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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Global Game Jam Umeå 2015

48  hours. That’s what people got. Much like the action flick from the 1980s with the same title as the first sentence it was intense, sweaty, sleep deprived and dense with frustrated curse words. I’m talking about Umeå’s participation in the Global Game Jam 2015, between the 23rd to the 25th of January.  This is how the creator of the GGJ explains it:

“The Global Game Jam (GGJ) is the world’s largest game jam event (game creation) taking place around the world at physical locations. Think of it as a hackathon focused on game development. It is the growth of an idea that in today’s heavily connected world, we could come together, be creative, share experiences and express ourselves in a multitude of ways using video games – it is very universal. The weekend stirs a global creative buzz in games, while at the same time exploring the process of development, be it programming, iterative design, narrative exploration or artistic expression. It is all condensed into a 48-hour development cycle. The GGJ encourages people with all kinds of backgrounds to participate and contribute to this global spread of game development and creativity.

The structure of a jam is usually that everyone gathers on Friday late afternoon, watches a short video keynote with advice from leading game developers, and then a secret theme is announced. All sites worldwide are then challenged to make games based on that same theme, with games to be completed by Sunday afternoon. In January 2014, we had 488 location in 72 countries create over 4000 games in one weekend…The GGJ stimulates collaboration and is not a competition.”

In 2015 Umeå was part of a movement including 77 countries and something around 524 locations, with around 40 local developers participating. This years theme was a question; “What do we do now?”

The result was everything from a co-op dinosaur “survive the Cretaceous apocalypse” game to “I lost my ticket on train and the conductor is getting angrier and angrier” game where the player got 2 minutes to find the ticket. There were even participants that brought with them an Oculus rift and created a game around the idea that the player was thrown into the role of an alien in a soon to crash UFO, trying to figure out the weird controls scattered all around you.

Overall the event was a huge success and we look forward to next years Global Game Jam!

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Critical Making leads to deeper knowledge

Engaging with work that is critical and technological at the same time is important in digital humanities. Matt Ratto worked as a researcher at Umeå University in the Department of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies and in HUMlab in 2007. He is d eveloping ‘Critical Making’ as a strategy for teaching and research.

Image left: Matt RRattoatto is Associate Professor and Director of the Critical Making lab in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto.

Matt Ratto was awarded his PhD in Science and Technology Studies at the University of California, San Diego, in 2003. His ideas about Critical Making developed during his time at Umeå University.
“I saw that very many humanistic researchers worked materially, but that part of their work was seldom reported or valued in the same way as the final result. The knowledge that was valued was that which could be described by means of language; texts, lectures, and so on. I am not saying that this is wrong, but I believe that knowledge created through material engagements can add a further valuable dimension to the research. Material work is already being used as a method in several branches of humanistic research, for example archaeology, but no system or framework exists for it. That is one of the things I would like to see in place and for this reason I have tried to investigate and describe what material and critical work can be done in humanistic research today,” says Matt Ratto. He continues to work with HUMlab in various capacities.

Practical workshops in Critical Making
To show how material creation can enhance the possibility for critical review, Matt Ratto arranges regular Critical Making workshops. Participants create from kits, which do not always have a given solution but which require the participants’ active involvement.
“In the exercises I often try to get at what I call digital materiality. In language, this becomes a contradiction, what is digital is not material, and we need to separate the two. But that is where the language tricks us; there is a clear linkage between digitality and materiality and I try to bring this out by allowing participants to build digital units out of physical material. I have, for example, held workshops — for the first time in HUMlab in 2013 — where participants have had to build a ‘fixel’, that is to say a physical pixel in paper form. Then they have had to think about what remains of the pixel’s original form and characteristics after it has been transferred from the digital to the physical world. Is it there perhaps that we can find the digital’s materiality?”

MattrattoHXImage: Matt Ratto answers a question from a Critical Making workshop participant, Photo: Elin Berge.

Understanding by doing
Language today acts as a universal way of handling and understanding all kinds of problems, both in academia and in other places. According to Matt Ratto, there are certain phenomena that we cannot just read about in order to fully understand them; we must also study the physical material.
“Working with the material ‘hands on’ and being allowed to create rather than read about it gives a deeper and different kind of understanding. I believe that free creative work can be of importance for the very problem definition in a study; when we experiment with doing, we can discover problems that we do not discover through text. This type of understanding was not previously valued as highly and was not regarded as ‘proper’ research. Nor can Critical Making be fully understood merely by reading about it. To make this clear, I have included kits in my academic articles that one needs to assemble and think about to be able to understand the research that the article describes in depth.”

