Advising DigHumLab

Originally posted at blogs.it.ox.ac.uk on September 30, 2014 by Martin Wynne. IT Services at the University of Oxford has decided to delete a large number of historical blogs, and this is one of a number of posts related to the Oxford Text Archive which are being re-published here, after being laboriously retrieved from the archive provided by the Wayback Machine.

University of Oxford researchers from IT Services and the Oxford Internet Institute are playing a key role in advising an important national project in Denmark, and learning a lot about different ways of building and sustaining research infrastructure along the way.

DigHumLab is a national initiative in Denmark to set up a collaboration to advance digital research in the arts and humanities. Staring in 2010 with the drawing up of a roadmap of research infrastructures for Denmark, DigHumLab was awarded €4 million Euro for five years in 2011. DigHumLab encompasses the Danish contribution to the CLARIN and DARIAH European research infrastructures. I was asked to join the small international Advisory Board for the project, and to attend a mid-term meeting in Copenhagen in September 2014, to offer advice to the project.

The vision for DigHumLab is to take actions to strengthen research in the humanities and humanistic social sciences, to improve access to data, develop methods and tools, promote collaboration and support emerging areas of digital research. The project goals are to:

  • create virtual portal, access point, and potential partner for international collaborations
  • create a knowledge hub
  • become a provider of software and technical solutions
  • act as a national political advisor on matters relating to digital research in the humanities.

As well as activities to establish these outputs and services, the project includes a significant amount of effort spent on three research themes:

  1. language resources and technologies
  2. media tools
  3. interaction and design

The project has kicked off with participation from four Danish universities, but the intention is not to create a club closed to other universities or research bodies. The project also aims to build links and to coordinate activities with national services for high performance computing, research data management, e-Science, as well as with the National Library and the European research infrastructures. It wasn’t possible in this meeting to find out what measures are being taken to achieve these goals, but it was encouraging that the meeting was hosted by the National Library, in their impressive modernist ‘Black Diamond’ building, with participation by senior staff from the library.

The Black Diamond building housing the Danish Royal Library

After spending an initial period establishing the working groups and themes, the project is now moving into a period with a focus on building generic services such as online research environments, awareness raising, a survey of requirements, outreach activities to various researech communities, establishing teaching programmes and increased student involvement.

The first theme, language resources and tools, was presented by Lene Offersgard from the University of Copenhagen, who outlined the key activities, including the establishment of a data repository, now certified with the Data Seal of Approval and CLARIN ‘B’ Centre status, with an accompanying helpdesk, tools for the analysis and annotation of data, and a user engagement programme. There are also PhD teaching modules for students at the University of Copenhagen.

The second theme, audio-visual data and tools in various media, was presented by Niels Brügger and Per Jauert from Aarhus University. Work on this theme acknowledges that “the digital comes in a variety of forms.”, and which they sub-divide into:

  • Digitized
  • Born-digital
  • Reborn-digital

The enhanced web archive is an example of the latter, where digital materials have been collected, reassembled and made available with metadata as research data. The focus of this work is on web archives, but it occurred to me that it is a characterization which fits the modern linguistic corpus as well. The team have developed the Digital Footprints software, which is still in beta, but is in use for studying online material. As well as developing ways to examine and to improve access to Netarkivet, the national web archive, researchers are working together in international collaborations, including with the British Library, and the Oxford Internet Institute, and establishing a transnational European research infrastructure for the study of archived we materials. The NetLab Forum provides wiki space for research projects using the tools so that they can communicate and share experiences, expertise and results. It was pointed out DigHumLab has been crucial in providing the funding for an IT developer, without whom this work would not have been possible, and on whom ongoing work is reliant. Another risk to the viability of ongoing work was flagged – independent legal advice is needed on the risks associated with access, use and redistribution of online materials.

The theme also encompasses work on audio-visual data and tools. Following on from research projects such as LARM, a research infrastructure has already been established for the use of audio materials, and the challenge is to integrate with other DigHumLab services. This work has been built on the national library media collections of radio and televsion programmes. Advance services already offer streaming access, and ongoing research projects are using these services for research.

