All Change!

CetisA couple of weeks ago, along with many of my colleagues, my post with Cetis at the University of Bolton came to an end following an institutional review.  I’ve been working for Cetis in one capacity or another for fourteen years (!), since Charles Duncan and I kicked off the CETIS Educational Content SIG way back in 2001.  It’s been an eventful journey to say the least, and I’ve had the pleasure of working with some amazing people along the way.

edina_logo_2So what’s next on the cards?  Well, I’m delighted to say that I’ve added a new string to my bow; at the beginning of March I took up a new part-time post as Digital Education Manager with EDINA at the University of Edinburgh.  I’m very lucky to be job-sharing with Nicola Osborne, who was formerly EDINA’s Social Media Officer and whose work I’ve admired for a long time. Digital Education Manager is a new post at EDINA and I know that Nicola and I are both looking forward to developing new opportunities with colleagues within the university and further afield.

As I’m currently working with EDINA two days a week, I’m also available for projects and consultancy work and am looking forward to working in partnership with former Cetis colleagues and others.  In particular, I’m looking out for opportunities that will allow me to remain active in the open education space, so if I can be of any assistance, please do let me know!

oer16_logoI’ll also be continuing with many of my existing commitments to Open Scotland, the Open Policy Network, the ALT Scotland SIG, the Dublin Core Education and Outreach Committee and the Society for Nautical Research. And of course I’m also looking forward to co-chairing the OER16 Conference with Melissa Highton at the University of Edinburgh next year.

I’ll be updating my blog over the next couple of weeks to reflect these changes and to provide more information about the consultancy services I’ll be providing.  Onwards and upwards!

Day of Digital Ideas 2015

Digital humanities is an area that I’ve been interested in for a long time but which I haven’t had much opportunity to engage with, so earlier this week I was really excited to be able to go along to the Digital Scholarship Day of Digital Ideas at the University of Edinburgh.  In the absence of my EDINA colleague Nicola Osborne and her fabulous live blogging skills, I live tweeted the event and archived tweets, links and references in a storify here: Digital Day of Ideas 2015.  I also created a TAGS archive of tweets using Martin Hawksey’s clever Twitter Archiving Google Spreadsheet.

The event featured three highly engaging keynotes from Ben Schmidt, Anouk Lang, and Ruth Ahnert, and six parallel workshops covering historical map applications and OpenLayers, corpus analysis with AntConc, data visualisations with D3, Drupal for beginners, JavaSCript basics and Python for humanities research.

Humanities Data Analysis

~ Ben Schmidt, Northeastern University

Ben explored the role of data analysis in humanities and explored the methodological and social challenges presented by humanities data analysis.  He began by suggesting that in many quarters data analysis for humanities is regarded as being on a par with “poetry for physics”.  Humanities data analysis can rase deep objections from some scholars, and seem inimical to the meaning of research.  However there are many humanistic ways of thinking about data that are intrinsic to the tradition of humanities. Serendipity is important to humanities research and there is a fear that digital research negates this, however it’s not difficult to engineer serendipity into cultural data analysis.

But what if borrowing techniques from other disciplines isn’t enough? Digital humanities needs its own approaches; it needs to use data natively and humanistically, as a source of criticism rather than to “prove” things. Humanities data analysis starts with the evidence, not with the hypothesis.  The data needs to tell stories about structures, rather than individual people.   Johanan Drucker argues that what we call “data” should really be called “capta”:

Capta is “taken” actively while data is assumed to be a “given” able to be recorded and observed. From this distinction, a world of differences arises. Humanistic inquiry acknowledges the situated, partial, and constitutive character of knowledge production, the recognition that knowledge is constructed, taken, not simply given as a natural representation of pre-existing fact.

Johanna Drucker on data vs. capta

Ben went on to illustrate these assertions with a number of examples of exploratory humanities data analyses including using ngrams to trace Google books collections, building visualisations of ship movements from digitised whaling logbooks, the Hathi Trust bookworm, and exposing gendered language in teachers reviews on Rate my Teacher.  (I’ve worked with ships musters and log books for a number of years as part of our Indefatigable 1797 project, I’ve long been a fan of Ben’s whaling log visualisations which are as beautiful as they are fascinating.)

