Digital Humanities GIS projects

Being involved in a number of projects with a spatial dimension, I’ve been teaching myself digital cartography for over a year. The code, however, is only half the story. Maps are not transparent depictions of reality, there are many problems, conceptual and technical, with combining older mapping technologies with modern cartography, and let’s not even get started on the problems of usability (the computer screen is as difficult as manipulating a fold-out map or an A-Z book).

One part of answering these questions is simply looking at what others are doing. So I’ve begun to compile a list of Digital Humanities projects where GIS (Geographical Information Systems) has a leading part. Aside from my own bookmarks, I’ve drawn on two similar lists: that at Historical GIS Research Network and the AAG Historical GIS Clearing House. It is a list of academic projects: although there are many excellent extra-mural mapping projects I specifically wanted to see how the digital and the humanities are combining in the university. It is also heavily weighted towards history and literary studies, as those are what I am involved in and know about. Please tell me of any other projects through the comments.

I’ve used GIS in a rather loose way, taking in what has been termed ‘neogeography’ and ‘webmapping.’ A couple of the projects I’ve listed don’t even aim to produce maps, but gazetteers of old place names, and utilize text processing technologies rather than anything that could be considered GIS. Part of this exercise is to see how space and place are being analysed, and what technologies are being used to do so; GIS seemed a useful catch-all term. I hope the purists will forgive me.

This list takes a snapshot of the state of the ‘spatial turn’ in (some of) the (digital) humanities up to early 2011. The technologies used fall into four types: flash animations, Google Maps, server-side delivery and old-style downloadable shapefiles. The focus is frequently based on geographical units – cities, regions, countries, continents – and less often on particular subjects. Suprisingly, there’s only one project on the Holocaust and that barely begun; I heard of two other projects, but both seem to be defunct. Further analysis will follow as time allows.

Thanks to all who responded to my query on the Humanist list; the relevant postings can be found in the March 2011 archives.

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Luddite Bicentenary and Luddite Song

Alerted today that this year – and the next two – is the bicentenary of the great Luddite movement. Still much maligned as backwards-looking, anti-progressive, and if I may be permitted an anarchronism, ‘technophobic’, it is important to remember these workers in their full richness – their bravery, intelligence, despair and suffering –  against such easy dismissals. So many thanks to the Luddite Bicentenary Blog for bringing this anniversary to my attention, and for continuing the never-ending task of rescuing them “from the enormous condescension of posterity”, as E.P. Thompson put it.

Through that blog I found that Birkbeck are holding a free one-day conference in London, to discuss not only the Luddites, but also other opponents of capitalist modernization across the world. Speakers include Peter Linebaugh of London Hanged fame, T.J. Clark once of King Mob, Iain Boal (whose history of enclosure I’m eagerly awaiting), and Amita Baviskar, critic of Indian environmentalism.

Songs are an important historical source, yet without music can read rather drily. Even where a tune is referenced – which may be unfamiliar, or worse lost – to read is not to sing nor to hear. The Luddites had some fine songs in their repertoire, and in remembering them it would be good to give them full voice. So embedded below, the first part of Chumbawamba’s English Rebel Songs, including the Luddite song ‘General Ludd’s Triumph’, which starts at the 6.52 mark. You Tube also hosts part two; a full track listing can be found on Wikipedia. I don’t know if the music is accurate; the Luddites sung it to the tune ‘Poor Jack’, appropriating the work of the patriot and composer of war songs Charles Dibdin. The lyrics below – so you can sing along – were found here. For some background on Luddite song, and annotated lyrics, see the fine article by Kevin Binfield, who has compiled an anthology of Luddite writings, selections of which are available via Google Books.

Chant no more your old rhymes about bold Robin Hood,
His feats I but little admire
I will sing the Achievements of General Ludd
Now the Hero of Nottinghamshire
Brave Ludd was to measures of violence unused
Till his sufferings became so severe
That at last to defend his own Interest he rous’d
And for the great work did prepare

Now by force unsubdued, and by threats undismay’d
Death itself can’t his ardour repress
The presence of Armies can’t make him afraid
Nor impede his career of success
Whilst the news of his conquests is spread far and near
How his Enemies take the alarm
His courage, his fortitude, strikes them with fear
For they dread his Omnipotent Arm!

