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Santa-fy Yourself

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For the last three years, the UC Arts Digital Lab has been sharing a floor with the College of Arts Office staff and has been invited to enter their Christmas-door decorating competition. This is an invitation that we do not take lightly, mostly due to an over-zealous thirst for competition, but also because we love decorating things, and (of course) we love Christmas.

This year, we decided that as a Digital Lab our door should reflect the digital skills that we have on offer. So armed with Python and a webcam, we began the process of creating a script that would turn people walking down the hallway into Santa! The idea was to detect people’s faces using facial recognition software and to then to superimpose a beard and a hat onto their face and project it onto a screen.

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Interview with Dan

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Over the last eight months, the UC Arts Digital Lab has been lucky to have student Dan Bartlett working in the office as part of the Voices Against War project. Dan came on-board as part of the Summer Scholarship programme to help gather, describe, and prepare material for the project and has quickly became a source of wisdom and humour in the office. Unfortunately for us, others have spotted his talents and he begins his next journey this week at Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, working on their World War I website. Before he left, Lucy-Jane took the time to sit down and talk to him about his work on Voices Against War and his experiences in the Digital Lab.


Dan Bartlett and the rest of the Voices Against War team

Dan Bartlett and the rest of the Voices Against War team


Tell us about the Voices Against War website
Ok. Well, Voices Against War is a website about pacifists, conscientious objectors, and seditious Cantabrians in the First World War. They were speaking out against, first: compulsory military training, and second: conscription. And quite a few of them got sent to gaol for their views, either for speaking out, which was sedition, or for refusing to go when they were conscripted, and that was conscientious objection. The website is telling the stories of quite a few different men, women and their families that were involved in that movement.

Great. And what are you studying?
I’m currently studying Honours in History. New Zealand history is a particular passion of mine. I’ve been really interested lately in reforms in the 90’s under the National government, from the 1991 budget, in terms of welfare and health and how it affected people – closing down hospitals, things like that. I’m particularly interested in history when you can use it to see how it affected people and how we could learn lessons from it and not do it instead.

What have you learned working in the UC Arts Digital Lab?
Well I didn’t really have digital skills! I came to the project with research and writing skills and not, for example, the ability to upload to a website. And I’ve learnt about metadata, and how websites work. You showed me the matrix code behind things {laughs} *Editor note: He means HTML* I have way more of an understanding than I had before.

So digital archiving of information and all those things that go along with it?
Yeah, like copyright; how to accurately describe things; metadata.

And terms like ‘metadata’ you probably hadn’t come across before?
Yeah, no, I hadn’t. I might have seen it but I didn’t know what it was called.

So what is metadata (for those who don’t know)?
It’s all the data that’s extra from the item or file itself, I guess. Like the date; type of image; rights, who it came from; who gave it to the archive. So I guess it’s the holistic version of saying, “This is so-and-so in 1918.”

I always think of it like bibliographical data – data that explains the origins of…
Provenance. Yeah. But also how to find it, if you want to find it and use it for research.

Would you see yourself now as a Digital Humanist?
It’s definitely going that way. I’d hope to develop more skills. So I applied for this job with Ngāi Tahu which is going to be doing the same work – the research and writing – for their World War I website, which will be looking at Ngāi Tahu soldiers. And I think the main reason I got the job was because I have those website skills.

What I think is interesting, and what you’ve sort of talked about before, is you’ve never really taken to the digital. You’ve gone into this role, but really the role is highly focussed on the historic passions that you have. The digital is just a way for you to get there.
Yeah and I’ve discovered that using digital platforms is a really good democratic way to do public history. It’s a way to get information out there that’s more than just at one museum in a physical place in Christchurch, for example. One of the descendants’ families, they’re all over the world, and they are able to access this website and look at their Grandfather and Great-Grandfather’s profile that we’ve put up because it is digital. And I wouldn’t have really thought about it before. It’s made me appreciate websites such as Te Ara a whole lot more.

And I think you understand a little bit more about the work that goes into creating those resources. As a student I was just like, “These resources exist!”
“Thanks!” Yeah, but it takes heaps.

So would you encourage other students to take DIGI papers or to work in the lab?
Yes, definitely. It’s funny – I think I told you, but I had a couple of appointments in the Library about resources, because I was wanting to use old issues of the Times and the Guardian for British history because I was looking at the miners’ strike. And they sent me this thing saying, “You might be interested in this Digital Humanities.” But it was really quite foreign to me. I was like, “That sounds really weird!” And now I get it and it’s really helpful.
Even if you were just able to take a DIGI paper as part of your degree, I think that would be really helpful.

I think that a large problem with Digital Humanities is translating what it means to people. Because I think the term in itself is not very clear. A lot of people point out that there is no ‘Digital Humanities’, that all of the Humanities should be integrating the digital. And I think the Voices Against War website is a good example of that. The project isn’t successful because of the digital element. It is successful because it is an interesting topic that there aren’t enough resources on and that has real-world applicability. The stories that make up the project are what makes it compelling – the digital element is just what makes it available to people.
Yeah! The stories are driving the project but the digital element provides the tool to share them.

So have you been converted to the digital?
In terms of public history and archiving – yeah, big time. Because we’ve had to use all those resources for Voices Against War, like Papers Past and things like that. They’re just amazing things. But I still don’t want a cell phone or a smart phone. I hope nobody makes me get one because it just stresses me out. So converted in some ways, other ways not so much.

So there you have it – Dan Bartlett, the Digital Humanist without a cell phone. We would like to thank Dan for his work in the office, but also for putting a smile on our faces every day. We know that he will be cherished at Ngāi Tahu and that he has a bright future in public history.

tēnā rawa atu koe!

