Category Archives: conference writeups

DCDC16, Salford

I went to this conference, sponsored by the National Archives and Research Libraries UK, in Salford. It was very well attended and even when I’d eliminated talks that were not very relevant to me there was no shortage of interest.

Rather than pick up on individual talks, I’ll mention some trends. Digitisation is being taken up in all parts of the heritage sector, and Cathedrals, for example, are now finding out what it can do for their archives. Engagement with the public is a more important side to the work than in purely University-based research. I sense that there is often a gap in understanding between the experts in the material and those who are doing the technical work of making it available in digital form: a gap I’d be well placed to fill if I could find the right place!

It was good to see some people I used to work with as clients and also to find out that BOPCRIS is still flourishing and much used. A nice touch was a board where you could ask for help or advertise your skills. And, unlike the Digital Humanities Congress, a delegate list!

Digital Humanities Congress 2016, University of Sheffield, 8-10 September

I attended the first of these congresses back in 2012. I returned because I wanted to stay in touch with what is going on in Digital Humanities and in the hope of making some useful contacts.

I was spoilt for choice with the talks and found myself switching between strands (as did others) and was particularly sorry to miss the session on early printed books which sounded fascinating. Some talks touched on areas where I have worked in the past, such as Emilie Pyan and Susan Leavy on the Ryan Report on children’s homes in Ireland, which recalled Hidden Lives Revealed. Nicola Wilson described the Modernist Archives Publishing Project which made use of Special Collections in Reading University Library, incorporating Linked Data, in a way similar to our proposals (which never got beyond the seedcorn stage) for Bristol’s and Cardiff’s. On a slightly more recreational note, I greatly enjoyed hearing about the ‘Transforming Musicology’ project, especially an experiment to measure subjects’ physiological reaction to Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

The conference opened with a thought-provoking talk by Marilyn Deegan on her work with preserving genocide trial transcripts in Rwanda and cultural heritage in Sudan, and the various issues which surfaced as local people were trained to do this. She had exported her expertise to Africa, and I wondered if we had something to learn in the other direction about re-use and lack of waste. (Thinking of Bristol’s ‘Greening your events’ tutorial which I once worked on – sadly no longer online.) These days we take the need for data preservation for granted (or I hope we do), but this is not necessarily so worldwide.

There were some recurring topics: I was pleased to see that Linked Data was mentioned several times, and the issue of sensitive content and how to deal with it came up frequently.

I participated in some of the discussions after the talks; these were particularly important as sometimes the speakers left the conference soon afterwards. From the point of view of making contacts, some institutions which I know to be very active in DH were barely or not at all represented, which was a pity. I think the only reference to Classics that I caught was a mention of the Pelagios gazetteer.

As a developer seeking work in the area of digital humanities, I would have been interested to see more details of the technologies used in these various projects – maybe just a quick summary slide at the end of the presentation? Of course I can always go to their websites and probe around to find this information. A more regrettable omission was the usual list of delegates, so that I had to look closely at name badges to find out exactly who was there, and also other people did not know about me.

I’m glad I went, though, and hope to have some interesting leads to follow up. I’d be interested to hear from others who were there too.

Digital R&D Fund for the Arts Workshop

Innovation Centre, Exeter University, 24 April 2013

I attended this on behalf of a colleague who was thinking of applying. It was one of a number of similar events around the country for this fund, which aims to bring together researchers, arts professionals and technical support. There were about 50 people there from around the South West, with the technical side rather under-represented.

The day mixed presentations with exercises in small groups. We broke the ice by thinking of the stereotypical ideas we entertained about those in the other two groups from our own. Later we examined one another’s proposed projects. Firstly we analysed them using ‘stories’. The ‘story’ story, the ‘people’ story, the ‘platform’ story, the ‘impact’ story and the ‘money’ story. I wasn’t really sure that all these headings really lent themselves to being made into ‘stories’ – platforms, for example, are fundamentally non-narrative things – so it didn’t differ much from just considering the bare headings, but it was a useful exercise.