The guilty may fear, but no vengeance he aims
At [the] honest man’s life or Estate
His wrath is entirely confined to wide frames
And to those that old prices abate
These Engines of mischief were sentenced to die
By unanimous vote of the Trade
And Ludd who can all opposition defy
Was the grand Executioner made

And when in the work of destruction employed
He himself to no method confines
By fire and by water he gets them destroyed
For the Elements aid his designs
Whether guarded by Soldiers along the Highway
Or closely secured in the room
He shivers them up both by night and by day
And nothing can soften their doom

He may censure great Ludd’s disrespect for the Laws
Who ne’er for a moment reflects
That foul Imposition alone was the cause
Which produced these unhappy effects
Let the haughty no longer the humble oppress
Then shall Ludd sheath his conquering Sword
His grievances instantly meet with redress
Then peace will be quickly restored

Let the wise and the great lend their aid and advice
Nor e’er their assistance withdraw
Till full fashioned work at the old fashioned price
Is established by Custom and Law
Then the Trade when this arduous contest is o’er
Shall raise in full splendour its head
And colting and cutting and squaring no more
Shall deprive honest workmen of bread.

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Victorian Books: The Frequency of Revolution

Opened to the public late last year was the long awaited Victorian Books, ‘a Distant Reading of Victorian Publications.’ Working with data from Google Books,  Dan Cohen and Fred Gibbs are text mining every book published in Britain in the long (meaning 1789 to 1914) nineteenth century. That’s 1,681,161 titles. And they’re releasing the data, not just the graphs showing the frequency of selected words, from ‘Agnosticism’ to ‘Worship’, but also the actual counts of 99 terms, in .xls (Microsoft Excel*) and .tsv (tab separated) formats.

Cohen’s specific historical object is the Victorian ‘frame of mind.’ How did they think, how did they see the world, and how did they believe? His method is to use Google’s vast digitization program to read the Victorians, or at least those who were published, en masse, rather than rely on a canon of notable authors. The move from the anecdotal and elite selection of Houghton’s The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870, to a truly comprehensive survey of all Victorian authors, will hopefully give a broader, more accurate and more subtle view of Victorian modes of thought, and perhaps a more open one that allows for discordance and diversity.

This isn’t a simple matter of chucking a load of material into a database, pushing a button and then having the computer throw out unambiguous facts and truths. Cohen and Gibbs have posted some caveats: the data isn’t perfect, meaning of words change over time, as yet only the titles of books are being mined, no collocation or context is given. It also requires some careful methodology, and weighing for all sorts of extraneous factors: William Briggs has done some very interesting analysis bringing in population statistics. But with freely available data, anyone with a spreadsheet program can try out ideas and run checks, allowing for the collaborative development of analytical techniques.

Percentage of British books with 'revolution' in the title, 1789-1914

Percentage of British books with 'revolution' in the title, 1789-1914

Of the words Cohen and Gibbs have chosen, one stands out as being more temporal than the others: revolution. None of the other terms is so event-related, or has a specific chronological location. Many are abstract, like ‘God’ or ‘honour’; some are names (‘Aristotle, ‘Jesus’, ‘Plato’ and ‘Socrates’); and there’s one place, Rome. That does not mean that there is no relation between these words and contemporary events – Rome has a startling peak in 1851, possibly related to the French occupation in the aftermath of 1848. Nor does revolution refer only to moments of uprising; it can equally mean the movement of the planets and the development of industry (Google’s ngram machine has the latter taking off in the 1880s). But it is the only chosen term that has a specific chronological collorary. Although the project is oriented around more long-term and subtle concerns, the changes in Victorian mentalities, I began to wonder how much the data reflected more immediate responses to human affairs.