Ships tracks in black, show the outlines of the continents and the predominant tracks on the trade winds. © Ben Schmidt

Ben concluded by introducing the analogy of Borges The Garden of Forking Paths and urged us to create data gardens and labyrinths for exploration and contemplation, and to provide tools that help us to interpret the world rather than to change it

Gaps, Cracks, Keys: Digital Methods for Modernist Studies

~ Anouk Lang, University of Edinburgh

Manifesto of Modernist Digital Humanities

Manifesto of Modernist Digital Humanities

Anouk explored the difficulties and opportunities facing scholars of twentieth-century literature and culture that result from the impact of copyright restrictions on the digitisation of texts and artefacts. Due to these restrictions many modern and contemporary texts are out of digital reach.  The LitLong project highlights gaps in modernist sources caused by copyright law.  However there are cracks  in the record where digital humanities can open up chinks in the data to let in light, and we can use this data as the key to open up interesting analytic possibilities.

During her presentation Anouk referenced the Manifesto of Modernist Digital Humanities, situating it in reference to the Blast Manifesto, Nathan Hensley’s Big Data is Coming for Your Books, and Underwood, Long and So’s Cents and Sensibility.

By way of example, Anouk demonstrated how network analysis can be used to explore biographical texts. Biographies are curated accounts of people’s lives constructed by human and social forces and aesthetic categories. There is no such thing as raw data in digital text analysis: all the choices about data are subjective. Redrawing network maps multiple times can highlight what is durable. For example network analysis of biographical texts can reveal the gendered marginality of writers’ wives.

In conclusion, Anouk argued that digital deconstruction can be regarded as a form of close reading, and questioned how we read graphical forms such as maps and network illustrations. How do network maps challenge established forms of knowledge? They force us to stand back and question what our data is and can help us to avoid the linearity of narrative.

Closing the Net: Letter Collections & Quantitative Network Analysis

~ Ruth Ahnert, Queen Mary University of London

Ruth’s closing keynote explored the nature of complex networks and the use of mathematical models to explore their underlying characteristics.  She also provided two fascinating examples of how social network analysis techniques can be used to analyse collections of early modern letters, a set of Protestant letters (1553 – 1558) and Tudor correspondence in State Papers Online,  to reconstruct the movement of people, objects, and ideas.   She also rather chillingly compared the Tudor court’s monitoring of conspiracies and interception of letters with the contemporary surveillance activities of the NSA.

Ruth Ahnart.  Picture by Kathy Simpson, @kilmunbooks

Ruth Ahnart. Picture by Kathy Simpson, @kilmunbooks.

Ruth introduced the concept of betweenness* – the connectors that are central to sustaining a network.  Networks are temporal, they change and evolve over time as they are put under pressure.  Mary I took out identifiable hubs in the Protestant network by executing imprisoned leaders, however despite removing these hubs, the networks survived because the sustainers survived, these are the people with high betweenness.  In order to fragment a network it is necessary to remove, not the hubs or edges, but the nodes with high betweenness.

Ruth went on to introduce Eigenvector centrality which can be used to measure the quality of people’s connections in a network, and she explored the curious betweenness centrality of Edward Courteney, 1st Earl of Devon (1527 – 1556). Courteney’s social capital is quantifiable; he was typical of a character with high Eigenvector centrality, who cuts across social groups and aligned himself with powerful nodes.

In conclusion, Ruth suggested that network analysis can be used to open archives, it doesn’t presume what you’re looking for, rather it can inspire close reading by revealing patterns previously unseen by traditional humanity research.

I was certainly hugely inspired by Ruth’s presentation.  I have some passing familiarity with the concepts of network analysis and betweenness centrality from the work of Martin Hawksey and Tony Hirst however this it the first time I have seen these techniques applied to historical data and the possibilities are endlessly inspiring.  One of the man aims of our Indefatigable 1797 research project is to reveal the social networks that bound together a small group of men who served on the frigate HMS Indefatigable during the French Revolutionary War.  Using traditional techniques we have pieced together these connections through an analysis of ships musters, Admiralty archives, contemporary press reports, personal letters and birth, marriage and death certificates.  We have already built up a picture of a complex and long-lived social network, but I now can’t help wondering whether a more nuanced picture of of that network might emerge through the application of social network analysis techniques.  Definitely something to think more about in the future!

Many thanks to Anouk Lang and the Digital Scholarship team for organising such a thought provoking, fun and engaging event.

