Digital Humanities 2014 pre-conference events

7-8 July 2014, Lausanne, Switzerland

By Stuart Dunn, SSI Fellow and Lecturer, Centre for e-Research, Kings's College London



I attended two events in the pre-conference sessions of Digital Humanities 2014: The workshop on 'The Representation of Multiplicity as a Means to Digital Empowerment' (7/12), and the first meeting of the newly-formed Association of Digital Humanities SIG on 'Geohumanities (8/7). Both events covered a range of new ideas on the theme of software sustainability, which were united by the notion that the process of empowering citizens with digital humanities projects cannot occur unless it is backed up by robust and sustainable software.

Event report:

Although very disparate, the two events I attended at Digital Humanities 2014 both addressed the need to empower multiple ‘voices’ in the development and deployment of humanities data in digital humanities projects, and what is needed in practical terms to sustain the resources that enable this.

In the first, the workshop on The Representation of Multiplicity as a Means to Digital Empowerment organized by myself, Valeria Vitale (KCL) and Mareike Hoekendorff (Hamburg), I presented my work visualizing narratives of the history and significance of Hadrian’s Wall. Much of the visualization aspect of this is based on Google Earth. This is a flexible and useful platform for such work, but discussion focused on the fact that this is a large, proprietary product, and sustainability of the outputs is thus dependent on continued availability of the resource and the platform from Google. While this may not be in doubt from a practical point of view, we agreed – as a matter of policy – that Open Source solutions should be considered. I therefore discussed with one of the participants, Kostyantyn Bondarenko of the Ukrainian Research Institute, the technical implications of migrating it to OpenStreetMap. This would have implications for the functionality – I would not have access to Google’s satellite imagery – but he pointed out that such imagery is also available from OS sources, and could be plugged in. I was able to consider in some detail therefore what additions to my own skillset, in terms of Java library programming, would be needed to accomplish this.

It was interesting to note that the data I have amalgamated which underpins the visualisations is in KML, which is an Open Source scripting language, registered by the Open Geospatial Consortium. I agreed that this should be made available in raw form, so that it can be used and reused in other applications in the future, regardless of whether or not Google Earth is used as the visualisation mechanism. Mareike, Valeria and I have agreed that we will co-author an academic paper on the theme of ‘digitally preserving narratives’, possibly in a special issue of the journal Humanities on ‘problemetization’, to which I have been separately invited to contribute an (open access) article.

On my second day in Lausanne I attended the inaugural meeting of the Association of Digital Humanities Organizations SIG on ‘Geohumanities’. Here I presented my work on the Leventis-funded Heritage Gazetteer of Cyprus. At the heart of this project is an effort to create an open source and open access register of Cypriot toponyms, which will be supported by attestation data contributed by scholars and members of the public. Again the themes of empowerment and software sustainability were at the fore here. The platform is being built in PhP and MySQL, but the success or otherwise will depend on this being available after the end of the project in December (the exemplum is currently being developed on a password protected server at KCL, but I will be happy to arrange access for anyone at the SSI, or other Fellows, who are interested in viewing it). We therefore discussed how the eventual migration of the database to the University of Cyprus can be managed, the advice that will need to be given to those there who will be responsible for maintaining it, and the editorial models to keep the data useful alongside the physical availability of the resource.

In both presentations, I opened my remarks by explaining the context of my interests in software sustainability in the humanities, and included a slide on the SSI’s work, giving the URL and contact details. In both presentations international colleagues who were not previously aware of the SSI asked questions about its funding, institutional status and approaches – which I was able to answer. In terms of outputs, I would recommend this experience be written up to form the basis of an SSI working paper on Open Source sustainability for humanities research projects, and I will endeavour to undertake this after the summer vacation.