Unsurprisingly, in the case of revolution, we have a mass of titles registering in the 1790s, and a very sharp peak in 1848. There are two other clear spikes in 1817 and 1830/1. A little bit of scrutiny, and you’ll see that 1871, the year of the Paris Commune, shows a marked increase. From prior knowledge of revolutions and threats of them, we can validate the data as reflecting events. As yet the statistics are not telling us anything new. There are some differences if one visualizes the data as the number of publications rather than percentages. 1830-1 and 1848 still stand out, 1817 and the Paris Commune less so. There also seems to be a different distribution: the last few decades have far more occurrences more evenly distributed than the first half of the century.

Graph of no. of English books published 1789 - 1914 with 'Revolution' in the title

Graph of no. of English books published 1789 - 1914 with 'Revolution' in the title

Although it is important to check the data against what is already known, one must guard against presumptions of correlation. Can we be sure we know what revolution is being reflected? 1848 saw revolutions throughout Europe, but were the titles referring to all of them, a subset, or even just the domestic radicalism of the Chartists? Similarly, Cohen considers the 1830 spike to point to “the successful 1830 revolution in France”; but given the figures for 1831, it could be a result of the turmoil preceding the reform act of 1832. Merthyr Tydfil saw perhaps the first industrial working class uprising in Britain; Bristol and Nottingham saw state institutions go up in flames; there were incidents across the country, from Exeter to Huddersfield. The British publishing trade may have taken more note of this than three glorious days in Paris: the small rise around 1871 may also indicate that British publishing would register domestic concerns far more dramatically than events abroad. Against this, the jump in 1857 is probably due to the Indian Mutiny. In turn, the 1831 figures could indicate that the situation in Britain was far more volatile than todays historians have judged it.

So although there is evidence of a causal relationship between events and book titles, it is not transparent. It is further clouded by changes in the meaning of the word. The sustained increase over the last 25 years suggests a change in the conception of revolution from taking to the streets to building working class organizations, from riot and insurgency to factory strikes and the new unionism, from an immediate event to a longer term social struggle.  This indicates a fundamental change in class structure – the growth of an industrial proletariat – and consistent class antagonism. But note that events still affect the numbers: the increase from 1904 to 1905 is probably due to the first Russian revolution.

The greater concern with domestic events and the change in meaning of the word ‘revolution’ are working hypotheses. Hopefully, the full corpus from which the numbers are drawn will be opened up, allowing these to be checked. I’d also like to investigate the 1853 spike, after the defeat of the Chartists and with no foreign correlate that I can think of.

Finally, a curious absence, and a warning against presuming an easy reflection of reality in words. The following graph is of the occurrence of the word ‘money’ in book titles, expressed as a percentage.

Money in Book Titles, 1789-1914

Percentage of British books with 'money' in the title, 1789-1914

See that dip for 1825? Yet there was a banking crisis that year!

* Insert standard complaint about proprietary file formats here. However, it’s a simple spreadsheet, and neither Open Office nor Libre Office had any difficulties opening it.

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Google Ngram Games

Google have just opened up their text mining project, a vast and ambitious project to allow searching their digital library for the frequency of words and phrases. It’s an astonishing resource, not only for its research potential but also for its ludic possibilities, not to mention the time-frittering capabilities.

It’s easy to play. Just go to http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/, put in some words or phrases, separating multiples with commas, adjust the settings as you wish, and press the button. Up comes a graph showing distribution across your chosen time period. Thrill to the peaks! Gasp at the troughs! Wonder at the abundances! Curse the absences!

Like all good games, there’s much wisdom to be gained from playing. For one thing, it tests the sources, both the original works and their translation into digital format. (Some of Google’s metadata is bizarrely inaccurate.) It makes one think about possible reasons: whatever the results of a query are, they never explain why. It questions the technologies of language, whether printed or digital, including orthography, typeface and grammar. (Note that it only covers  written language, not that spoken or sung, with rhythm, accents and inflections.) In all, it indicates the ambiguity and instability of language, as against any needs or claims of clarity and transparency of meaning.

