Monday, 25 March 2013

Some recent forays into the digital world

As regular readers will be aware, I've long had an interest in digital methods of both conducting and disseminating historical research. Recently, I've been involved with several projects which have got me thinking digitally again.

First up, I had a short post published on the Environment and Society Portal, a site created by the Rachel Carson Center in Munich, which aims to make digital multimedia in the environmental humanities freely and openly accessible to academic communities and the public. My piece, an overview of the 1953 North Sea floods, was part of their Arcadia series on the site, which offer illustrated articles on subjects relating to both nature and human society.

A screen shot of the Environment & Society Portal's interactive map

Whilst this series of encyclopedia-like articles are an extremely useful resource, it is another feature of the portal that really interests me. All content on the portal is linked to a world map and a time-line so that users can search across subjects both spatially and temporally. So, whilst some of the content on the portal may be similar to Wikipedia, the ability for a user to search a theme they are interested in (say floods) by region and date means one can begin to understand how such events relate to each other, and influence society much more intuitively than on the aforementioned site.

Secondly, a couple of weeks ago I attended an excellent, small workshop organised by the Library here at York on text mining in the digital humanities. Text mining is a form of textual analysis that uses computers to scan vast amounts of digitised data to locate and highlight trends and patterns that may not be noticeable using more traditional methods of analysis. The conference featured two roundtable discussions, the first introduced a broad range of current projects happening in the Ontario region, including the fascinating Trading Consequences project (part of the international Digging Into Data initiative), which is text mining a vast quantity of primary records to create interactive maps that show nineteenth-century commodity flows around the British Empire. The second panel discussed at length the challenges facing researchers who wish to undertake text mining research within the humanities. Whilst at times the conversation was a little too technical for a novice like myself, I was especially heartened to hear how improvements in software, computing ability, and the algorithms used meant that text mining the content for meaning and context rather than just a word or phrase was now becoming commonplace. Further, it was great to have in the room several representatives from top publishers, and to hear a dialogue between them and researchers on how access to published materials for text mining purposes could be improved. I came away from the day enthused with how useful this area of the digital humanities is becoming, and excited about forthcoming products which will allow computing novices like myself to easily conduct meaningful textual analysis across large amounts of written data. Whilst I will always be a paper, archive based researcher at heart, text mining is fast becoming a valuable tool, that when used correctly alongside more traditional methods can really enhance the analysis historians conduct.

Finally, I have recently begun chairing a Social Media Group that is working on behalf of the organising committee of the International Congress for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine. The group aims to ensure that the conference, which is to be held in July in Manchester with participants from over 60 countries, not only engages with attendees across several online platforms but also connects with a wider audience interested in the history of science, technology, and medicine. We have a blog due to go live in May, and several other ideas in the pipeline. If you have any ideas, content, or other related materials you would like the group to consider please get in touch.

As usual any comments about the post, or reader's experiences with the digital methods discussed are welcomed below!

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