Play as Process and Product: On Making Serendip-o-matic
Amy Papaelias, State University of New York at New Paltz
Brian Croxall, Emory University
Mia Ridge, The Open University
Scott Kleinman, California State University, Northridge
Who says scholarship can’t be playful? Serendip-o-matic is a “serendipity engine” that was created in less than a week by twelve digital humanities scholars, developers, and librarians. Designed to replicate the surprising experience of discovering an unexpected source while browsing library stacks or working in an archive, the visual and algorithmic design of Serendip-o-matic emphasizes playfulness. And since the tool was built by a group of people who were embarking on a difficult task but weren’t yet sure of one another’s names, the process of building Serendip-o-matic was also rather playful, encouraging participants to take risks, make mistakes, and learn something new. In this presentation, we report on how play shaped the creation, design, and marketing of Serendip-o-matic. We conclude by arguing for the benefits of more playful work in academic research and scholarship, as well as considering how such “play” can be evaluated in an academic context.
I’ve been awarded a CENDARIVisiting Research Fellowship at Trinity College Dublin for a project called ‘Bridging collections with a participatory Commons: a pilot with World War One archives’. Here’s Trinity’s page about my Fellowship, which runs until mid-December. I’ve decided to be brave and share my thoughts and actions throughout the process, so I thought I’d start as I mean to go on and post my proposal (1500 words, below). CENDARI is a ‘research infrastructure project aimed at integrating digital archives for the medieval and World War One eras’ which ‘aims to leverage innovative technologies to provide historians with the tools by which to contextualise, customise and share their research’ (source) so this research fellowship very neatly complements my PhD research.
Much of this comes from my PhD research and my previous work in museums, and I’m grateful to everyone who’s commented in person or on twitter so far, particularly as it helps me understand the best ways to explain the Participatory Commons and the research underlying it for different audiences.
In February 2013 I gave a keynote on ‘Crowd-sourcing as participation’ at iSay: Visitor-Generated Content in Heritage Institutions in Leicester and ran a workshop on ‘Data visualisation for humanities researchers’ with Dr. Elton Barker for the CHASE ‘Going Digital‘ doctoral training programme.
Digital Humanities (DH) has grown rapidly in importance in recent years, as interest turns away from technology as an instrumental tool simply for resource discovery and access and towards the need to identify and solve new research challenges for the humanities. As one of the largest concentrations of humanities scholars in the UK, surrounded in turn by the enviable breadth of expertise provided by the University’s technologists and librarians, the University could be a fertile ground for Digital Humanities research.
On 7 November 2013, the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures will be hosting an afternoon workshop for University academics and post-graduates; the event is aimed at exploring the skills and literacies researchers might need as potential digital humanists. This informal, hands on event will provide an opportunity for academics, post-grads to start to ‘think like a programmer’ and learn some computational thinking. Participants will be introduced to new methodologies and tools, including those for manipulating and analysing data using visualization tools. No technological expertise in these areas, only a laptop, curiosity and a willingness to experiment.
Goals of session
Provide opportunity for academics, post-grads to start to ‘think like a programmer’ and learn some computational thinking
Learn and put into practice some skills for accessing, manipulating and analysing data using visualisation tools
Introduce new methodologies and tools
Demystify tools, think critically about what’s happening ‘under the hood’, understand the impact of tool choice and data structures
Enable dialogue with technologists about project design and tool choice
Think about the skills, literacies Digital Humanists need
I was invited to present at Speaking in Code, an NEH-funded symposium and summit to ‘give voice to what is almost always tacitly expressed in our work: expert knowledge about the intellectual and interpretive dimensions of DH code-craft, and unspoken understandings about the relation of that work to ethics, scholarly method, and humanities theory’. I’ve been writing about this for a while, so this event was both personally and professional important.
From my opening slide:
‘There’s a fundamental tension between available tools and cultural heritage data: we’re trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Do you craft the tools to the data or the data to the tool?
So what do you do with square pegs and round holes? You can chop off the interesting edges to fit something into a round hole, you can reduce the size of the entire peg so it’ll slip through, or you can make a new bespoke hole that’ll fit your peg. But then how do we make the choices we’ve made obvious to people who encounter the data we’ve squeezed through various holes? It’s particularly important if people are using these collections in scholarly work to make the flattenings, exclusions that shape a dataset visible.
The choices you make will depend on your resources and skills, the audience for and the purpose of the final product… Will look at some examples of visualisations for exploring collections where I had to tidy the mess to make them work, and an example of designing software to cope with the messy reality it was trying to reflect.
I want to set the scene with my own experiences with cultural heritage data, but am curious to hear about your own experiences with messy data in your respective fields, and the solutions you’ve explored for dealing with it and conveying your decisions.’