Below are four jests: testing a grandiose claim, a revealing anachronism, typographical obscenity and the deleterious effects of popular culture on the Queen’s English.

Benjamin was right!

By searching on four major Western cities, we can see that Walter Benjamin was right to consider Paris ‘the capital of the nineteenth century‘ [pdf].

Google Ngram for Paris, London, Berlin, New York, 1800-1900

Google Ngram for Paris, London, Berlin, New York, 1800-1900

Link

And never mind population, trade, dominions and suchlike. But note that had I included ‘Rome’, Benjamin would have been refuted by the number of works on ancient history.

Surrealism: A Victorian Creation?

Although the word ‘surrealism’ was originally coined by Apollinaire in 1917, and given substance in the 1920s by Andre Breton, Google finds it in mid-Victorian English:

Google Ngram for 'surrealism.'

Google Ngram for 'surrealism.'

Link

There’s an interesting error behind this. In parsing The London Review, volume 15, 1860-1, the last hypenated word of one page, and the first of the next, the chapter heading rather than the continuation of the text proper, have been run together by Google’s OCR software. Such bugs, the ‘revealing errors‘  of logic, can be considered a manifestation of the surrealist spirit.

FFS!

Early modern printing is notorious for using ‘f’ in place of ‘s.’ Oh the comedic potential, as is born out by this graph:

Google Ngram for 'fuck.'

Google Ngram for 'fuck.'

Link

The alternative explanation is, of course, that we were a foulmouthed bunch until the Victorians, and only since the 1950s have we begun to throw off those moral shackles.

Star Trek and the split infinitive

That most controversial of grammatical issues had a historical turn in the 1980s, when “to boldly go” overtook “to go boldly.” A way of interrogating the corpus for the frequency of split infinitives isn’t obvious, but the results would be very interesting.

Google Ngram: 'to go boldly' and 'to boldly go.'

Google Ngram: 'to go boldly' and 'to boldly go.'

Link. Wikipedia on Split Infinitives

Google have provided some basic, but literate, documentation. And the datasets are freely available under a creative commons license. A Guardian article serves as a decent introduction, although it exaggerates the originality of the techniques. See also the New York Times. And don’t ever, ever, use the pseudo-word ‘culturomics.’

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The Return of History Workshop

For some time I’ve been considering writing a post entitled “Whatever Happened to History Workshop?” Once it was the flag-bearer of radical history, a product of the struggles of the 60s and 70s, as much a movement as a publication. It was a place – or a number of places – for those outside academia, ‘worker-students’, feminists, socialists, to practice history in new ways, ‘from below.’ As a product of history (if you’ll forgive the determinism for a moment), as times changed so it fossilized. Today, it is little more than your standard academic journal, available on the net only through subscription, even dropping its subtitle ‘A Journal for Socialist and Feminist Historians.’ (Barbara Taylor provides a very useful, and more optimistic, account of its path.)

As part of this article – which may still come – I was going to raise the question of how the internet could revitalize critical history. History Workshop was as important for its social role as for publishing papers and theses. Whether it be the news, the less-formal articles on historical passions or the correspondence in the journal, or the meetings and attendant socializing, it brought people together. What chance that today critical historians can use modern technologies to once again find each other?

The good news is that History Workshop is now establishing a proper online presence, with a website (powered, thanks to WordPress, by free software) due to launch fully in January 2011. A Call For Papers has been issued, stating:

The History Workshop Journal editorial collective is launching History Workshop Online, a website devoted to the practice of politically-engaged history. Affiliated to the journal but entirely separate in its content, the site will serve as a forum, laboratory, and virtual coffeehouse for anyone interested in connecting historical exploration with the politics of the present, whether through engagement with public history, social history, the history of sexuality, or intimate histories of everyday life. In the spirit of the original history workshop movement, we’re keen to explore the diverse (and now multi-media) ways in which progressive history is being “done”, in and out of universities and the museum and heritage sector.

