Tuesday, 28 July 2015

NeMO: NeDiMAH Methods Ontology launched!

I’m delighted to announce the launch of NeMO, The NeDiMAH Methods Ontology, a major new component of the international digital humanities research infrastructure.

NeMO is the final research output of the European Science Foundation Network for Digital Methods in the Arts and Humanities (NeDiMAH). It is a comprehensive ontological model of scholarly practice in the arts and humanities. NeMO was developed by the Digital Curation Unit (DCU), ATHENA RC in collaboration with the NeDiMAH Ontology Working Group. For more information, please see: http://www.nedimah.eu/content/nedimah-methods-ontology-nemo. The direct link to NeMo is http://nemo.dcu.gr.

Background: NeDiMAH, and understanding Digital Humanities in Practice

NeDiMAH was a ESF Research Networking Programme (RNP) funded from May 2011-May 2015. It was a collaboration of 16 ESF Member organisations, and was co-Chaired by myself, Susan Schreibman (University of Maynooth, Ireland) and Fotis Jannidis (University of Würzburg, Germany, from 2011-14).

NeDiMAH brought into partnership the digital humanities researchers of16 NeDiMAH Member countries (Bulgaria, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK. The Network built a collaborative forum to research the practice of advanced digital methods in the arts and humanities, via an extensive programme of activities. NeDiMAH explored key areas of theory and practice in a number of methodological areas, via Working Groups. Areas of focus included the analysis of time and space, visualization, linked data, large scale data analysis, editing, manuscript imaging, temporal modeling, and scholarly communications. The reach of these activities has been documented visually in a series of maps of digital humanities activities across Europe:

Through our activities, the Network was able to get a sense of the diversity of practice of digital humanities around Europe, and to understand and demonstrate the collaborative and trans-national nature of digital humanities, and to demonstrate the integration of digital approaches into all aspects of the research lifecycle. Our objective was to understand better the impact that digital methods have had on transforming scholarship in the arts and humanities, and the potential for extending the benefits of digital research to the creative industries, the commercial sector, and public policy and planning. Collaboration has been key: with scientific and technical disciplines; with data science; with libraries, archives and museums; with existing European research infrastructures including EuropeanaCLARIN and DARIAH. The essential complexity of the digital environment means that individual researchers and small groups are less able to exploit it effectively, so collaborative models are emerging as the norm.

The evidence gathered by NeDiMAH is an excellent basis for understanding the impact of core elements of current digital research: the seamless integration of data, and a critical engagement with its management and preservation as part of the humanities research life-cycle; the ability to scale up (and down) while working with heterogeneous data from diverse sources; skills for the critical analysis and interpretation of data created locally, and by commercial entities; and the experience of embedding digital scholarship in cultural contents, and those that promote widest public engagement.

At a time when attempts to define the digital humanities can be contentious, NeDiMAH has provided a powerful example that the digital humanities is essentially understood through practice, and that a critical framework for digital research within the ‘big tent’ of digital humanities must be based on a reflection of the diverse and rich work carried out to date.

This work will be the basis for future knowledge production in the humanities that takes advantage of digital tools, methods and content. It has been consolidated in NeMo, the main and final output of NeDiMAH. NeMo is a formal expression of the practice of digital humanities that explores this richness and complexity, and provides a valuable resource for critical and peer review of digital outputs. It also demonstrates directly the scholarly ecosystem that underlies digital research in the arts and humanities as a distinctive intellectual practice with considerable impact within and without the Academy.

About NeMO

NeMO is a unique resource that brings together the digital content, tools and methods that are at the heart of the digital humanities. It brings together work developed by our partners at the DCU, ATHENA RC, including past and current empirical work on scholarly practices (developed  in the context of Preparing DARIAH, EHRI,  and  DARIAH-EU); their Scholarly Research Activity  Model (developed for DARIAH-GR); and research into the need for expansion of existing digital humanities taxonomies, such as the taxonomy underpinning arts-humanities.net and now the basis for the classification of Digital Humanities at Oxford. It was decided early on in the programme of NeDiMAH activities that a taxonomy is not complex enough to explore the diversity of Digital Humanities in practice, based on exemplars drawn from the NeDiMAH Methodological Working Groups.