Later our own proposal got pulled apart in a session on ‘user-centred design’ – looking at it through the senses of a prospective user of a certain demographic type. How do they first hear about it? What do they see when they get there? How does it make them feel? What do you want them to say about it? What do they think about afterwards? This exercise got us outside a mindset developers are particularly prone to – because we see the project from the inside, it takes an effort to put ourselves in the position of someone who knows nothing about it.

I talked to quite a few interesting people – someone trying to revive Weymouth’s museum, someone from the American Museum in Bath wanting to attract younger visitors, a representative of a theatre company on Dartmoor. Most people, particularly those who aren’t used to bidding for collaborative projects, seemed to find the day worthwhile.

Digital Humanities Congress, Sheffield 6-8 September 2012

This was called ‘The Digital Humanities Congress’ but it is hoped that more will follow.

I attended on behalf of the data.bris project (and worked in a reference to it into one of my questions) and accordingly made a point of attending talks that dealt with research data management. It was unfortunate that the talk on ‘Digital Curator Vocational Education’ (DigCurV), part of a session on ‘Developing Infrastructure and Policy for Digital Research’, clashed head-on with ‘KAPTUR: Examining the importance and effective management of research data in the visual arts’. Beyond this session, there was little specifically on research data management, but the need for it was evident from the frequent references to datasets of a variety of types.

On a more personal note, I was sorry that there weren’t many talks relating to the ancient world, as there’s lots going on in that area. (I missed one because of a clash with another strand of interest.) I did follow geographically-related threads, and it was interesting to see ideas developed in the presentation and analysis of Census data coming through into the humanities, and indeed see Census data used in conjunction with humanities-related data. Its relevance to social historians in any case puts it in the humanities domain.

There was a lively Twitter feed #dhcshef attached to the conference, and we were encouraged to write our Twitter handles on our name badges so that we could be matched.  This enabled, for example, Graeme Earl from Southampton to find and talk to me.  I had plenty of opportunities for conversation as most people attended in ones and twos rather than in a pack.  It was however sometimes frustrating that a speaker gave an interesting talk and then left the conference, so that you couldn’t collar them and ask them further about their work.

It was a packed programme and I found it hard to choose between different sessions.  In fact at one point I hopped between two different sessions in order to hear what interested me most.  As they all in adjacent rooms, quite a few delegates did this.

I won’t go through all the talks I attended but I’ll single out a few representatives.

  • Andrew Prescott, plenary, Industrial perspectives on the Digital Humanities. On the disjunction between the timing of techological advances and the resulting large-scale differences to people’s lives, with reference to Sheffield. Interesting – not sure I really trust someone who thinks the tutorial system of education should be abolished though!
  •  A team from Södertörn University, Sweden on data journalism – using crowdsourcing to cover real-life Scandinavian crime
  • Christopher Dingle/Laura Hamer: False Memories and Dissonant Truths – looking at classical music in the Times, both for amount of coverage and vocabulary (e.g. that applied to female performers and composers) and considering the practical problems of using the digitised Times as a source, such as variant editions.
  • Karina Rodriguez-Echavarria et al. Using GIS on British designers. Glad I room-hopped to catch this one. About mapping locations of addresses in recent British design yearbooks – how London-centred is design? The Census technique of ‘blurring’ was suggested in discussion to protect identification of individuals.
  • Jonathan Blaney, The Citation Problem in the Digital Humanities On the history of citation, and how URIs need be no more cryptic than many citation styles used in the past. Despite his republicanism, he held up the Royal Family’s website as exemplary in this respect.
  • Paul Rayson, Alistair Baron, Andrew Hardie, Which ‘Lancaster’ do you mean? On the practical problems disambiguating placenames (and identifiying words as placenames rather than e.g. personal names) using e.g. the Edinburgh geoparser that was tried on BOPCRIS. They’ve got this working nicely for single-word names, but some way to go with multiword names, such as the Somerset villages which someone once said sounded like lawyers from American mini-series
  • Lorna Hughes, Impact and sustainability of digital collections in the humanities. (plenary) On the history of the National Library of Wales and what it was doing about outreach to the community.
  • Ann Gow , Laura Molloy (Glasgow), Digital Curator Vocational Education. On training people in cultural heritage sector in data preservation and curation, as part of a large European consortium, DigiCurV. Including a Monopoly-style game! Clearly some overlap with Digital Preservation Coalition, DCC and they were aware of this, also relevance to data.bris. Their next stage is going into organistions and drawing up RDMPs. In discussion, it was revealed that in Sheffield a lot of research data wasn’t being managed well because it was created outside funded projects.
  • Genovefa Kefalidou, Bryn Alexander Coles, Crowd-sourcing our cultural heritage. About recording the reactions of visitors to a Greek archaeological site, obtaining the data by getting them to keep an audio-diary during their visit. My favourite of all the presentations, not only because of its ancient Greek subject matter but also because of the impressive ease with which the two speakers repeatedly took over from one another, without gaps or both talking at once.
  • Melissa Terras, Steven Gray, Building Textal. Putting text-analysis software onto a mobile phone app, and getting UCL’s enterprise office to sort out where profits went if it takes off. More techie than many of the other talks, ending with the provocative assertion (in this company) that ‘XML is dead’