One important purpose of Critical Making is to visualise the linkages between digital and physical worlds.
“My intention with working with Critical Making is to visualise how society and technology create each other and develop interdependently. In this respect the humanistic researcher has an important task: to get people to understand what the technical choices they make mean and the impact they have on society in general. How technology is used is of importance to societal development. People’s behaviour in social media, for example, also has an impact on society’s social structure outside the digital world. We can choose to buy a certain computer or a certain mobile phone and that too affects how the world develops. I don’t think we can fully grasp that merely by reading about it,” says Matt Ratto.

New sources of critical reflection
“I am convinced that by working more with making, people can become better at critical reflection. One example is how we think about Digital Rights Management (DRM). DRM is systems can restrict how we are allowed to use digital files. I can, for example, download and read a book on my tablet computer. On the other hand, I can generally not read the book on any other tablet than the one intended, I can’t send the book to a friend and I can’t copy it. There are blocks on the digital files that limit my use of them and these systems set even more restrictions than copyright normally does. Our cultural context is created by us approving these systems and for this reason it is important that they are visualised. I think very many people see problems with systems like DRM but nonetheless do not change their behaviour, and one of the reasons for this is that we only read about them. Giving less abstract and more practical and tactile knowledge about them makes it easier to act against the problem,” says Matt Ratto.

In Critical Making there are elements of activism that aim to increase awareness of the processes that digital technology and society give rise to.
“In my Critical Making workshops, we have worked with practical examples that show how absurd systems like DRM are. For example, one group created a physical book that destroyed itself if it was removed from a certain room. We would never allow that kind of restriction in the physical world. Critical Making can thus create new sources of critical reflection.”

What makes Critical Making different from other kinds of practical experiments, art or smart design?
“Critical Making is not only making for yourself. A good work of art can both mean meaningful creation to you and provide food for thought for the viewer, but in Critical Making everyone who comes in contact with the experiment is also given the opportunity to make and do. Critical Making is characterised by active participation where there is no set solution, but where one makes one’s own solution through critical reflection.”

What future do you see for Critical Making?
“In recent years I have been trying to legitimise and establish Critical Making in the research community and create a framework that defines what Critical Making is. Developing one’s ability to think critically, also by creating, is a necessary task for all researchers, regardless of field.”

 

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The Faculty of Arts made a brave decision

The natural sciences have made unparalleled advances, among other things through working systematically on experimentation and doing so in the controlled environment that we call the laboratory. The cultural scientists have declared in their programmes that this is nothing they are interested in. They cannot make laboratory experiments.  Humanists in particular study what is uniquely human and a diversity of distinctive artefacts. But modern information technology has perhaps changed science’s basic conditions and created possibilities to rejuvenate the humanities. Why not play with the idea of a culture laboratory?
Janlert, Lars-Erik and Jonsson, Kjell (2000),”Kulturlaboratoriet” (“The Culture Laboratory”) in Tvärsnitt, 22(1), 54-61

Top image: Torbjörn Johanssonkjellotobbe
Bottom image: Kjell Jonsson

When the article “The Culture Laboratory” was published in Tvärsnitt in 2000, the University Board had decided the same year to set up HUMlab as a formal unit.
“I was the first chair of HUMlab’s steering committee in 2000 and the decision to form HUMlab had been preceded by years of intense effort,” says Kjell Jonsson.

A language lab turned into HUMlab
In the mid-1990s, the Faculty of Arts at Umeå University wished to modernise its language lab. The machines in the lab, which was mainly used by linguistics researchers and students, were aged and the intention was to buy new, more modern computers. This work led to a faculty committee producing a concept for a multimedia lab, although the resultant external application did not render any funding. Torbjörn Johansson, a researcher in mathematics but at the time employed at the university’s IT unit, was appointed project leader for a renewed effort.
“I began my assignment by going round and talking to employees at the Faculty of Arts to find out what was needed in the way of IT. I soon realised that it would not be easy to secure external funding just to buy new computers; we would also need to build up some kinds of activities to use the equipment for. My discussions with, among others, Kjell Jonsson and Lars-Erik Janlert, a researcher in computer science who was also very interested in humanistic subjects, awakened thoughts of why only the natural sciences and technical subjects should have advanced IT. Would it not be possible to also combine the humanities and culture with interactivity and digital technology?”

