No tool can do all

DHBenelux 2015 (8-9 June 2015, Antwerp, Belgium), the second edition after 2014, demonstrated a nice growth from last year with 150 attendees, 62 presentations, plus seven more demos-only and three posters-only (some presentations were also presented as demo or poster): an acceptance rate of 90%.

This blogpost is not intended to provide a complete overview of the conference, but rather to show the discussion from my perspective. The main theme I will follow is that no tool can do all research for you.

Tools, tools, and data

Jesper Verhoef and Melvin Wevers presented The Digital Humanities Cycle,[1]Jesper Verhoef & Melvin Wevers – The Digital Humanities cycle: hermeneutics, heuristics, and source criticism in a digital age.
See also the slides here
consisting of five aspects: 1) searching, 2) analyzing, 3) understanding how a tool works, 4) preprocessing of data, and 5) critical evaluation of historical sources. Their third point was the main argument of interest, and they emphasized the iterative use of tools: no tool can solve the entire question, use of contrast between tools, and beware/be aware of limitations of tools.

Peter Verhaar presented Visual Hermeneutics, a method of doing literary criticism with visualizations.[2]Peter Verhaar – Visual Hermeneutics He emphasized that visualizations are rhetorical devices, and that visual literacy is required. However, I especially appreciated Verhaar’s comment that visualizations, or other computational means of analysis, do not make the human critic redundant, for a human is needed to make sense of the visualization. His example was that when a computer answers “42” to the question of life, the universe, and everything, a human is needed to make sense of that answer.

Sometimes, we can only make sense of the data after the tool provides us with a view. Antal van den Bosch presented a project to explore whether there are differences between texts describing dreams, or texts describing events such as in diaries.[3]Antal van den Bosch, Iris Hendrickx, Maarten van Gompel, Ali Hürriyetoğlu, Folgert Karsdorp, Florian Kunneman, Louis Onrust, Martin Reynaert, Wessel Stoop – What makes dream text dreamy? This project was exploratory, employing the spaghetti approach: trying a lot of tools and seeing what sticks. It worked; they were able to distinguish very decently between texts about dreams and those that are not. Moreover, the tools could find differences between male and female dreams: apparently men dream more about shooting and killing, while women dream more about weddings. They later fed the results back to the scholars researching dreams to make sense of their results.

Besides critical evaluation of tools, Laura Hollink called for critical dataset evaluation. In her discussion of Linked Open Dataset of European Parliament proceedings, she noted several implications for use: credibility (EP proceedings linked to Wikipedia pages), completeness, and update frequency (how often the dataset is updated to include new debates).[4]Laura Hollink, Martijn Kleppe, Max Kemman, Astrid van Aggelen, Willem Robert Van Hage – The possibilities and challenges of using linked data for academic research: the case of the Talk of Europe project
See also the slides here

Scholarly needs

The final keynote discussed the remediation of scholarly communication. Elena Pierazzo gave a talk about how the formats of epubs and pdfs respond to the needs of publishers and producers of hardware/software, but not to the needs of scholars. According to Pierazzo, scholarly communication should invest in 1) multimedia forms, 2) fast discussion through blogs & twitter, and 3) open access. A provocative talk, but unfortunately it tried to fit too much in 30 minutes, losing all forms of nuance required in this debate.

This all related well to my presentation on the role of user research in the Digital Humanities.[5]Max Kemman & Martijn Kleppe – User Required? On the Value of User Research in the Digital Humanities
See the slides here
While DH loves to develop tools, tools do not always reach their potential adoption by the target audience. One approach to this problem would be user-centred design, but this is no silver bullet: it is debatable 1) whether users/scholars know what they need, and 2) whether the needs of scholars are generic enough to be applicable to a larger group. In our evaluation we found that user research helps developing tools that are usable for specific tasks, but that we should keep in mind that this task is part of a larger research cycle. Although users are likely to ask for features helpful for their broader research cycle, these requirements are out-of-scope and should be left to other tools, instead of trying to fit everything in. I believe HCI should become more interested in DH: the number of people who approached me after the presentation for questions related to their own projects and needs for user evaluation proved that there is an unanswered need for this.

References   [ + ]

1. Jesper Verhoef & Melvin Wevers – The Digital Humanities cycle: hermeneutics, heuristics, and source criticism in a digital age.
See also the slides here
2. Peter Verhaar – Visual Hermeneutics
3. Antal van den Bosch, Iris Hendrickx, Maarten van Gompel, Ali Hürriyetoğlu, Folgert Karsdorp, Florian Kunneman, Louis Onrust, Martin Reynaert, Wessel Stoop – What makes dream text dreamy?
4. Laura Hollink, Martijn Kleppe, Max Kemman, Astrid van Aggelen, Willem Robert Van Hage – The possibilities and challenges of using linked data for academic research: the case of the Talk of Europe project
See also the slides here
5. Max Kemman & Martijn Kleppe – User Required? On the Value of User Research in the Digital Humanities
See the slides here

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