Some things featured less than I expected. For example, there was little mention of Linked Data and the Semantic Web, and I had the impression that many speakers were relatively new to computing in the humanities and weren’t yet fully aware of what it could offer, particularly when different datasets are combined. Also that those who were mapping data geographically were still getting to grips with (for example) the potentially misleading aspects of choropleth maps. However, for my own part I learnt a lot about the power and potential of corpus linguistics, another repeated theme.

It was also made clear more than once that a computing humanist could do much more if teamed with a developer with appropriate skills.  This was for example apparent in Melissa Terras/Steven Gray’s presentation on their new iPhone app, Textal. I found myself at times longing for more technical detail on the projects being presented!

There was also a lot of interest in website design and how to get vistors to return or stay longer. Europeana was cited as an example of a site with lots of wonderful stuff but which was frustrating to navigate.

The only R&D/ILRT site to be mentioned in a talk I went to was BOPCRIS 😎 (!), but people were interesting in NatureLocator (the press release about extending this to invasive plant species was well timed) and the crowdsourcing aspect of Visualising China. The e-cards in Hidden Lives Revealed were also thought to be a useful way to raise awareness of a site with a large number of interesting images.

Conference website:

IPR and Digital Preservation, Bristol 21 November 2011

The ins and outs of intellectual property rights and related law are not something I’m familiar with, so I had quite a learning curve at this day event, organised by the Digital Preservation Coalition and JISC Digital Media at Bristol University’s Wills Hall.

I was pleased to see Andrew Charlesworth down to speak, as he has the ability to make even dry subjects entertaining. He divided the problems we face into three types. The first was a recurring theme of the day: FUD=fear, uncertainty and doubt, which make people uncertain about what is and isn’t permitted, and unwilling to take risks.  Secondly, as a lawyer he was unhappy with current legislation which (for example) defines ‘public records’ differently in Scotland, and is unclear about technical protection measures (another recurring theme) and IPR as it applies to software. The third area concerned administration: who has what responsibility, how can metadata be made to ‘stick’ and what are the implications of (for example) migrating data to new formats?

Next, Chris Hilton of the Wellcome Library, on day release from jury service, gave a case study of depositing and licensing.  As the Library cannot compel people to donate to it, it must retain the confidence of depositors: ‘Trust is our brand’. He raised some issues with the depositing of items, in particular that of proliferating copies and what exactly does the Library own?  (His view is that it is a ‘Platonic Form’ of the item deposited, rather than any particular instance of it).  He felt the Library was moving towards a purchase model, and raised the issue of ’emotional ownership’, where someone other than the owner has a close interest in an object (the example given being notes taken by Churchill’s doctor – rather apt since Churchill opened the Wills Hall).