Johannes Wagner of University of Southern Denmark introduced the third theme, the “little brother” of the DigHumLab siblings, focussing on “experiential research”, or analysis of human interactions and activities via digital capture and analysis. An example is the VELUX project on non-verbal communication. The experience of the researchers in this area is that “if you build it they will come” doesn’t work in this context. Face-to-face and hands-on bespoke support are needed to engage with researchers and to meet their requirements.

In the discussion with the Advisory Board, Eric Meyer (Oxford Internet Institute) asked the penetrating question of how are the success stories of flagship projects disseminated to other researchers who could potentially engage with DigHumLab. Demonstrators are much more compelling and convincing when they have been used for real research that has been finished and can be shared. Too many e-science case studies have been based on toy data or invented problems, making it was difficult for the people who might want to use these tools to envisage real uses, or to deploy the solutions. A variety of instruments are currently used to involve researchers, including travelling workshops, PhD courses, journal articles, lectures, and short courses. The question of how, or whether, to attempt to address all disciplines and all communities in the humanities remains an open one. It was agreed that robust showcases modelled from the user point of view were vital to promote uptake.

The afternoon session focussed on the thorny question of possible business models for the sustainability of DigHumLab beyond it’s current phase of funding. From 2017 DigHumLab aims to focus on the refinement and improvement of services, including prioritization of research areas, marketing of services and the recruitment of users, and the development of a viable financial model for sustainability.

One model would be for DigHumLab to be based on a core of generic services, with research themes changing over time. Eric Meyer offered a cautionary tale, the generic services and service centres developed as part of the e-Social Science programme in the UK no longer exist. I added the further example of the Arts and Humanities Data Service.

There was also some discussion of how to enter into collaborations with computer scientists. It was agreed that it was important not to try to treat computer scientists as “code monkeys”. Computer scientists need to address research questions and to publish in high-impact journals relevant to their discipline. We need to approach collaboration as an inter-disciplinary research project as with equal academic standing for all partners. Sometimes we just want to build a website or an interface or install some software, and then we need to find a developer, but this is different to an inter-disciplinary collaboration.

Sten Runar Ludvigsen from the University of Oslo made the interesting point that although distributed services can have a certain robustness, a centralized lab means that you only need to change the culture in one place, not in every lab, to run services for the community in a collaborative spirit, and might therefore be more realistic. He also made the crucial point that, as a small country, the Danish humanities community could benefit from focussing on a small number of areas Clearly they have already done this with the three themes in the current phase of DigHumLab. It would be useful to have further reflection on whether these are the right areas, and then to communicate clearly to stakeholders how the scope of the project will be constrained in future.

To summarize the day, I proposed the following three points for the project, after discussion and in agreement with, the other members of the Advisory Board.

1. DigHumLab would should articulate a vision and a mission relating to the use of digital data, tools and methods situated firmly within the wider project of the mission(s) of humanistic research. A strategic vision about what and who should be included, what the priorities are and why, and what is not included. A decision needs to be made on whether it would make sense to focus on a small number of strategic areas, or to try to engage with all areas of the humanities, and the former seems likely to be more successful. These statements about vision, mission and scope can be informed by asking where do you want to be in 10 years time. The project is nicely focussed already on specific themes – do you plan to continue to restrict the scope to these or expand to other areas of research?

2. A flexible and robust business model needs to be able to survive the withdrawal of a funder, institution, partner, academic domain, key individuals, etc.. Staking everything on the support of a ministry or a national funding body is a risky, all or nothing strategy. Flexibility means a range of funders can be accommodated (e.g. national, local funders, programmes for libraries, research data management, research grants, e-science, network/conference funds, etc.). The key to this is that various institutions and people want to buy into and sustain the mission, and are prepared to align local strategies of sustainable institutions with the common aims. This way, there is the opportunity to repurpose existing resources and funding streams to fulfill the aims of DigHumLab, rather than the more difficult task of seeking additional funding on a long-term basis.

3. It would be useful to clarify and define how DigHumLab supports digital research at the various stages of the research life-cycle (initiating, carrying out, connecting, disseminating and sustaining research). Do you want to be involved in some or all of these? How are you adding value to these activities?

You can see and read more about DigHumLab at http://dighumlab.com/.


Author: Martin Wynne

Martin Wynne is a digital research specialist, corpus linguist and repository manager in the Faculty of Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics at the University of Oxford.

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