* For an excellent explanation of the concept of betweeness, I can highly recommend reading Betweenness centrality – explained via twitter, featuring Tony Hirst and my former Cetis colleagues Sheila MacNeill, Wilbert Kraan, and Martin Hawksey.  It’s all about the genetically modified zombies you see…

Creativity, serendipity and open content

I recently went along to an event organised by the Digital Humanities Network, Scotland at the University of Edinburgh, where Ben O’Steen, Bob Nicholson and Mahendra Mahey gave a series of fascinating presentations on the work of the British Library Labs. BL Labs is a Mellon funded initiative that supports creative experiments to visualise and explore the library’s digital collections and data through competitions and awards for innovative and transformative ideas that bring these digital collections to life. I’m not going to attempt to summarise the presentation, but I’ve put together a Storify of tweets from the event here: Exploring Digital Collections and Data in the Humanities

I’ve been a huge fan of BL Labs projects for a while now, particularly the wonderful Mechanical Curator, which provides undirected and unpredictable engagement with digital content by posting random small book illustrations from the library’s digital collections on an hourly basis. (You can learn more about the inner workings of the Mechanical Curator here: Peeking behind the curtain).


Ships found by the Mechanical Curator

Bob Nicholson’s (@digivictorian) marvellous Victorian Meme Machine is another favourite. This highly creative and entertaining project uncovers forgotten Victorian jokes preserved “largely by accident” among the library’s digital collections and brings them back to life. Not to be outdone by the Mechanical Curator, the Victorian Meme Machine has recently launched the Mechanical Comedian, which tweets random Victorian jokes every lunchtime.


The Mechanical Comedian

On the one hand these projects might appear frivolous and light-hearted but they are a compelling demonstration of what is possible when you bring creative thinkers together with innovative technology and open content.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the interface between openness, creativity, and content recently in the context of teaching and learning and I think there is a lot that open education could learn from the creative approaches to content discovery and reuse being explored by the BL Labs projects.

One of the things I love about open education in general, and open educational resources in particular, is the creative potential they offer to find, use, reuse, create and recreate such a wealth of diverse content and resources. However it appears that, in some quarters at least, open educational resources seem to be regarded as a rather restricted class of content that must be managed and used in a particular way. OER still seems to be rather tainted with some of the negative and rather questionable ideas associated with reusable learning objects. This makes me rather sad as, to my mind, this perception seems to be contrary to what open education should really be about and neglects the creative, fun, and serendipitous aspects of openness. That’s not to say that there aren’t some great examples of creative approaches to surfacing open education content out there. As well as presenting a simple search interface to open educational resources aggregated from a wide range of repositories worldwide, Solvonauts tweets #randomoer every hour.


#randomoer from Solvonauts

And I also love OpenSpires simple interface to the University of Oxford’s eclectic collection of open content and resources.



I don’t quite know where I’m going with this post but I can’t help thinking that we need to encourage more creativity and serendipity in how we surface and engage with open education content.  More to follow perhaps…


Earlier this week I was invited by Ewan Klein and Melissa Highton to speak at Open.Ed, an event focused on Open Knowledge at the University of Edinburgh.  A storify of the event is available here: Open.Ed – Open Knowledge at the University of Edinburgh.

“Open Knowledge encompasses a range of concepts and activities, including open educational resources, open science, open access, open data, open design, open governance and open development.”

 – Ewan Klein

Ewan set the benchmark for the day by reminding us that open data is only open by virtue of having an open licence such as CC0, CC BY, CC SA. CC Non Commercial should not be regarded as an open licence as it restricts use.  Melissa expanded on this theme, suggesting that there must be an element of rigour around definitions of openness and the use of open licences. There is a reputational risk to the institution if we’re vague about copyright and not clear about what we mean by open. Melissa also reminded us not to forget open education in discussions about open knowledge, open data and open access. Edinburgh has a long tradition of openness, as evidenced by the Edinburgh Settlement, but we need a strong institutional vision for OER, backed up by developments such as the Scottish Open Education Declaration.