The second case study was given by David Anderson from Portsmouth University, about their KEEP project. He pointed out the impracticalities if EU directives are kept to the letter, and the implications of various specific exceptions which are allowed to them.  Technical protection measures were mentioned again, this time as something worth preserving in their own right, but also because the law relating to their circumvention differs in different places.  He raised several problem cases for IPR, such as a computer game produced for the 2012 Olympics which contains corporate logos.

Finally before lunch we were divided into groups and asked to discuss problems of copyright infringement as applied to a hypothetical project ‘Integrated Image Collections’; it was generally agreed that this project would be a minefield of them!

After lunch Barbara Kolany of Münster University talked about escrow agreements relating to digital materials and software, and in particular the issue of what happens if the licensor becomes insolvent.  In Austria and Germany this may mean that the licensee can lose their rights.  This led to a general discussion about escrow and how it works or could work in practice as a model for licensing digital objects or software.

Jason Miles Campbell of JISC Legal talked briskly about some other emerging trends.  He identified two areas where action was clearly needed: a policy on the ever-increasing number of orphan works, and a distinction between preservation and re-use.

Finally, there was a panel session and open discussion.  Themes which had recurred during the day such as FUD (and attendant risk aversion), obtaining the trust of depositors, technical protection measures, sticky metadata and the emotional ownership of an object were reprised.

The talks at this event were all thought-provoking and informative, so it was a day well spent.

Linked Data and Libraries 2011

July 14 2011

British Library, London

Building on a similar but smaller event last year which I didn’t attend, this attracted about 120 delegates, including a number from Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia. (It would have been good to have had a list of delegates as I’m sure there were people known to me by name but not by sight).  I  think that most were from libraries rather than IT departments, and from the academic sector.

After a brief keynote address by Dame Lynne Brindley from the British Library, Richard Wallis of Talis talked about how the use of Linked Data is spreading and why libraries are a natural place to use it: essentially because they are long practised at adhering to standards and at describing their holdings.  Adrian Stevenson of UKOLN reported on a LOD-LAM summit which dealt with such matters as vocabularies and provenance of metadata (which were recurring themes).  Phil John of Capita introduced Prism, which has been developed for discovering library resources at the University of Winchester.

Among the most interesting talks were the ‘lightning talks’ which preceded and followed lunch, and which were focussed on practical issues with Linked Data.  Carsten Kessler described how the University of Münster links information on courses, buildings, research databases and bus routes!  Jerry Persons from Stanford offered a report on a recent Linked Data workshop there which raised another recurrent theme: the tension between getting data/metadata exactly right and getting a working service up and running.  He leant towards the second of these, saying ‘scruffy works’ and ‘build for the way the world is’.

Antoine Isaac described the work of the W3C Library Linked Data Group on standards relating to Linked Data.  Neil Wilson of the British Library talked about the linked data version of the British National Bibliography, and in particular the process of converting MARC records to RDF.  The final talk, provocatively entitled ‘The Record is Dead’, was by Rob Styles of Talis, who explained how traditional cataloguing methods fail to match the way people talk and think, and lose valuable detail.  ‘Records don’t have relationships’.  While this was less technically focussed than some of the other talks, it pointed the way to possible uses for Linked Data and was an appropriate lead into the closing summary from Richard Wallis.

Overall, I felt that the day gave a useful view of the current state of play with regard to the use of Linked Data in the library world.  Phil John made the point that traditional OPACs don’t deal well with special collections, an observation relevant to some of ILRT’s current work.  I also learnt about how librarians talk when they’re together (there were several MARC-related jokes that went over my head!)  I was however left with the impression that while everyone present agreed that Linked Data was a good thing, we are all still feeling around for ways to use it.

Presentations from Linked Data and Libraries 2011