May 2007
Socializing Cyberinfrastructure: Networking the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
Suzy Beemer, University of California Humanities Research Institute
Richard Marciano, San Diego Supercomputer Center, UC San Diego
Todd Presner, UCLA


What is HASS data? It is not “data” in the dictionary sense (“measurements or statistics,” Merriam-Webster parenthetically suggests), but the objects of study in these disciplines. HASS data is extremely varied and can pose many challenges to effective technological representation. Medievalists may look at illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, paintings, and ecclesiastical/court records. Visual Studies researchers examine film, paintings, photos, sculpture, and more. Those in the arts need these as well, plus recordings of music, dance, and theater productions. Philosophers need access to texts, in various languages, with comparative translations. Legal historians need case law, court and voting records. Social scientists’ needs may include not only studies that have produced quantifiable data but also audio and video records of subject interviews, etc. Languages ancient, early modern, and modern are fundamental to many of these disciplines, so that access to data can be restrictive without good mechanisms for translation. Old data may present difficulties because they are delicate or unwieldy to represent (ancient maps and texts, for example, did not originally appear in neat typeset book format). More modern examples may be under copyright, which entails another layer of complexity.

HASS data are often not reducible to numerical analysis and are thus characterized as “qualitative” rather than “quantitative.” This is perhaps what has produced a blind spot for computerized application. It is certainly true that robust computational storage and aggregation of HASS data can enable quantity to play an important role in interpretative, qualitative study. Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Foundation, now the Shoah Foundation Institute at the University of Southern California, “has collected more than 52,000 eyewitness testimonies [of Holocaust survivors] in 56 countries and 32 languages…” When subjected to computational infrastructure, this qualitative data becomes extremely valuable as “critical mass”:

“The tale of what happened to one or two families, in one or two villages, in one or two countries, is worth recording and disseminating. But we can gain far more knowledge from the record of some 52,000 testimonies. In history, art history, classics, or any scholarly enterprise that benefits from a comprehensive comparative approach, quantity can become quality.”3

But HASS scholars want to learn lots of different things from their data, and they do not always seek the numeric answers that are (stereo)typical of computational analysis. They may want to ask why or how something happens, or how it accrues its meaning. This poses a conundrum for HASS researchers and computer programmers alike. How can disparate types of data best be integrated and displayed? How can interfaces be developed that will be truly useful to research, representing genuine advances over other methodologies? What tools will be most beneficial to analysis, and how can they be developed?

Still another problem is that while there may be data, in many cases there is no data set. Simply collecting the data often requires enormous effort. Early initiatives in this regard have proven extremely beneficial for access. A well-known example is JSTOR, which collects entire archives of scholarly journals and represents them online in searchable form but exactly as they originally appeared in print, including advertisements, etc. Some of these journals have been in existence for over 100 years, so finding a complete archive in good condition that the owner is willing to have dismantled can be prohibitive. Integrating the data into searchable form through a user interface cannot happen until the data is prepared, which itself requires a large number of staff, including those who collect the archives, those who photograph them page by page, and those who index the contents of each issue. A recent comparable endeavor by a single scholar is that of Patricia Seed, a historian at the University of California, Irvine whose article appears in this issue of CTWatch Quarterly. She has traveled to the archives of libraries all over the world, single-handedly collecting all of the extant early maps of coastal Africa, which she is preparing to make accessible online and available for analysis. The maps have never before appeared collectively in books or other publications and represent a significant, previously inaccessible resource to historians.

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Reference this article
Beemer, S., Marciano, R., Presner, T. "Seeing Urban Spaces Anew at the University of California," CTWatch Quarterly, Volume 3, Number 2, May 2007. http://www.ctwatch.org/quarterly/articles/2007/05/seeing-urban-spaces-anew/

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