NeMO is a CIDOC CRM - compliant ontology which explicitly addresses the interplay of factors of agency (actors and goals), process (activities and methods) and resources (information resources, tools, concepts) manifest in the scholarly process. In addition to providing a formal ontology for Digital Humanities, it includes methods for classification and a shared vocabulary.

Benefit of NeMO for the Digital Research Community

Despite an enormous investment in the creation of digital collections for research, very little funding has been invested into discovering what scholars actually do with ‘all this digital stuff’: digital content, but also the methods that enable us to discover, annotate, compare, and analyze digital content; and the tools that make this work possible. The first initiative to do this in a comprehensive way was the AHRC ICT Methods Network, based at King’s College London, which I ran from 2005-8. This developed the taxonomy that was the basis of arts humanities.net as a first attempt to formally classify the ‘methodological commons’ of digital humanities.

NeDiMAH went beyond this, taking the research into DH in practice into a European forum, and fostering the development of NeMO.  We hope this will help to formalize and codify the expression of work in the digital arts and humanities, and make it possible to explore the inter, multi, and trans disciplinarity that is at the heart of the most exciting work in the digital humanities. It shows the human aspects of digital infrastructure: the collaborations among people that make the integration of content, tools and methods possible.

Having a means to formally describe the practice of digital humanities will contribute to the development of a commonly agreed nomenclature in Digital Humanities: something that typically happens with the maturing and consolidation of disciplines / research domains, so this is an important stage in the history of Digital Humanities.

Next Steps

The major next step is to populate the ontology with more existing taxonomies, case studies and exemplars, and to develop the community of researchers who use it.

While NeDiMAH funding has ended, an activity within the DARIAH.EU Virtual Comptency Centre 2 will continue to develop NeMO through the establishment of the Digital Methods and Projects Observatory (DiMPO). DIMPO will develop and provide an evidence-based, up-to-date, and pragmatically useful account of the emerging information practices, needs and attitudes of arts and humanities researchers in the evolving European digital scholarly environment, for the benefit of the digital humanities research community. It seeks to achieve this objective through the inception of a longitudinal mixed methods research and monitoring programme on the information practices and scholarly methods employed in digitally-enabled arts and humanities work across Europe, and through the digital dissemination, validation and enrichment of research outcomes by the scholarly community. 

Further to DiMPO, the NeMO team will seek to collaborate with Europeana Research, the newly-launched research portal of Europeana, supports and fosters research in the humanities and social sciences through the meaningful re-use of Europeana content and metadata. The work will be taken forward at a series of workshops and case studies orgnaised by Europeana Research to further scope the best way of developing NeMO as a methodological layer for the international e-research community. This will maximise the value of national and international e-research initiatives by developing a methodological layer that allows arts and humanities researchers to develop, refine and share research methods that allow them to create and make best use of digital collections, as well as methods.

For more information about NeMo, please contact Lorna Hughes (Chair of the NeDiMAH Methods Ontology Working Group), or Panos Constantopoulos, Agiatis Benardou, Costis Dallas (Digital Curation Unit, ATHENA RC, who developed NeMo), via the contact form. 

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Genres of scholarly knowledge and production: The Snows of Yesteryear

What follows was my contribution to the panel session on genres of scholarly knowledge and production at the NeDiMAH/AHRC Digital Transformations event, Beyond the Digital Humanities, which took place at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, on May 5th 2015. I talked about a project called The Snows of Yesteryear: Narrating Extreme Weather, which I felt exemplified a lot of issues around the production and uses of scholarly knowledge, and which also typifies what 'Digital Humanities' really looks like these days. 