For the launch of the website in January 2011, we welcome all pertinent contributions: reports on public history initiatives; multimedia essays and articles; flagged events for our noticeboard; fulminations, rants, and raves.
For further information please contact the site’s editor, Marybeth Hamilton, at marybeth@historyworkshop.org.uk

The crucial phrase: “in the spirit of the original history workshop movement”, as befits this web that we weave.

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Simon Schama’s pick of the historical pops

Simon Schama, advisor to the government, has outlined his vision of history in schools. Despite the bizarre claim that Hong Kong runs the world and some purple prose, it’s not as facetious as one might fear; certainly, in his choice of the six items that every child should learn, there’s a rebut to the Education Secretary Gove’s ridiculous notion of “our Island story.” Ireland, India, and even China are singled out as being of particular importance. (Of the opium wars he says “Victorian Britain using the royal navy to protect hard drug trafficking? True!” A nice jab at current policy.) And the monarchy features mainly as the execution of Charles I.

There have been objections, on twitter and in the comments to the article, that so much is missing. The reformation, the slave trade, the industrial revolution, the Palestine mandate, the founding of the Bank of England and the national debt; all these and more have been proposed as absolutely fundamental moments that children should be taught. And each of these is of great importance, and would expand the present anemic curriculum of ‘Henries and Hitler.’

But this is to simply continue what Schama has done, namely pick a hit parade of important phenomena. This is an impossible and restricting task. Impossible because the past just does not come down to six, ten or even a hundred pivotal moments. Restricting because it treats of phenomena that can be neatly encapsulated, bounded within dates, and discards the rest. Anything broader, which would be much of social history, is thereby marginalised. Women’s history is not reducible to nor encapsulated by female suffrage. It further narrows history down to ‘the past’, a separate and knowable object, without considering  the ways in which we preserve, remember and think about it. Yet all the topics suggested are quite obviously proposed due to their contemporary relevance.

If the curriculum needs some sort of historical ranking system, that’s got nothing to do with history, but the exigencies of the current educational system.

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What I learned from Wu Ming

Last night, Wu Ming 1 and Wu Ming 4 visited Dalston. The salient points:

1: Wu Ming is a band. If musicians can group together, why not writers?

2: Wu Ming 6 is the waste paper basket, and a most valuable contributor to the works. (But they have also said Wu Ming 6 is their translators.)

3: Filuzzi – for me the great revelation of 54, although admittedly I never finished that novel – is breathtaking: History is Made at Night has a video, as does Wu Ming’s YouTube channel.

4: The translator is to blame for the dreadful dialogue of the London Mohawks in Manituana, but the original Italian had them speaking a sort of Nadsat, from A Clockwork Orange, which strikes me as an odd choice.

5: The surprising, sideways view of history – such as Lafayette introducing mesmerism to the American Indians, in the next volume of their Atlantic Triptych – is how Wu Ming transcend the formulas of historical fiction. They make the past a subject for inquiry, and so say something new, rather than pile up clichés as scenery or mount a freakshow for mocking inspection.

6: The position of the native Americans in the American revolution is another such sideways view. It almost sounds obvious when one thinks about it, but conceiving of it is the great leap.

7: Historical practice is (or should be) the making of such jumps. A systematic derangement of the senses. The shock of the old. Or as they said in an interview:

We usually think of an historical period which seems fascinating to us, then we spend months watching microfilms, reading sources, doing research, writing down all kinds of stuff, then the brainstorm comes and it lasts several weeks. We have hallucinations, sort of. Historical research is like peyote to us. After we recover from all the shocks and flashes, we start to write.

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Visualizing the Gnu GPL

My suggestion for the Decoding Digital Humanities meeting has been accepted, by both the London and Melbourne groups, for next Tuesday (24th August) here in the Great Wen, and next Thursday (26th August) down under. I’m feeling the warm glow of internationalism!