When Torbjörn had drawn up a proposal for how the new IT lab, known by the working name of ‘HUMlab’, would function, the board of the faculty needed to decide whether they wanted to back the project or not. This was during a period when the faculty’s financial outlook was bleak and the new lab venture would represent a sizeable item in the faculty’s budget.”It was an incredibly exciting vote! When all the members had voted, the result was a tie and the decision was made by the chair of the board, Professor Lars-Erik Edlund, using his casting vote. He voted for the new lab and I naturally think it was a very wise decision – both for the faculty’s development and for the development of the university in general.”

Advanced digital technology for humanists
When the faculty had taken the decision to establish HUMlab, work then began to set it up. After suitable premises had been found in the basement of the university library, advanced technical equipment and software were purchased.
“We received funding from the Kempe Foundation, which was crucial for HUMlab to begin operating,” continues Torbjörn. “We also fought to purchase advanced technology, some of the best computers that money could buy. It sounds crazy today, but why the lab should need an internet connection was actually questioned. The doubters asked me: ‘Why should humanists have such advanced equipment? They’ll never use the capacity!’ I replied then, and have continued to claim, that humanists cannot know what technology they need if they are never allowed to test it. We did not know exactly what IT was needed in the humanities, but we thought that the only way to find out was to try things out.”

“It was difficult to get people to come to the lab in the beginning so we began a kind of missionary effort. Several of us went round telling people in the other departments at the faculty about HUMlab and tried to explain why our activities were interesting,” says Kjell Jonsson.

“In fact, I think attitudes changed already then,” Torbjörn adds. “People became more open to the idea of a humanistic technical lab.”

Visions that stand fast
Torbjörn Johansson became the first director of HUMlab, but handed over the reins to Patrik Svensson already in 2000. HUMlab’s reputation quickly spread around the world, partly due to many international contacts in the research community.
“I was very interested in Artificial Life, a branch of research that is based on biology and philosophy and where the idea is to study systems of artificial life with biological systems as the starting point. I came into contact with Christopher Langton and Glen Ropella at the Santa Fe Institute, who were prominent figures in the development of this particular branch of research, very early on.”

“Many of the visions we had for our activities were the same then as today,” Kjell says. “We wanted to explore how digital technology can be used to develop humanistic research, test how to use making in research and how to explore technology with a distinctly concrete perspective. What also became clear when we set up HUMlab was that creative processes do not begin by themselves just because we had bought advanced technology. Good personnel and support from the rest of the university are also needed.”

“If you want to initiate creative processes, it is important that people with different kinds of competence are allowed to work together,” continues Torbjörn. “One mistake that is often made when it comes to technology is that a person with no technical competence orders what they want from an engineer or technician. This does not produce good results; you have to give people the opportunity to meet and work together – researchers, developers, designers and artists, among others. I think another important reason for HUMlab’s success is that we always dared to believe in the project, even when other people did not. We dared to stick our necks out. I think that you need to have visions that you hardly believe in yourself to begin with. If you just continue working towards your goal, you will ultimately come to believe it is possible and then it is possible.”

Kjell Jonsson is Professor of History of Science and Ideas at Umeå University. Between 2010-2013 he was the Pro-Vice-Chancellor at Umeå University, 2006-2010 he was the Library Director of the Umeå University Library.

Torbjörn Johansson is a researcher in Mathematics and was the first director of HUMlab. He was also the director of the Interactive Institute’s TOOLS Studio in Umeå 2000-2005. He is currently part-owner of the company Innovation Impact.