The Snows of Yesteryear: Narrating Extreme Weather started in 2011 and finished in 2013, and was a very small project in terms of funding and activities (we had a total of around £100k from the Landscape and Environment programme of the AHRC, which due to re-election purdah I referred to as the Research Council that Dare Not Speak Its Name). The project was collaboration between humanities research, the archives of the National Library of Wales, and the ACRE Project at the Met Office, which seeks to reconstruct and visualize historic weather for analysis and visualization of climate change over time.

Focusing on Wales, we worked with archives from the pre-weather instrument period (approx. pre 1800) to find instances of extreme weather events and people’s response to them: in letters, diaries, ballads, manuscripts, exploring digital capture of archives to uncover narratives of extreme weather. We then took an ethnographic approach: we conducted interview with people to develop narratives of impact of extreme weather: then worked with archival resources and interview data to come up with a paradigm for making sense of all this stuff for research into climate, identifying narrative markers (a vocabulary) for extreme weather events.

So the project really focused on data, and its re-use, and new types of collaboration, through a dialogue between the sciences and the arts and humanities. As a means of demonstrating this, the material was the inspiration for a public performance piece, Ghost Dance, created by artist Eddie Ladd, which drew on disparate narratives as a piece describing events of the winter of 1963 in an allegorical, not didactic way.

Our aims in developing the performance were:
  • to inform, enhance and stimulate public awareness, understanding and appreciation through accounts and representations of extreme weather events; and how responses to such historical occurrences might inform contemporary experiences, strengthening local and regional regard for adaptability and resilience;
  • methodologically, to devise modes of performance appropriate for the dramaturgical assemblage of diverse materials – including scientific data – and for their public exposition in live situations;
  • to develop procedures to help illuminate, explicate and problematise the multiplicity of meanings that resonate within extreme climatic experiences;
  • to evoke past events and the immediate responses to them: of both trauma and resilience; bridging a linguistic as well as a historical and cultural gap between texts and modern audiences.
So, this is a pretty good exemplar of DH in practice: working with humanities research questions to uncover data that’s then reused by scientists and performers. This sort of co-curation and re-use is often the goal of DH projects.

But: think about these outputs (climate visualisations, and performance), and think about the publication and sustainability issues they raise. We are creating research, and research outputs, that go beyond the traditional publication model.

As a researcher working with data, working on the project highlighted for me some of the issues associated with this emerging digital research life cycle:
  • Data is being created in silos: the sustainability mechanisms we use, like institutional repositories, mitigate against sharing.
  • Trans-national, and trans disciplinary collaboration are needed for this sort of work, but how do we sustain this sort of engagement over time?  
  • Collaboration with archives and libraries is key to much of this work: but how can we engage them critically in exposing data for re-use that is currently unforeseen? 
  • How do you share and document this sort of research, and it's outputs? How do you publish this? How can we reconcile this sort of work with traditional, peer reward publication models?
  • How do you reflect the provenance of data embedded in a visualization, or a performance? When our publishing models focus on end results, how should we communicate complexity, ambiguity, and interpretation, in work that’s open for re-purposing? How do you represent the analysis inherent in the data?
  • And how does this fit into traditional reward cultures? How do we assess work in disciplines that are not our own? 
What was clear from the Snows of Yesteryear was that the impact of the data we create, and the critical engagement with that data, will be greater if we can share this material effectively across networks, disciplines and communities, which can also in turn share this work and its outputs.  We’ve become very good at managing data: the data for Snows won’t go anywhere: but we still haven’t given enough thought to its re-use and publishing.  Our work is beautifully digitally curated, but it's still locked in silos: How to embed outputs into other communities, research?

