‘reading’ issue depends on the field, and further, that ‘history is on a different evolutionary branch of digital humanities to literary studies’.  This is something I’ve been wondering about since finding myself back in digital humanities, and was possibly reflected in the variety of papers in the overall programme.  I was generally following sessions on digital history, geospatial themes and crowdsourcing, but there was so much in the programme that you could have followed a literary studies line and had a totally different conference experience.

In the next session I went to a panel on ‘Connecting Australia’s Cultural Datasets: A Vision for Collaboration’ with various people from the new ‘Humanities Networked Infrastructure’ (HuNI) (more background) presenting.  It started with Deb Verhoeven on ‘jailbreaking cultural data’ and the tension identified by Brand: “information wants to be expensive because it’s so valuable.  The right information in the right place just changes your life.  On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is lower and lower all the time. So you have these two things fighting against each other”. ‘Information wants to be social’: she discussed the need to understand the value of research in terms of community engagement, not just as academically ranked output, and to return research to the communities they’re investigating in meaningful ways.
 
Other statements that resonated were the need for organisational, semantic and technical interoperability in datasets to create collaborative environments. Collaboration requires data integration and exchange as well as dealing with different ideas about what ‘data’ is in different disciplines in the humanities. Collaboration in the cultural datasets community can follow unmet needs: discover data that’s currently hidden, make connections between disparate data sources, publish and share connections.

Ross Harley talked about how interoperability facilitates serendipity and trying to find new ways for data to collide. In the questions, Ingrid Mason asked about parallels with the GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives and museums) community, but it was also pointed out that GLAMs are behind in publishing their data – not everything HuNI wants to use is available yet.  I pointed out (on the twitter back channel) that requests for GLAM information from intensive users (e.g. researchers) helps memory institutions make the case for publishing more data – it’s still all a bit chicken-or-the-egg.

After lunch I went to the crowdsourcing session (not least cos I was presenting early results from my PhD in it).  The first presentation was on ‘crowdsourcing semantic tags on 3D museum artefacts’ which could have amazing applications for teaching material culture and criticism as well as source communities because it lets people annotate specific locations on a 3D model. Interestingly, during the questions someone reported people visiting campus classics museum who said they were enjoying seeing the objects in person but also wanted access to electronic versions – it’s fascinating watching audience expectations change.

The next presentation was on ‘Optimising crowdsourcing websites to increase volunteer participation’ which was a case study of NYPL’s What’s on the menu by Donelle McKinley who was using MECLAB/Flint McGlaughlin’s Conversion Sequence heuristic (clarity of value proposition, motivation, incentive, friction, anxiety) to assess how the project’s design was optimised to motivate audience participation.  Donelle’s analysis is really useful for people thinking about designing for crowdsourcing, but I’m not sure my notes do it justice, and I’m afraid I didn’t get many notes for Pauline Cockrill’s ‘Using Web 2.0 to make new connections in community history’ as I was on just afterwards.  One point I tweeted was about a quick win for crowdsourcing in using real-world communities as pointers to successful online collaborations, but I’m not sure now who said it.

One comment I noted during the discussion was “a real pain about Old Weather was that you’d get into working on a ship and it would just sail off on you” – interfaces that work for the organisation doesn’t always work for the audience.  This session was generally useful for clarifying my thoughts on the tension between optimising for efficiency or engagement in cultural heritage crowdsourcing projects.

In the interests of getting this posted I’ll stop here and call this ‘day 1’. I’m not sure if any of the slides are available yet, but I’ll update and link to any presentations or other write-ups I find. There’s a live blog of many sessions at http://snurb.info/taxonomy/term/137.

[Update: I’ve posted about Day 2 at Quick and dirty Digital Humanities Australasia notes: day 2 and Slow and still dirty Digital Humanities Australasia notes: day 3.]

‘Organisational change’ session at MW2009

I was chairing the session so my notes are a bit sketchy. It’s worth reading the full papers and following the slides online.

Intro notes: it’s an interesting moment for the sector, maturity of approaches to the web. Turning the analytical gaze inwards, working towards a more effective, integrated and considered use of technology. This brings new challenges in managing expectations and demand. Wider consultation means adapting our language and understanding, but the benefits of collaboration are worth it.

