May 2007
Socializing Cyberinfrastructure: Networking the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
Vernon Burton, Illinois Center for Computing in Humanities, Arts, and Social Science; NCSA; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Simon J. Appleford, Illinois Center for Computing in Humanities, Arts, and Social Science; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
James Onderdonk, Illinois Center for Computing in Humanities, Arts, and Social Science; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Of course, it is one thing to conceptualize such a vision and quite another to see it come to fruition; there are significant challenges associated with establishing a cyberinfrastructure for the humanities, arts, and social science. These can, however, generally be grouped into one of three categories:

  1. Institutional
  2. Expertise
  3. Funding

As already noted, the creation of a viable cyberinfrastructure for the humanities and social sciences requires the investment of significant resources at the university-level if it is to succeed. I-CHASS is extremely fortunate in that its activities are supported by both the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). The University of Illinois already has a multitude of strengths in the humanities and social sciences as well as a significant library, computer science department, and an important graduate school of library and information science. It is therefore logical that the University would seek to capitalize on these strengths, by including in its recently announced campus strategic plan, specific mention of an informatics initiative that incorporates “emerging applications areas in . . . the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts . . . [providing] opportunities for cross-disciplinary interaction both on our campus and around the world.”2 In other words, Illinois’ strategic vision for the twenty-first century already endorses the ideals articulated in Our Cultural Commonwealth and lays the groundwork for much of I-CHASS’s efforts to encourage the adoption of digital scholarship across the campus.

Communicating our vision to the departments and engaging them in it remains, however, a challenge, not least because each department must be approached as a separate entity and each has its own priorities and interests in pursuing digital scholarship. Furthermore, as in other institutions, many researchers in the humanities, arts and social sciences remain uncertain as to exactly how computational techniques can enhance their scholarship and are therefore, understandably, reluctant to commit a significant amount of their time and energy to what appears to be an endeavor replete in risks and uncertain rewards. Without addressing these concerns, the efforts of digital humanities centers to establish a cyberinfrastructure are doomed to failure. Any effort to seed such centers consequently must focus considerable energy on building relationships, on fostering collaborations in specific disciplines, on disseminating as widely as possible the products of these collaborations, and on organizing informational meetings and themed workshops that focus on the application of specific technologies to research interests in humanities, arts, and social science scholarship. All these activities are designed to alleviate many of these fears and to demonstrate the profound power inherent in advanced computational methodologies for these disciplines. It is our experience that such outreach efforts are enthusiastically received and result in exciting new collaborations.

Complementing the University of Illinois’ strengths is the presence and commitment of NCSA in bringing digital innovation to the humanities and social sciences. NCSA offers the arts, humanities, and social sciences access to considerable computing power, storage space for large datasets, advanced visualization capabilities, and tools for data analysis, communication, and collaboration. The potential benefits of this arrangement are demonstrated by the experience of computational linguist Richard Sproat, who is working at the University of Illinois on a project that explores automated methods for second language fluency and which requires the storage and indexing of a large amount of video data. Because his department lacked the capacity to store and index this amount of video data, Sproat was originally planning on using a codex that would compress his video to a manageable size but would consequently prevent the long-term usage of high quality originals. I-CHASS was able to provide access to the necessary storage at NCSA, allowing him to preserve the data in high definition and concentrate on developing ways of improving accessibility. These techniques can be extended to facilitate the preservation of disappearing languages, allowing researchers to record not only actual sounds, but also the facial mannerisms and hand gestures of native speakers, creating unprecedented forms of access to and analysis of these languages and leading to new ways of teaching them to students and a new generation of speakers.

Pages: 1 2 3 4

Reference this article
Burton, V., Appleford, S. J., Onderdonk, J. "A Question of Centers: One Approach to Establishing a Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences," CTWatch Quarterly, Volume 3, Number 2, May 2007. http://www.ctwatch.org/quarterly/articles/2007/05/a-question-of-centers/

Any opinions expressed on this site belong to their respective authors and are not necessarily shared by the sponsoring institutions or the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Any trademarks or trade names, registered or otherwise, that appear on this site are the property of their respective owners and, unless noted, do not represent endorsement by the editors, publishers, sponsoring institutions, the National Science Foundation, or any other member of the CTWatch team.

No guarantee is granted by CTWatch that information appearing in articles published by the Quarterly or appearing in the Blog is complete or accurate. Information on this site is not intended for commercial purposes.