But individual researchers and projects – especially short term projects - won't be able to change modes of scholarly production: we need networks and collaboration, such as those effected by transnational infrastructures like DARIAH and CLARIN, which are starting to discuss the human and collaborative aspects of Research Infrastructure. Sharing data within humanities research is difficult, as humanities researchers are not yet completely open to sharing. Yet visibility is a full part of the scientific process: we need more visibility for digitally based research and for the products of this research.

The crux of these challenges is that there is a huge potential impact of DH. But current structures and scholarly communication modes mean that often, transformative work is not visible.

When projects like the Snows of Yesteryear are building resources that address social, cultural, economical, ecological and political issues, these are significant challenges we must start to address: Our ideas could be lost or ignored if we do get better at creating shared laboratories or sandpits, and methods for sharing data for use and re-use: it’s a contradiction but still the case that digital research and sources are often less visible than analogue outputs.

A cultural shift is needed. One way to start on that path is to be more reflective about existing DH outputs, and integrate this into the way that we think about creating scholarly knowledge, and collaborate to effect cultural change around sharing and using data. 

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Cymru1914.org nominated for a Digital Humanities 2014 Award: “Best Use of DH for Public Engagement”

The Welsh Experience of the First World War, or cymru1914.org, a digital archive of material relating to the First World War from the archives and special collections of Wales, has been nominated for a Digital Humanities award 2014, in the category “Best Use of DH for Public Engagement”. Voting closes on February 28th, 2015!

Hurrah! This is very exciting, and also very rewarding for the large number of people who put a lot of hard work into the delivery of the project (most of whom are acknowledged in a blog post I wrote when the project launched).

I was the PI on this Jisc funded project, and led its development at the National Library of Wales from January 2012-November 2013. I consider it one of my better DH achievements, as Cymru1914,org, as the resource exemplifies many of my personal beliefs about digital resources in the humanities.

First of all, it’s all free and easily accessible. The content isn’t behind a paywall, subscription service, or tucked away in an institutional repository. The material is free for use and re-use using an open license, in this case a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Sharealike license (BY-NC-SA). We were able to do this as the National Library of Wales policy is for copyright and intellectual rights to be cleared as a managed part of the digitization process. This is because of a belief that free access is the key to realizing the potential community, social, research and economic benefits of digitized resources: the value of making content freely accessible for use and re-use is far greater than any economic value to be released by licensing (which has been shown to be minimal, anyway, in a number of studies, including one by Simon Tanner of King’s College London, based on licensing Museum images).

Secondly, every aspect of the development of cymru1914.org has been collaborative: developed under the umbrella of the Welsh Higher Education Libraries Forum, cymru1914.org brings together content from NLW, Welsh University archives and special collections, and local records offices. It’s a much stronger resource for integrating (and in some cases, digitally re-unifying) content from so many physical archives, and stands as a cohesive, national collection. Putting the project was a collaborative effort of partners and many departments at NLW: Collections, IT, Systems and other units all worked together on delivering the project.

And finally, the project had public engagement at the very core of its development. We put together a very inclusive advisory group to advise on content selection, interface development, and use cases throughout form the start (even at the grant writing stage). Representatives from academia, the arts and creative industries, cultural heritage, teaching, government, the military and other commemorative organisations provided input throughout the development, and have also helped with its promotion and interpretation since it was launched. We were very fortunate to also have the support of Wales Remembers, the Welsh Government Programme Board for the Commemoration of the First World War, which has meant that it’s been a central focus of centenary events in Wales.

Because of these three themes: freely accessible content, collaboration, and community engagement, the digital content resource has been widely used (and re-used) since its launch, living up to William Noel’s assertion that for owners of cultural heritage, the task “is not to get your stuff up on your website. It is to get it up on other peoples, freely and fully”. The whole point of digitization is to get content out there for re-use for new, innovative, and unforeseen purposes by many different communities for research, teaching, and public engagement. Here are two examples:

- Data from Cymru1914.org formed part of the 14-18-NOW project to create public artworks in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England as part of the LIGHTS OUT event on 4 August 2014. In Wales, Bedwyr Williams created the sound and video installation Traw, integrating images of unknown recruits and conscripts from Wales that he found in Cymru1914.org into an integrated artwork that was projected onto the North Wales Memorial Arch, Bangor. I'm very grateful to Bedwyr for allowing me to include an image of the installation below.

