Friday, October 25, 2013

DH Data Talk

Last night I was on a panel organized by Duke Libraries' Digital Scholarship group. The panelists each gave some brief remarks and then we had what I thought was a really productive and interesting discussion. The following are my own remarks, with links to my slides (opens a new tab). In my notes, //slide// means click forward (not always to a new slide, maybe just a fragment).
This is me, and I work //slide// for this outfit. I'm going to talk just a little about a an old project and a new one, and not really give any details about either, but surface a couple of problems that I hope will be fodder for discussion. //slide// The old project is and publishes all kinds of data about ancient documents mostly written in ink on papyrus. The new one, Integrating Digital Epigraphies (IDEs), is about doing much the same thing for ancient documents mostly incised on stone.
If I had to characterize (most of) the work I'm doing right now, I'd say I'm working on detecting and making machine-actionable the scholarly links and networks embedded in a variety of related projects, with data sources including plain text, XML, Relational Databases, web services, and images. These encompass critical editions of texts (often in large corpora), bibliography, citations in books and articles, images posted on Flickr, and databases of texts. You could think of what I'm doing as recognizing patterns and then converting those into actual links; building a scaffold for the digital representation of networks of scholarship. This is hard work. //slide// It's hard because while superficial patterns are easy to detect, //slide// without access to the system of thought underlying those patterns (and computers can't do that yet—maybe never), those patterns are really just proxies kicked up by the underlying system. They don't themselves have meaning, but they're all you have to hold on to. //slide// Our brains (with some prior training) are very good at navigating this kind of mess, but digital systems require explicit instructions //slide// —though granted, you can sometimes use machine learning techniques to generate those.
When I say I'm working on making scholarly networks machine actionable, I'm talking about encoding as digital relations the graph of references embedded in these books, articles and corpora, and in the metadata of digital images. There are various ways one might do this, and the one we're most deeply into right now is called //slide// RDF. RDF models knowledge as a set of simple statements in the form Subject, Predicate, Object. //slide// So A cites B, for example. RDF is a web technology, so all three of these elements may be URIs that you could open in a web browser, //slide// and if you use URIs in RDF, then the object of one statement can be the subject of another, and so on. //slide// So you can use it to model logical chains of knowledge. Now notice that these statements are axioms. You can't qualify them, at least not in a fine-grained way. So this works great in a closed system (, where we get to decide what the facts are; it's going to be much more problematic in IDEs, where we'll be coordinating data from at least half a dozen partners. Partners who may not agree on everything. //slide// What I've got is the same problem from a different angle—I need to model a big pile of opinion but all I have to do it with are facts.
Part of the solution to these problems has to be about learning how to make the insertion of machine-actionable links and facts (or at least assertions), part of—that is, a side-effect of—the normal processes of resource creation and curation. But it also has to be about building systems that can cope with ambiguity and opinion.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Outside the tent

Yesterday was a bad day. I’m chasing a messed-up software problem whose main symptom is the application consuming all available memory and then falling over without leaving a useful stacktrace. Steve Ramsay quit Twitter. A colleague I have huge respect for is leaving a project that’s foundational and is going to be parked because of it (that and the lack of funding). This all sucks. As I said on Twitter, it feels like we’ve hit a tipping point. I think DH has moved on and left a bunch of us behind. I have to start this off by saying that I really have nothing to complain about, even if some of this sounds like whining. I love my job, my colleagues, and I’m doing my best to get over being a member of a Carolina family working at Duke :-). I’m also thinking about these things a lot in the run up to Speaking in Code.

For some time now I’ve been feeling uneasy about how I should present myself and my work. A few years ago, I’d have confidently said I work on Digital Humanities projects. Before that, I was into Humanities Computing. But now? I’m not sure what I do is really DH any more. I suspect the DH community is no longer interested in the same things as people like me, who write software to enable humanistic inquiry and also like to think (and when possible write and teach) about how that software instantiates ideas about the data involved in humanistic inquiry. On one level, this is fine. Time, and academic fashion, marches on. It is a little embarrassing though given that I’m a “Senior Digital Humanities Programmer”.

Moreover, the field of “programming” daily spews forth fresh examples of unbelievable, poisonous, misogyny and seems largely incapable of recognizing what a shitty situation its in because of it.

The tech industry is in moral crisis. We live in a dystopian, panoptic geek revenge fantasy infested by absurd beliefs in meritocracy, full of entrenched inequalities, focused on white upper-class problems, inherently hostile to minorities, rife with blatant sexism and generally incapable of reaching anyone beyond early adopter audiences of people just like us. (from

I think communities who fight against this kind of oppression, like #DHPoco, for example, are where DH is going. But while I completely support them and think they’re doing good, important work, I feel a great lack of confidence that I can participate in any meaningful way in those conversations, both because of the professional baggage I bring with me and because they’re doing a different kind of DH. I don’t really see a category for the kinds of things I write about on DHThis or DHNow, for example.

This is great stuff, but it’s also not going to be a venue for me wittering on about Digital Classics or text encoding. It could be my impostor syndrome kicking in, but I really doubt they’re interested.

It does seem like a side-effect of the shift toward a more theoretical DH is an environment less welcoming to participation by “staff”. It’s paradoxical that the opening up of DH also comes with a reversion to the old academic hierarchies. I’m constantly amazed at how resilient human insitutions are.