Organisational Change for the On-line World – Steering the Good Ship Museum Victoria
David Methven, Head, ICT, and Timothy Hart, Director, Information Multimedia and Technology, Museum Victoria, Australia.  Slides: http://www.slideshare.net/museumsandtheweb/tim-hart-david-methven-organisational-change-for-the-online-world-steering-the-good-ship-museum-victoria

Tim Hart started, talking about their in-sourcing model; build capability, drive money otherwise spent outsourced inside the org. Interruption by David! Trying to change org culture, ‘blah blah blah’. They used an audience volunteer for dramatisation!
Therapy for Tim. Circle. Telling people what we should be doing, not how. Changing work practices. Not consulting us, asking us what we want to do and how we should change what we’re doing.
Process. Once strategy was done, job not done. Didn’t understand how much ownership the org wanted of the strategy. People who weren’t involved in the process kicked up.
Established exhibition production processes.
Interesting conceptual model. Relationship.
Internal experience of applications, IT systems.

Down To Earth: Social Media and Institutional Change
Patricia Deiser, Museum voor Communicatie; and Vincent de Keijzer, Gemeentemuseum, The Netherlands. Slides: http://www.slideshare.net/museumsandtheweb/vincent-de-keijzer-patricia-deiser-down-to-earth-social-media-and-institutional-change

Vincent and Patricia: addressing people who are not willing or able to come to the museum. New roles for the public. Make use of knowledge, time, enthusiasm of the public.
Brave new world, head spinning. But had to get down to earth. Colleagues were being polite, but no one was actually doing anything. Realised approaching it in the wrong way – presenting it as something everyone is doing, we should be doing it. But should try to convince them about what would benefit them in these web 2.0 things. Had to seduce them. Much harder to do. Asked experts from outside the museum to help develop online strategy. Stop talking with people outside the museum, start talking with people inside the museum about this. Let people discuss it among themselves. Let them go online, learn about it for themselves. Low profile platform for staff to experiment. Start with your own, internal community, build a community from there.
Continuous access to cultural heritage with university of Amsterdam. Built a platform for museum staff, for ideas, proposals, projects. Asked Patricia, as a student, to research, interview colleagues. Outsider perspective.
Machiavelli quote.
Patricia’s research: How do people interact with public, how much do they know about web technology, do they use it themselves; what are they enthusiastic about?
Talked about research process. Showed colleagues examples of other things. Asked colleagues to research their presence online on e.g. Flickr, see what people had already put out there.
Models of staff members from the research: Lecturer – likes to prepare thoroughly, then make a publication/presentation of it. One-way focus. they send their knowledge out to the public, not interested in feedback from people who aren’t also scholars.
Fear of losing expertise if everything goes online.
Educators – not people in education dept, label for group. More into interaction, want some feedback . Teacher – pupil relationship. Afraid of examples where people could load UGC onto website.
Presenters – same attitude to communication as educators, but more advanced in web technology.
Interactors – already working with the public, do want to have interaction with public, but not advanced with technology. Old school education departments
Connectors – same attitudes to public, but advanced in using web technology.
Mapped staff into the categories. Difficult diagram to show internally! Scale of communication style (one way, two way focused) and use of technology. Difficult to get everyone into connectors corner, but at least get people to move up scale on use of technology.
Communities of practice.
Everything that goes onto desk goes onto website.
Still needs a lot of social skills, persuasion.

After the Heroism, Collaboration: Organizational Learning and the Mobile Space
Peter Samis and Stephanie Pau, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, USA. Slides: http://www.slideshare.net/psamis/after-the-heroism-collaboration-organizational-learning-and-the-mobile-space

Stephanie and Peter: digital and analogue resources. Benefiting from experience of other institutes either as staff change or working with other orgs.
Interpretive goal process. Cross departmental dialogue and interpretive brainstorm process. Workshop – answers to basic questions to help formulate a strategy.
Key questions – what’s the rationale for this project? Why here, why now?
List 1 – 3 main visitor take aways.
Who’s the intended audience, and why?
What didactic elements are planned? What other modes of interp inc multimedia should we consider?
Case studies. Showing how the process worked in exhibs with really different requirements.
Peter – evaluation studies. Different modes of use – wall texts vs multimedia guides.
“What a visual interface brings to the party…” Break picture into components, not a slave to a minute and a half overview.
What people want – pre-loaded vs call in.
Sharing usage figures – ace.
What information did on-site visitors not get? if they didn’t have the cell phones. Breakdown of what content was available by which methods.