One reason I suggested the Gnu GPL as a text was for its unfamiliarity of form. It’s a software license, a genre often viewed but rarely read. I’ve clicked through many, barely registering the dense legalese, meaning I’ve probably promised to sacrifice my first-born to Bill Gates. The GPL, to its great credit, has a clear and concise preamble. But nevertheless, it is a legal document, written to withstand exacting juridical scrutiny.

As digital humanists, we shouldn’t be frightened of such things, for we make tools to deal with such difficulties. Whether the texts are in another language, damaged, obscured, fragmentary, long-winded, self-referential, or simply too numerous – not forgetting that no text is so transparent that one simple reading will comprehend it entirely -we can hack them.

One popular way of doing this is with wordles. These are, in essence, visualized concordances. The words are weighted according to frequency, then displayed as clouds. There are various options for colour, layout and font, but these do not reflect any aspect of the text, being more for aesthetic appeal, and as such a cause for their popularity. (The creator of Wordle, Jonathan Feinberg, discusses this in Viégas et al, “Participatory Visualization with Wordle.”)

So here I present the three versions of the Gnu GPL as wordles. They are made from the 100 most used words, filtered for the common and ordinary (‘the’, ‘and’). I have attempted to minimize the extraneous as much as possible, having the words displayed horizontally, (near) alphabetically, in plain, plain black and white.

Wordle of the 100 most used words in the Gnu GPL v.1.

Wordle of the 100 most used words in the Gnu GPL v.1.

Wordle of the 100 most used words in the Gnu GPL v.2.

Wordle of the 100 most used words in the Gnu GPL v.2, 1991.

GPL v.3: Wordle of 100 most used words

Wordle of 100 most used words, GPL v.3, 2007.

By taking the three versions, I’m treating the GPL historically, as changing over time. The most obvious and startling finding is that the term ‘program’ has dramatically declined in use from version 2 to version 3, changing the whole picture from being arrow-shaped to more cloud-like. (The algorithm for laying out the words is in Viégas et al.)  Its synonym, ‘Work’ has risen in its place. ‘Free’ has declined proportionally,  but in absolute terms, the story is quite different: it features in v.1 23 times, v.2 28 times, and v.3 20 times. ‘Freedom’, not found in the graphics above, rises from 3 usages in v.1, to 4 in v.2, and 8 – doubled – in v.3.

I could spend all day pouring over these things, but I’ve probably spent too long already when I have a dissertation to write. In any case, the purpose has been to suggest ways of reading the Gnu GPL, and will leave discussion to the convivial atmosphere of the meetings.

NB: The code behind wordle.net is owned by IBM, and closed. A free version, that allows adjusting and playing with the code, would be most desirable.

Reference: Fernanda B. Viégas, Martin Wattenberg, Jonathan Feinberg, “Participatory Visualization with Wordle,” IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics, vol. 15, no. 6, pp. 1137-1144, Nov./Dec. 2009, doi:10.1109/TVCG.2009.171 Behind a paywall, sadly, but abstract available.

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DH 2010, day four

For me, the final day was the important one, with both the geography and history sessions taking place. The former saw three excellent presentations, from the University of North Carolina, Ian Gregory and the Hestia project. But the big news is that the UNC have built a locally-deployable, open source map server, called Main Street Carolina and available sometime this summer. There’s not much information available, but it is used for many of their projects including Going To The Show, and there’s a blurb and blogpost online. I have seriously high hopes for this, as a way of easily putting maps on the web without having to go down the Google route.

The highlight of the Professional Reflection strand was Claire RossPointless Babble or Enabled Backchannel, a witty and zippy analysis of twitter usage during three Digital Humanities conferences in 2009. Far more than 140 characters, without any excess and plenty of time for questions.

The History strand saw two very good presentations. And one that had me gawping in disbelief. Roorda’s Letters, Ideas and Information Technology, on visualizing seventeenth century correspondence, and Sainte’s Reading Darwin Between The Lines, analysing Darwin’s rare use of the term ‘evolution’, were very fine. But Blaney’s Developing a Collaborative Online Environment for History – The Experience of British History Online was a trip into the digital netherworld.