Melissa Highton

I followed Melissa, providing a very brief introduction to Open Scotland and the Scottish Open Education Declaration, before changing tack to talk about open access to cultural heritage data and its value to open education. This isn’t a topic I usually talk about, but with a background in archaeology and an active interest in digital humanities and historical research, it’s an area that’s very close to my heart. As a short case study I used the example of Edinburgh University’s excavations at Loch na Berie broch on the Isle of Lewis, which I worked on in the late 1980s. Although the site has been extensively published, it’s not immediately obvious how to access the excavation archive. I’m sure it’s preserved somewhere, possibly within the university, perhaps at RCAHMS, or maybe at the National Museum of Scotland. Where ever it is, it’s not openly available, which is a shame, because if I was teaching a course on the North Atlantic Iron Age there is some data form the excavation that I might want to share with students. This is no reflection on the directors of the fieldwork project, it’s just one small example of how greater access to cultural heritage data would benefit open education. I also flagged up a rather frightening blog post, Dennis the Paywall Menance Stalks the Archives,  by Andrew Prescott which highlights the dangers of what can happen if we do not openly licence archival and cultural heritage data – it becomes locked behind commercial paywalls. However there are some excellent examples of open practice in the cultural heritage sector, such as the National Portrait Gallery’s clearly licensed digital collections and the work of the British Library Labs. However openness comes at a cost and we need to make greater efforts to explore new business and funding models to ensure that our digital cultural heritage is openly available to us all. For those that are interested, my slides are available on Slideshare here: open.ed

Ally Crockford, Wikimedian in Residence at the National Library of Scotland, spoke about the hugely successful Women, Science and Scottish History editathon recently held at the university. However she noted that as members of the university we are in a privileged position in that enables us to use non-open resources (books, journal articles, databases, artefacts) to create open knowledge. Furthermore, with Wikpedia’s push to cite published references, there is a danger of replicating existing knowledge hierarchies. Ally reminded us that as part of the educated elite, we have a responsibility to open our mindsets to all modes of knowledge creation. Publishing in Wikipedia also provides an opportunity to reimagine feedback in teaching and learning. Feedback should be an open participatory process, and what better way for students to learn this than from editing Wikipedia.

Robin Rice, EDINA and Data Library, asked the question what does Open Access and Open Data sharing look like? Open Access publications are increasingly becoming the norm, but we’re not quite there yet with open data. It’s not clear if researchers will be cited if they make their data openly available and career rewards are uncertain. However there are huge benefits to opening access to data and citizen science initiatives; public engagement, crowd funding, data gathering and cleaning, and informed citizenry. In addition, social media an play can important role in working openly and transparently

Robin Rice

Robin Rice

Jim Bednar, talking about computational neuroscience and the problem of reproducibility, picked up this theme, adding that accountability is a big attraction of open data sharing. Jim recommended using iPython Notebook   for recording and sharing data and computational results and helping to make them reproducible. This promoted Anne-Marie Scott to comment on twtter:

Very cool indeed.

James Stewart spoke about the benefits of crowdsourcing and citizen science.   Despite the buzz words, this is not a new idea, there’s a long tradition of citizens engaging in science. Darwin regularly received reports and data from amateur scientists. Maintaining transparency and openness is currently a big problem for science, but openness and citizen science can help to build trust and quality. James also cited Open Street Map as a good example of building community around crowdsourcing data and citizen science. Crowdsourcing initiatives create a deep sense of community – it’s not just about the science, it’s also about engagement.


James Stewart

After coffee (accompanied by Tunnocks caramel wafers – I approve!) We had a series of presentations on the student experience and students engagement with open knowledge.

Paul Johnson and Greg Tyler, from the Web, Graphics and Interaction section of IS,  spoke about the necessity of being more open and transparent with institutional data and the importance of providing more open data to encourage students to innovate. Hayden Bell highlighted the importance of having institutional open data directories and urged us to spend less time gathering data and more making something useful from it. Students are the source of authentic experience about being a student – we should use this! Student data hacks are great, but they often have to spend longer getting and parsing the data than doing interesting stuff with it. Steph Hay also spoke about the potential of opening up student data. VLEs inform the student experience; how can we open up this data and engage with students using their own data? Anonymised data from Learn was provided at Smart Data Hack 2015 but students chose not to use it, though it is not clear why.  Finally, Hans Christian Gregersen brought the day to a close with a presentation of Book.Ed, one of the winning entries of the Smart Data Hack.  Book.ed is a app that uses open data to allow students to book rooms and facilities around the university.

What really struck me about Open.Ed was the breadth of vision and the wide range of open knowledge initiatives scattered across the university.  The value of events like this is that they help to share this vision with fellow colleagues as that’s when the cross fertilisation of ideas really starts to take place.