(image credit www.1418now.org.uk). 

The images in Traw are from the D.C. Harries collection of glass plate negatives held by the National Library of Wales. The Library digitized around 200 images from this collection, thought to be First World War recruits or conscripts from Llandeilo and Ammanford (Rhydaman), where D. C. Harries operated photographic studios. The images in Cymru1914 are a very small sample of over 2,000 First World War portraits in the D. C. Harries archive. Next year, NLW will digitise more and launch a crowdsourcing experiment, inviting digital community engagement to help identify people in the images.

- Cymru1914.org is also the basis of the Wales at War project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Armed Forces Covenant Fund, and the Welsh Government Department of Education and Skills. Wales at War helping schoolchildren in Wales to develop digital skills and literacy by using the digital archive via an app to help them develop biographies of the names on local War memorials in Wales.

We also ran community content workshops with the People’s Collection Wales, with a focus on what we called ‘targeted crowdsourcing’, asking people to bring materials (like chapel records) that would compliment official materials held by archives and records’ offices. This was a very successful approach, uncovering lots of new material that belonged to members of the communities we visited, including a fascinating lost propaganda archive with a link to A.A. Milne.

This project was possible because of funding from Jisc and the partner organisations, but it was successful because it built on an existing strong digital infrastructure in Wales. The National Library has been digitizing content since 1998, and has built up a tremendous amount of internal experience in all aspects of the entire digital lifecycle (selection, conservation, capture, management and preservation), building digital expertise and skills into staff development at the institution. Because of this, all digitization could be supported in house, satisfying conservation and collections care requirements.

The technical infrastructure for the project built on the robust FEDORA-based digital architecture at the National Library of Wales, which is open and extensible, and has supported the re-use and repurposing of the content. The technical architecture for the project enabled integrating content from all partner organisations into a trusted digital repository at NLW. This approach also enabled the integration of content from four local archive and record offices in Wales: None of these archives currently have access to a digital platform, so integrating their content to Cymru1914.org has opened the material to a much wider audience.

The extensible nature of the digital platform, and the integration of the project into existing workflows, also means that NLW will be able to add resources to this archive throughout the commemoration period, including additional newspapers; the Cardiganshire Great War Tribunal (Appeals) Records; Saunders Lewis Letters; the Welsh Horse Lancers Research Papers Archive; as well as books (including novels), periodicals, diaries and letters. We hope to also add materials from other organisations based on the availability of additional funding.

All in all, cymru1914.org is an institutional asset that will be sustained over the long term because of its importance to a wider range of communities. This was always the intention in developing the resource as a freely accessible, collaborative project, with community engagement as its primary motivation.

Friday, 30 January 2015

On REF 2014: Why nobody wins unless everybody wins.

As a slightly obsessive[1] Bruce Springsteen fan, I’m familiar with the phrase “nobody wins unless everybody wins”. It was used by Mr. Springsteen at the conclusion of many of his concerts in the 70’s and 80’s, and from time to time he still uses it as a valediction (there is almost certainly a web site that cross-references all instances of his use of the phrase in concert with performances of ‘Prove it all night’ with the 78 intro the phrase, and if not there should be). What it means is that we really are all in this together, and that winning (financially, professionally) is only truly meaningful if it also brings about good for others: if a company makes lots of money, it should pay its workers better, rather than giving the CEO a bonus, sort of thing. For a good analysis of its use in a business context, see Bill Taylor’s article in the Harvard Business Review on Dec 7th 2010.