What British History Online wanted to do was crowdsource the Calendars of State Papers, those abstracts of government paperwork compiled in Victorian Times and now showing their age. So what do they do? Raise obstacles to participation. First, the CSP are behind a paywall, and as far as I can tell, there are no institutional subscriptions available. So the academics they hoped would annotate the documents had to pay for the honour. Then, to minimise contributions either malicious or erroneous, they deliberately put in obstacles and constraints to make annotation difficult. *rollseyes* Do they have any idea what crowdsourcing is?

Contributions were, unsurprisingly, sparse.

One of the audience asked about re-use. We were informed that the XML was locked up, the documents copyrighted (even though much of the material on BHO has long since passed into the public domain), but generously, we can print off as many copies as we wish. This was the only time I heard such sentiments expressed at DH2010; everyone else understood the importance of openness, of re-use, of contributing corrections and improvements, of sharing. It’s called community. And if you look at the graphic below, you’ll see it’s one of the prominent words (used 25 times) in the closing address from Melissa Terras, Present, Not Voting.

Wordle of Melissa Terras' speech at DH2010
Wordle of Melissa Terras’ speech at DH2010

(Click to view full size)

‘Transcribe’ and ‘Bentham’ also feature as this is a crowdsourcing project Terras is involved in. As she says:

one of the things we want to do with Transcribe Bentham is to provide access to the resulting XML files so that others can reuse the information (via web-services, etc). The hosting and transcription environment we are developing will be open source, so that others can use it. And this sea change, from working in small groups, to really reaching out to users is something we have to embrace, and learn to work with.

The prospect of easily setting up such collaborations is mouthwatering. Access, re-use, reaching out, yes yes yes. Sharing is fundamental to what we do, and we are stronger when we share. And right now the Digital Humanities community – like everyone else – faces terrible pressure, from government and university management, and needs to get stuck in:

We need people who are not just prepared to whine but prepared to roll up their sleeves and do things to improve our associations, our community, and our presence in academia.

Her whole speech was barnstorming, critical but not despondent, electrifying the audience, and the highlight of a conference that, for all the heat and rushing around and getting up way too early, truly inspired me.

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DH 2010, day three

Not such an early start, so I missed Joshua Sternfeld’s talk on Digital Historiography. Annoying, but a sign of a good conference is that there’s too much of interest rather than too little.

For me, the important presentation in the Teaching/Managing strand was Nowviskie and Porter’s “The Graceful Degradation Survey: Managing Digital Humanities Projects Through Times of Transition and Decline.The afterlife of digital projects – and websites in general – is not only very important, but quite neglected, seemingly being done on an ad-hoc, voluntary basis. It was more to do with project management, organization and funding; I had hoped to hear something about technical solutions. It did suggest that there is a move to creating smaller, more preservable packets of information: a granular approach insuring against complete meltdown.

Another suggestion was that Digihum projects are increasingly being operated outside the academy. There’s a subterranean current here at DH2010 of extra-academic projects, ‘fragile vessels’ (as mentioned yesterday), small unfunded projects. One of those – a graduate project now continuing independently   – is contextus, which featured in the Scanning Between the Lines: The Search for the Semantic Story panel in the afternoon. Aside from being a very clear and useful introduction to RDFa (foaf etc), and being sprinkled with Doctor Who references, the speakers showed the great potential of the ‘semantic web’, about which I’d previously been a bit doubtful.

Many of the posters displayed, as on day two, were also for small, semi-independent or semi-official projects, using whatever tools are available free (in the financial sense). Somehow, this aspect of the Digital Humanities isn’t getting the full recognition it deserves. The lack of money shouldn’t mean abandoning a good or interesting idea, nor should it be considered a denial of permission to do what we want to do. It’s an obstacle, yes, but not insurmountable. Ways of operating on a shoestring need to be shared. And there is the advantage that without funds, one isn’t beholden to funders.

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