Research beyond borders

Digging into Data Conference 27th Jan 16

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Jordan Lips, Programmes Co-ordinator at AHRC, talks about the Digging into Data Conference, and how the day helped all those involved.

The Glasgow Lighthouse shone defiantly through the drizzle on the morning of January 27th; a beacon for ‘Big Data’.

Project award holders, international funders and other stakeholders from the third round of the Digging into Data Challenge all came together to present the outcomes of the funded projects. Together they looked at the impacts of the funded research and discussed wider issues in the cutting edge of data-led interdisciplinary studies in the social sciences and humanities.

Umbrellas were drained and soggy coats parted with as the attendees sought out seats and coffee, in advance of the opening session. The day was introduced by the Chair and moderator, Professor Andrew Prescott, the AHRC’s Leadership Fellow for Digital Transformations and Translating Cultures.

Following the Chair’s welcome, Brett Bobley (NEH) officially rolled out the next round of Digging into Data – the fourth, which will also be run through the Trans-Atlantic Platform and strongly encouraged all current DiD projects to apply. Call documents will be issued and the call opened on 1st March 2016, with applications due on 29th June. The outcomes will be announced by April 2017.

Neil Che Hong (Software Sustainability Institute) gave the day’s opening keynote presentation, illustrating key problems with data integration and reproduction. “Without data it’s difficult to validate results. But without code, we waste the opportunity to advance science”. The talk led to much debate in the room as well as via twitter, especially on the issue of data citation.

The rest of the day went to DiD project presentations. The presentations opened with ‘Digging into Linked Parliamentary Data’ (DiLiPaD), which focussed on the UK, Canada and the Netherlands parliamentary data and informs a new approach to the history of parliamentary communication and discourse.

This was followed by the ‘Legal Structures’ project, a collaboration between Washington University School of Law and the University of Amsterdam, which has taken an innovative approach to the issue of measuring similarities and differences between legal systems throughout the world. It focuses on machine coding of internal references in codes and laws, and visualisations of the “connectedness” of the codes and laws.

Following lunch we heard from a selection of other DiD-3 projects, including DADAISM, which gathered teams from the Netherlands, the UK and Canada, which has greatly assisted archaeologists to locate and analyse a huge quantity of resources for use in answering research questions in their field; this was done through image processing and text mining.

Project Arclight has created a tool to allow the study of 20th Century US media through comparisons across time and space. Currently, researchers can use the Arclight App as a teaching resource, incorporating Twitter analytics to study discussion patterns in the media.

Also presenting was Commonplace Cultures, a collaboration between the University of Oxford and the University of Chicago that has looked into the understanding of 18th Century texts using modern techniques, while developing an online database for use as a freely available resource.

The afternoon was drawn to a close by a panel on international e-infrastructure, chaired by Peter Doorn (KNAW). The panel made a great case as to why e-infrastructure in the humanities still make sense and there was extensive discussion around the issue of the commercialization of public data, especially by online genealogical companies. The question was raised as to why scholars are not up in arms that public archives have sold their data to private hands in order to survive.

Following final observations, the night gave way to a reception and showcase at the Glasgow School of Art, which contained an amazing range of projects, including the AHRC funded Dynamic Dialects by Jane Stuart Smith (University of Glasgow), which featured live ultrasound imaging of participants’ tongues.

Researchers at Glasgow’s School of Critical Studies have been charting the use of metaphor over the entire history of the English language in an innovative three year venture. Mapping Metaphors had their interactive thesaurus available to try, complete with fascinating graphical outputs.

The projects Principle Investigator, Dr Wendy Anderson stated, in an interview with the Guardian, “This helps us to see how our language shapes our understanding – the connections we make between different areas of meaning in English show, to some extent, how we mentally structure our world”.

When Newcastle University purchased the complete archive of Bloodaxe Books, one of the most wide ranging and important poetry archives in the world, the main challenge has been how to make the most of such an extensive selection. The Poetics of the archive was present on the night to showcase their website that offers innovative ways of exploring the collection, and allowing users present more creative, open ended and interactive ways of interacting with the catalogue.

Day two was kick-started by Professor Tom Crick (Cardiff Metropolitan University) who chaired a panel discussion on increasing research potential through interdisciplinary working. The panel covered much ground, including discussing the importance of developing strategies to maintain reciprocity in cross-disciplinary collaborations. As the chair later tweeted, “In the end, we are all just two drinks away from being interdisciplinary.”

Projects included Global Currents: Cultures of Literary Networks 1050-1900, which has undertaken a cross-cultural study of literary networks, with an emphasis on a global context. They have incorporated innovative techniques in image processing and contributing to a growing field of analysis via social network.

Also providing an update was the team behind the COULD Project (Cleaning, Organising and Uniting Linguistic Databases), that has been looking to develop a universal format for linguists to combine and share information, together and with the wider public. An exciting additional outcome of the venture is to make the linguistic data also available to second language learners, who would be able to create their own bespoke lessons. The team showed how they have used their expertise to assist the remote Canadian Mi’gmaq community and providing resources to help revive their endangered language.

Although Chinese language written records have already been transformed into searchable text, there are troublesome limitations as text databases only allow for searching by keyword and phrase.  Automating Data Extraction from Chinese Texts (Harvard University and Kings College London) is an ambitious project, which has found ways to incorporate methods of mining data from texts in accordance with the researchers needs. Markus has been developed as an open platform for the tagging and extraction of data from Chinese language documents.

Until now, the complete corpora relating to sign language used by deaf communities has been largely unavailable. Recently, standards in annotation have begun to emerge as a result of research from such collaborations as ‘Digging into Signs’ (University of London and Radboud University), that has developed practices for cross-linguistic analysis.

More Digging into Data project presentations followed, punctuated by lively discussion. There had been quite a bit of press coverage on Jack Grieve’s Trees and Tweets project, analysing (often colourful) linguistic patterns in Tweets. Jack took the audience into tracking lexical and migration patterns throughout the US, finding patterns of word use never seen before. This was all beautifully visualised and clearly showed potential for lasting impact in and outside the digital cultures field.

Lucy Kimbell (University of Brighton) provided a closing keynote that drew on her work as a research fellow embedded in the Cabinet Office Policy Lab and included seven strategies for dealing with data from contemporary art. Lucy took us through a variety of her projects that have incorporated methodologies that might easily suite artists, designers and social scientists alike, including ‘Physical Bar Charts’. This segued into a Q&A that fed into closing observations and thoughts on the upcoming DiD competition.


Physical Bar Charts (2005) - By Lucy Kimbell

Physical Bar Charts (2005) Produced by Lucy Kimbell


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