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Antiatlas

ANTIATLAS01

An exhibition presented in HUMlab-X between 7th to the 8th of November.
The artists Malin Tivenius and Ylva Westerhult, have collaborated in the project Anti-Atlas. The project was granted aid from Kulturskjutsen and was part of the program Umeå Capital of Culture in 2014. The piece was as displayed in the exhibition based on an artistic exploration of meetings of the geographical triangle Algeciras, Gibraltar, Tangier. Here Africa and Europe meets, different cultures and religions. In a very limited geographic area three different nations with significantly different identities meet: Spain, UK and Morocco. Two oceans, Mediterranean and the Atlantic meet in the Strait of Gibraltar. On a clear day you can see Africa clearly visually from Gibraltar. It is also one of the European Union’s external borders and the meeting between the richer and in the moment of currently less well-off region. The physical distance between Africa and Europe is short.

Litterature often use images of landscapes to tell interior human condition. The visual image of the Strait of Gibraltar reflects well the historical and current charging around the place. In the exhibition  at HUMlab-X the environments and landscapes became the medium for personal consideration of how the boundaries are clear, while the relaxed by different cultural expressions moving across geographic territories.

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2014 Eduplay Challenge in HUMlab-X!

Eduplay Challenge is an initiative that challenges teachers to gamify their teaching. During the fall of 2014 Eduplay Challenge is offering teachers of Västerbotten a creative method support for the schools to learn to use game mechanics and game design thinking in class.

During the fall of 2014, Eduplay Challenge has invited teachers in Västerbotten to participate in workshops and seminars on game based learning, many of them taking place at HUMlab-X.  Finaly, the workshops and seminars will lead up to a 24h ”Game Based Learning Hack” where teachers will be allowed to create educational games together with professional artists and developers.

Eduplay Challenge events held in HUMlab-X:

”Game concept development workshop”
Carl-Erik Engqvist
Date: October 9, Time: 6-9 pm
Venue: HUMlab-X

Carl-Erik Engqvist is an artist and artistic leader working at HUMlab and Kulturverket. Among other things, he works with concept development and game production related to culture pedagogical projects.

The workshop will concern understanding and working with games as learning tools, as ways of thinking and as modes of engagement into exploring, reifying and concretise questions regarding power and empathy.

”Games to reach goals and knowledge in school”
Felix Gyllenstig Serrao
Date: October 23, Time: 2-4 pm
Venue: HUMlab-X

Felix Gyllenstig Serrao is first teacher in Gothenburg. He also runs the blog Spelläraren (http://spellararen.se) where he writes about how you can use games in pedagogy in teaching. The blog has been acknowledged in media several times and Felix is an often seen guest in SVT and Radio. He also runs a project with Minecraft classes where he teaches other teachers how to use Minecraft as a tool in the classroom.

How can school use games to reach goals and knowledge? How do you make school more exciting and fun? Felix will share his experiences and show actual examples of games in classrooms and what pedagogical models he uses when he creates classes with a game focus. He will also discuss what distinguishes a good game from a bad when it comes to learning.

The 2014 Eduplay Hackaton

October 27-28, 24 hrs starting at 5 pm October 27.
Read all about the event at: http://www.eduplaychallenge.org/

 

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change in HUMlab leadership

Effective from July 1, 2014, I stepped down as the director of HUMlab. This is a most undramatic shift – a regular change in academic leadership – but given that I have had a rather long tenure, it may be worth making a few comments. The reason for my stepping down is that I have so many other responsibilities, not least as Chair of Digital Humanities (funded by the Marcus and Amalia Wallenberg Foundation) and in relation to some university projects, externally funded projects and international networks, and that I want to spend more time on research, being in the lab and taking some of our research and development activities further. I will finish coordinating some of the infrastructural installations underway. Also, many of the things I set out to achieve have been achieved, and seeing HUMlab moving towards another phase (we now have two fully set up labs, 25 employees, 10 new Ph.D. students in different disciplines with a digital inflection, 10+ external projects with partners etc.) with new challenges, it makes sense to shift leadership. Also, much of the operation is  carried out on a daily basis by a large group of amazingly competent staff and faculty. I am most eager to continue working with everyone!

I am very happy that Cecilia Lindhé, literary scholar with a long experience in the digital humanities and earlier as assistant director of HUMlab, is the new director (appointed by the Faculty of Arts).

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Cecilia’s work is fantastic and she has strong leadership qualities and the two of us (and the people in the lab) share a vision of what HUMlab is and can be in the future. I am eager to follow how she (together with the team) will choose to develop HUMlab as a platform. There is great potential ahead and much exciting work to be done, and I am looking forward to being part of it (although in a different capacity)!

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