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

Hypermedia Berlin

Hypermedia Berlin is an interactive, web-based research platform and collaborative authoring environment for analyzing the cultural, architectural, and urban history of a city space. Founded and directed by Todd Presner, associate professor of Germanic Languages and Jewish Studies at UCLA, Hypermedia Berlin uses GIS technologies and a geo-temporal database to bring the study of cultural and urban history together with spatial analyses and modeling tools. Managing, displaying, and rendering data useful to researchers and teachers in fields as varied as history, urban studies, geography, architecture, and literary studies are central to the mission of the project.

The project is organized according to time-layers in which the uneven spatial and temporal coordinates of Berlin’s cultural and architectural histories can be apprehended. Traditional models of cultural history proceed chronologically and take the linearity of time as their structuring principle. By contrast, Hypermedia Berlin articulates Berlin’s time-layers through multiple detailed, annotated maps connected together by interlinking “hotspots” at hundreds of key regions, structures, and streets. The ability to “drill through” these maps functions to spatialize historical practice, thereby transforming cultural history into a kind of “cultural geography.”

Berlin is a highly stratified, complex space in which linear histories stop making sense. Over its nearly eight centuries, Berlin emerged from a backwater mercantile town built on sand to become the capital of a unified Germany under Bismarck and the site of Hitler’s dream for a world-dominant Germania. It was devastated by the Thirty Years War, occupied by Napoleon in 1805, rebuilt numerous times throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, destroyed in World War II, divided by the Berlin Wall for 28 years, and put back together again in 1990. Poised on the border between Western and Eastern Europe, this cosmopolitan city has variously welcomed and persecuted its minorities: Huguenots, Jews, Poles, Russians, Turks, and others. It doubled in size in less than a quarter of a century between 1890 and the outbreak of WWI, reaching a size of 4,000,000 people; another quarter of a century later, it lost almost half of its population and nearly all of its Jewish population in WWII and the Holocaust. The city’s complexities make it an excellent candidate for developing functionality and modeling for other cultural mapping projects. Hypermedia Berlin’s back-end systems architecture, the database, and the front-end user interface are all open, modular, and easily scalable to support new functionality and research.

The data “centerpiece’ of Hypermedia Berlin is a series of 50 fully annotated, geo-referenced maps of Berlin from 1237 (when the city was founded) up through the present. The project requires that historical maps be rendered in a format that supports interactivity, flexibility, and search functionality. It uses ESRI’s ArcGIS for geo-referencing the historical maps, and Google’s open-source map API for zooming and hotspot addition. MySQL and PHP are used for the geo-temporal database, and XML for the dynamically populated “intelli-list” and user interface. Viewers can move in and out of the maps, choose locations from a sidebar menu that is keyed to relevant “people” and “place” links, and “travel” both by time and place, diachronically and synchronically throughout Berlin’s history. The content can be searched, viewed, and organized according to the research and pedagogic needs of the user.

Hypermedia Berlin’s hallmark is its interactive, collaborative authorship of data content. The project’s cultural and historical data includes articles and encyclopedic entries. These “annotations” are typically authored by scholars. Capacities are being developed for an editorial board to collaboratively vet scholarly content, and for teachers and researchers to analyze or excerpt portions of Hypermedia Berlin by using a “citation” function that in turn becomes part of the resources for the project. Widespread data creation will result from community authorship annotation functions, which allow any user to upload “micro-annotations” in any media for a highly localized set of temporal-spatial coordinates in Berlin. For example, a user may annotate his grandparent’s apartment or place of business on a particular street, at a particular time. When Version 2.0 is launched, Presner anticipates storing and mining hundreds of thousands of these micro-annotations, amounting to several terabytes. The platform is being built out to support any kind of data and media. There will be large scale population/demographic datasets as well as text, video, audio, multimedia articles, etc.

The project is designed to be able to pull datasets and media items from other digital repositories as well as share data and media with other projects or repositories. Rather than imposing a single database schema or creating a centralized repository, the team is constructing middleware that would allow them to undertake queries or federated searches across repositories that store and share digital assets, potentially on the UCHRI UC-wide HASS grid. The philosophy is that once datasets and media items can be mined across repositories, new kinds of data slicings and visualizations will be created that scale the project in ways that cannot be conceived or delimited ahead of time. This can lead to new research and new knowledge unachievable without the technology.

Hypermedia Berlin’s considerable collaborative apparatus includes 11 members of the project team and an international advisory board. Those involved represent many disciplines, institutions, and skill sets. The project has attracted a diversity of supporters, some of whom are collaborators as well, including the American Council of Learned Societies, several UCLA constituencies, the Stanford Humanities Laboratory, CUNY-Baruch, and Berlin’s Hochschule der Künste.

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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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