So what has this to do with the Research Excellence Framework (REF)? First of all, I don’t believe that research is about ‘winning’. Setting aside the comparative impossibility of that concept - the idea that researching the origins of cancer can be compared to researching the end of the Roman Empire - it’s incredibly difficult to adequately compare research within the same area of study, let alone the same discipline. Yet this is what the REF has set out to do. Much has been written about the sheer scale of the task of the REF research panels (and I unconditionally applaud these panels, who have worked tirelessly to peer-review submitted work in their panels, for a small stipend that works out at about 2p an hour). It must be extremely difficult to assess 4938 outputs (the total for the sub-panel which my work went into this time) and grade them on a scale of 1-4. It’s harder when also being asked to assess impact and environment: without adequate background information, how can this be really scored?

There were problems with the process: reports of manipulation of the rules, including Premiership-level moves of key researchers in the final REF transfer window of September 2014, and even more controversially the exclusion of researchers from the whole process.  The criteria meant that smaller units or departments were vulnerable without developing strategic alignments (for an excellent overview of the whole REF process, see the LSE Impact blog piece by Tony Murphy and Daniel Sage)

These issues made the REF a complicated process, but are essentially a distraction from the main problem, which is that the UK’s Higher Education sector is a functioning and effective ecosystem of a huge range of skills and strengths, and that a ranking system of assessment like the REF fails to acknowledge the fact that research is part of a wider educational system with mutual dependencies. Researchers also teach, supervise students, engage with the public, and create new knowledge in partnerships with with other public or private sector organisations: a successful ‘unit of assessment’ does all these things in a balance that works for their host organization and the communities they serve, whether undergraduates, postgraduates, colleagues in their own discipline, or researchers and students in other disciplines, the creative industries, the heritage sector... To single out research publications as the primary means of evaluating worth is to fail to understand the nature of scholarship and higher education generally. Some departments (or centres) are simply more effective at teaching, or interdisciplinary research, or experimental research that is hard to assess. Other departments benefit from this, whether in the form of receiving students that have received an excellent undergraduate education as postgraduates, or integrating outputs of research into new work, or in in benefiting from policy developed as a result of service on committees and related activities. Similarly, many academics liaise with museums, libraries and archives in two-way collaborations that create new knowledge around cultural heritage: these outputs, and their tangible and intangible benefits are hard to define, let alone evaluate. And these dependencies are more necessary now that we all have to do more with less: in higher education, we really are all in it together.

I should have this said at the start that of course, I offer warmest congratulations to those who did well in the REF. To have one’s research recognized in this way is gratifying, and I hope that the departments and universities who achieved success in the REF will be rewarded for their achievements. But that there is a finite pot of resources, and rewarding the highest rated outputs will be to the detriment the many.

There is already concern that the strong showing of the sciences will be at the expense of the humanities. Again, the ecosystem is important: the study of the humanities is strong in the UK, and expertise in the humanities brings benefits to business, medicine, and other disciplines. Science and medicine also benefit from collaborative work with humanists. Rewarding the sciences at the expense of the humanities will disrupt this balance.

Another concern is the widening of the gap in research outputs between South East and the rest of England. The balance of funding going to Those Who Have Done Well will exacerbate this divide. I’m not going to have a political rant, but this does reflect a general condition of the post-credit crunch UK economy.

The UK has a fantastic Higher Education sector, which routinely punches above its weight internationally, despite a lack of investment compared to its global competitors, especially the US Ivy League.  The rankings that really matter are where we compete internationally: seeing UK Universities in the world top 10 is far more meaningful than saying that History at University X ranks higher than history at University Y. 

Concerns are now being voiced that REF ‘winners’ will be rewarded at the expense of the losers. To me, this reflects a wider malaise where all the gains in society seem to be going to a smaller segment of the population, with the rest of us struggling to hold ground. We need to defend Higher Education as a sector, and to help it flourish by recognising that . Let’s hope that faith will be rewarded.

[1] Fanatical and deranged.