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:

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