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2019 April



April 27, 2019

Data Fears

April 27, 2019 | By | No Comments

The metadata scheme for my digital repository is finished and entered into KORA. There is now officially a place to enter data from the MSU archaeological collections online, and I am ecstatic. There is, however, still the fear that what I built may have hidden issues. This fear in part stems from a few talks that I attended at the meetings for the Society for American Archaeology earlier this month. These talks addressed issues such as data literacy and data reuse which are directly related to themes of my project. My project is, after all, the data management of archaeological collections.

One talk I found particularly relevant to my project was given by Erika C. Kansa who pointed out the need to improve data literacy among graduate students who often do not have to become data literate individuals. Bhargava et al. (2015) defines data literacy as the desire and ability to constructively engage in society through data. It requires one to understand the underlying principles of data and the pitfalls that one can fall into. One pitfall is the “File and Forget” attitude that can come with fancy data management systems concerned with the archival of data. There is a lot of data out there that has been painstakingly archived and described, but that data is often rarely reused, if ever.

The concept of reuse highlights the need to prepare data for dissemination and the need to get more communities involved in the reuse of data. This includes not only academics, but also the general public. There is a common sentiment that data needs to be protected from other academics who may steal the data or from the public who will misinterpret the data. I believe there is some merit to these arguments, but we run into problems of reuse when we become data dragons. Data dragons who horde the knowledge that has been arduously developed, built and added to and hidden in mountainous repositories. I am ardently of the opinion that the best way to make use of our data is to make it open. This means making the black boxes of our data accessible to the public by changing the culture of how people interact with data. Specifically by encouraging people to become more data literate, while also making our data more inclusive.

The CHI fellowship and building this database have made me personally more data literate, but the express goal of making the data more inclusive has always been on the periphery. The MSU Digital Repository contains metadata for describing a wide variety of archaeological situations, and was built with the intentions of being useful to archaeologists, and curators. The metadata are described and defined as plainly as possible (Here is a link to the github containing the metadata scheme – feel free to let me know what you think!). But the average person would undoubtedly have trouble meaningfully interpreting the data and the metadata without learning the basics of archaeology.

So far, I am unsure of how to explicitly make the data more inclusive and thus the fear that what I am making will fall by the wayside and never be reused. I think this aspect of the project will heavily rely on a future front-end framework (a website) which will more plainly layout the denser data that this repository is capturing along with easily digestible interpretations of the cultural heritage. This should get our data out there and encourage others to use it rather than hording it in cabinets.



April 25, 2019

The Simpler, The Better: Photo Carousels

April 25, 2019 | By | No Comments

I’ve often complained about introductory-level tutorials that operate under the assumption that you know something about programming. While in some cases I’ve successfully worked through a particularly difficult tool or explanation, ultimately what I’ve learned is: there’s probably an easier way.

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April 17, 2019

Making my Dissertation Digital

April 17, 2019 | By | No Comments

Have you ever tried to explain your dissertation to your family? Your students? Strangers or acquaintances you barely know? This is a trying task. My dissertation focuses on mobility and migration between four different West African countries (Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, and Guinea), looking at the multitude of reasons people moved and the larger meaning of all of this movement. One of the biggest challenges I face in explaining all of this is the diversity of perspectives from the people with whom I spoke. Oftentimes reasons vary, perspectives vary, and the individual voices can get lost in 350 pages of historical arguments and narrative.

My research is based on unnecessarily large amounts of archival research, plus 220 interviews I conducted in rural parts of Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau. The documents often tell similar stories, of governments seeking (and generally failing) to control borders and movement, although their attitude towards these movements depends on the period and perceived need for economic migrants and/or security concerns. But what about the voices of the individual migrants themselves? These are rarely seen in documents, and thus must be brought out through interviews.

Each person’s story differs. Many from Guinea-Bissau and Guinea served as seasonal migrant farmers. Many of these farmers had good experiences, using their time in Senegal and Gambia to earn money they could use to buy goods unavailable at home, pay colonial taxes, and save up money to build their own homes and start a family. Some of these farmers went year after year, spending over a decade traveling to another colony/country for months at a time planting and harvesting peanuts. In many cases, these farmers became integrated into their host communities and set down roots. Others went once and decided to never go again. I also interviewed many people who fled violence and economic depression in search of a better life. Others simply crossed borders looking for better farm and pastureland.

When I decided to apply for the CHI Fellowship, I wanted a place where these voices could speak for themselves. My dissertation does not feature long excerpts from interviews because it’s already 350 pages long without them. While the voices of my interlocutors are throughout my dissertation, I am not able to capture the full extent of what they said. I want their voices to be available to the public, as a tool for public memory, for scholarship, and for teaching.

This has not always been the easiest process, but as I come to the last few weeks, I am grateful for the opportunity. It has reminded me whose stories center my research. Too often it is easy to forget that history is not just a series of newsworthy events and processes, but the combination of many people whose collective actions form a rich and cacophonous story.



April 1, 2019

Feedback at the Speed of Light

April 1, 2019 | By | No Comments

             As a historian, most of my work – reading, writing, revising – is conducted alone. Feedback especially takes long periods of time and varies between professors and colleagues. Papers often go through conferences, editing, and rejection before you can claim you have completed a piece of work. On the other hand, Digital Humanities allows you to work with nearly instance feedback, providing cruel, unforgiving critiques.