If Digital Humanities isn’t really what I do, and if Programmer comes with a load of toxic slime attached to it, perhaps “Senior” is all I have left. Of course, in programmer terms, “senior” doesn’t really mean “has many years of experience”, it’s code for “actually knows how to program”. You see ads for senior programmers with 2-3 years of experience all the time. By that standard, I’m not Senior, I’m Ancient. Job titles are something that come attached to staff, and they are terrible, constricting things.

I don’t think that what I and many of my colleagues do has become useless, even if we no longer fit the DH label. It still seems important to do that work. Maybe we’re back to doing Humanities Computing. I do think we’re mostly better off because Digital Humanities happened, but maybe we have to say goodbye to it as it heads off to new horizons and get back to doing the hard work that needs to be done in a Humanities that’s at least more open to digital approaches than it used to be. What I’m left wondering is where the place of the developer (and, for that matter other DH collaborators) is in DH if DH is now the establishment and looks structurally pretty much like the old establishment did.

Is digital humanities development a commodity? Are DH developers interchangeable? Should we be? Programming in industry is typically regarded as a commodity. Programmers are in a weird position, both providers of indispensable value, and held at arm’s length. The problem businesses have is how to harness a resource that is essentially creative and therefore very subject to human inconsistency. It’s hard to find good programmers, and hard to filter for programming talent. Programmers get burned out, bored, pissed off, distracted. Best to keep a big pool of them and rotate them out when they become unreliable or too expensive or replace them when they leave. Comparisons to graduate students and adjunct faculty may not escape the reader, though at least programmers are usually better-compensated. Academia has a slightly different programmer problem: it’s really hard to find good DH programmers and staffing up just for a project may be completely impossible. The only solution I see is to treat it as analogous to hiring faculty: you have to identify good people and recruit them and train people you’d want to hire. You also have to give them a fair amount of autonomy—to deal with them as people rather than commodities. What you can’t count on doing is retaining them as contingent labor on soft money. But here we’re back around to the faculty/staff problem: the institutions mostly only deal with tenure-track faculty in this way. Libraries seem to be the only academic institutions capable of addressing the problem at all. But they’re also the insitutions most likely to come under financial pressure and they have other things to worry about. It’s not fair to expect them to come riding over the hill.

The ideal would situation would be if there existed positions to which experts could be recruited who had sufficient autonomy to deal with faculty on their own level (this essentially means being able to say ‘no’), who might or might not have advanced degrees, who might teach and/or publish, but wouldn’t have either as their primary focus. They might be librarians, or research faculty, or something else we haven’t named yet. All of this would cost money though. What’s the alternative? Outsourcing? Be prepared to spend all your grant money paying industry rates. Grad Students? Many are very talented and have the right skills, but will they be willing to risk sacrificing the chance of a faculty career by dedicating themselves to your project? Will your project be maintainable when they move on? Mia Ridge, in her twitter feed, reminds me that in England there exist people called “Research Software Engineers”.

There are worse labels, but it sounds like they have exactly the same set of problems I’m talking about here.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Missing DH

I'm watching the tweets from #dh2013 starting to roll in and feeling kind of sad (and, let's be honest, left out) not to be there. Conference attendance has been hard the last few years because I didn't have any travel funding in my old job. So I've tended only to go to conferences close to home or where I could get grant funding to pay for them.

It's also quite hard sometimes to decide what conferences to go to. On a self-funded basis, I can manage about one a year. So deciding which one can be hard. I'm a technologist working in a library, on digital humanities projects, with a focus on markup technologies and on ancient studies. So my list is something like:
  • DH
  • JCDL
  • One of many language-focused conferences
  • The TEI annual meeting
  • Balisage
I could also make a case for conferences in my home discipline, Classics, but I haven't been to the APA annual meeting in over a decade. Now that the Digital Classics Association exists, that might change.

I tend to cycle through the list above. Last year I went to the TEI meeting, the year before, I went to Clojure/conj and DH (because a grant paid). The year before that, I went to Balisage, which is an absolutely fabulous conference if you're a markup geek like me (seriously, go if you get the chance).

DH is a nice compromise though, because you get a bit of everything. It's also attended by a whole bunch of my friends, and people I'd very much like to become friends with. I didn't bother submitting a proposal for this year, because my job situation was very much up in the air at the time, and indeed, I started working at DC3 just a couple of weeks ago. DH 2013 would have been unfeasible for all kinds of reasons, but I'm still bummed out not to be there. Have a great time y'all. I'll be following from a distance.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

First Contact

It seems like I've had many versions of this conversation in the last few months, as new projects begin to ramp up:
Client: I want to do something cool to publish my work.

Developer: OK. Tell me what you'd like to do.

Client: Um. I need you to to tell me what's possible, so I can tell you what I want.

Developer: We can do pretty much anything. I need you to tell me what you want so I can figure out how to make it.
Almost every introductory meeting with a client/customer starts out this way. There's a kind of negotiation period where we figure out how to speak each other's language, often by drawing crude pictures. We look at things and decide how to describe them in a way we both understand. We wave our hands in the air and sometimes get annoyed that the other person is being so dense.

It's crucially important not to short-circuit this process though. You and your client likely have vastly different understandings of what can be done, how hard it is to do what needs to be done, and even whether it's worth doing. The initial negotiation sets the tone for the rest of the relationship. If you hurry through it, and let things progress while there are still major misunderstandings in the air, Bad Things will certainly happen. Like:
Client: This isn't what I wanted at all!

Developer: But I built exactly what you asked for!