Digital Humanities Infrastructure Workshop: Part Two

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Digital Content Analyst Lucy-Jane Walsh, continues her discussion of the UCDH Cyberinfrastructure workshops in November 2015:

Last week I began the blog post series by summarising James Smithies’ talk on global systems analysis of Digital Humanities infrastructure. Today I plan to move swiftly onto Paul Arthur, who is Professor and Chair in Digital Humanities at Western Sydney University, and has been involved in conversations about the future of research infrastructure in Australia for many years.

Smart Infrastructure for Cultural and Social Research – Paul Arthur

Arthur began his talk by explaining that the Humanities were less engaged with infrastructure planning in the past and that the dominant conception of infrastructure was about facilities and machines. Today, people are beginning to think about infrastructure less as tools for particular disciplines and more as a complex problem which can be viewed from many different perspectives. This has enabled the Humanities to engage more in the discussions about infrastructure and to help develop national strategies in Australia.

One example of this is the 2011 Strategic Roadmap for Australian Research Infrastructure which was developed by the Australian government through extensive consultation with the research sector. The aim of the document was to identify the priorities for national, collaborative infrastructure planning and investment from 2011 to 2016. According to Arthur, the difference between the 2011 Strategic Roadmap ­and previous infrastructure planning was that it included a dedicated section for the humanities and the arts, it placed more value on data sharing and collaboration, and it took a more distributed approach to infrastructure planning and investment – creating infrastructure that multiple disciplines could tap into, rather than discipline-specific infrastructure. This plan was never fully implemented but is still used as a road map today.

One of the key debates generated by this road map is whether we should have one infrastructure for all researchers, or a collection of interlocking resources for multiple disciplines. The argument for having one central infrastructure is that many difference resources can cause silos of knowledge and skills. It can also be difficult to generating funding for more than one infrastructure, particularly in the Humanities, leading many governments to opt for a centralised infrastructure instead. Australia has attempted to create a model somewhere in between these two approaches with their online infrastructure project, Nectar. Short for the National eResearch Collaboration Tools and Resources Project, Nectar hosts virtual laboratories where researchers can share ideas and collaborate. Nectar also supports tools for individual projects, such as HuNi (Humanities Networked Infrastructure) which combines data from many Australia cultural websites. According to Arthur, the combination of broad and specific resources that Nectar provides has been a successful model for Australia.

To Arthur, humanities infrastructure is not just information systems and laboratories, but digitised texts such as newspaper articles, records, and stories. In this talk, he argued that Humanities researchers use texts, not machines, to build knowledge, experiment, and draw conclusions. Databases such as Paperspast or Trove, he argued, are successful because of their wealth of historic data, not the computers or information systems working behind the scenes. From this perspective, the challenge for Digital Humanists becomes less about advocating for computers and more about digitising and making available large collections of social and cultural data.

As the Deputy General Editor of the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) from 2010 to 2013, Arthur has a strong interest in biography, which he believes is particularly suited to digital research. This is because biographies can be studied at both the micro and the macro levels – as isolated stories that shed light on individuals, or aggregated collections providing insights on much larger movements.  Much of this macro analysis is made possible by digitising collections of biography, as this offers researchers an overview of the data, better access to the collection, and the ability to analyse the data computationally. Once ADB was digitised, for example, it became clear that there were few stories about women and Aborigines, and that many vocations were missing – an observation that would have been difficult to come by when the many thousands of biographies were only in print.

Arthur discussed his experiences at ADB when they came to digitise the biographies. Previously, the edition process was analogue in nature:  on pen and paper with a lot of face to face communication between members of the team. Arthur’s attempts to map this workflow resulted in a confusion of circles and lines, revealing the complex nature of analogue processes. In contrast, digital workflows need to be fairly rigid to work, since computers and information systems struggle to match the complexity of human interaction. For volume 18, Arthur experimented with Windows Live (now known as One Drive) and created a folder for each person in the dictionary. Within this folder were the biography and a file for notes or any additional information. Each time the biography was edited, a new version was saved on the drive, ensuring that changes could be reverted and versions compared. Using this method, ADB was able to create their first digital volume.

Initially the digitised version of the ADB replicated the print version, with the stories laid out alphabetically and grouped in accordance with their subject’s time of influence or death. However, as Arthur pointed out, digital environments are not restricted by the linear structure of the printed form and can offer many different modes of storytelling. Today the entries in the ADB can be searched by name, gender, birth, death, ethnicity, religion, occupations, author name, and printed volume. The dictionary also offers a faceted browse which allows repeated filtering of the stories by a list of predefined categories. Much of this functionality has been enabled by the additional metadata that the ADB team has been adding to the stories. This metadata is intended to show the interconnections between stories in the dictionary – for example, where the subjects are friends, enemies, or family, or they have related religions, won similar awards, or attended the same events.

In addition to adding more metadata, the ADB have also made their data available to projects such as Trove and HuNi and each story has been linked to the corresponding obituary in the Obituaries Australia digital repository. Linking data in this way can unveil more information about individuals – for example when and where they died and who came to their funeral. Moreover, it provides humanities researchers with larger, more diverse collections of linked cultural data from which they can investigate larger questions about cultural and heritage. Unfortunately there are barriers to a larger international infrastructure of interconnected biographical data, with resources such as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography behind a subscription wall. However, projects like HuNi have revealed that, in Australia at least, this aggregation is possible.

Arthur finished his talk by pointing out that while cultural data is extremely laborious to collection, once collected its value does not depreciate over time. This suggests to me that investing in the digitisation of texts, such as biographies and newspaper articles, may be more valuable in the long run to the Humanities than information systems and computers.

Walsh will continue her discussion on these workshops in the new year.