Digital tools for humanistic research

konferens_humlab291_131206_EBEHUMlab employees Fredrik Palm and Roger Mähler develop technical solutions that support humanistic research. “Humanistic research projects create data that generally require a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods to be able to be analysed. This means that there are rarely off-the-shelf technical solutions available,” says Fredrik Palm.

When researchers at the Faculty of Arts at Umeå University apply for funding for new research projects, the project plan often includes some kind of technical infrastructure. Perhaps a researcher wants to construct a database, find an efficient way to display his or her material, or is looking for a tool that analyses data in a specific manner. If they cannot develop the technical part of their project themselves, they can approach HUMlab.

RogerwebbRoger Mähler (left) is a senior software developer in HUMlab and has a master’s degree in Computer Science

“Together with the researchers, we develop a technical solution that is unique to their project,” Fredrik Palm says. “Our primary task is to listen to the researchers’ wishes and try to translate them into technical solutions. It is the dialogue and the collaboration between the researchers and us that is the crucial point; we would not be able to carry out the projects without the researchers and they would not be able to carry out the projects without us. That is why we never take on purely commissioned work; the results would not be good. Everything we do takes place in constant dialogue between us and the researchers.”

_MG_0977_WFredrik Palm (left) is the research and development coordinator at HUMlab. He has a degree in informatics and a teaching degree in history, geography, religion and social sciences.

Translates research plans into digital tools
“When researchers come to us, they often have an idea of the role that they want technology to play in their project, but do not know what kind of technical solutions are available or how to develop them,” Roger Mähler explains. “Our task is then to act as intermediary and try to find the technology that best suits their particular project. One great advantage is that we both have backgrounds in both the humanities and technology. I am a software developer and I have worked with, among other things, digitalisation of parish records and telecom billing systems and Fredrik has a double degree in systems development and teaching, more precisely religious instruction, history, geography and social sciences.”

Projects often involve a range of other competencies as well, and one of Roger’s tasks is to structure implementation processes and establish quality assurance mechanisms. One example of such work is a display system for multiplex visualisation currently being developed in HUMlab as an internal project. There is always a humanistic basis to the development work anchored in a broad knowledge basis and the available infrastructure.

“We have an important task when it comes to developing methodologies in humanistic research at the university. We help our researchers to be more aware when they select data and to understand what digital methods do to it. We discuss how and why we can visualise data. Most often, visualisation increases the understanding of the projects and forces researchers to pay more attention to details. There cannot be any gaps in the documentation that will later be visualised — the white spaces in the image are much more telling than the words ‘data unavailable’,” says Fredrik Palm.

Uncertain humanistic data
Data from humanistic research often contains uncertainties that mean that the information must be subjected to some special form of processing. When it comes to historical data, the analysis needs to consider uncertainty factors concerning how the data was collected, if the geographical tools that were used agree with the ones that are used today or what knowledge was available at the time the data was collected, just to mention a few examples.

“Together with the researchers at the Faculty of Arts we have built up a knowledge bank of the research that is conducted here. It represents a unique competence,” says Fredrik Palm.

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