About the Cultural Heritage Informatics Initiative

Founded in 2010 and directed by Ethan Watrall, the Cultural Heritage Informatics Initiative administered by the Michigan State University Department of Anthropology was originally conceived as having two primary goals. First, it was intended to serve as a platform for interdisciplinary scholarly collaboration and communication in the domain of digital cultural heritage practice at MSU. Second, it was intended to equip students (both graduate and undergraduate) in the many cultural heritage focused disciplines at MSU with the skills necessary to thoughtfully apply digital technologies to cultural heritage materials, challenges, and questions. Despite these two initial goals, the initiative has shifted over the years to focus almost exclusively on the second, providing cultural heritage focused students an opportunity and environment to learn and build digital skills. The most tangible expression of this focus in the Cultural Heritage Informatics Graduate Fellowship.

What is “Cultural Heritage Informatics?”

In recent years, the term “informatics” has become popular to describe a wide variety of content domains: music informatics, chemical informatics, community informatics, bio-informatics, social informatics just to name a few. The term itself has been used in two different, but not unrelated contexts. The first, and narrowest, frames informatics as a field in which information science and computational approaches are used to create, store, find, and manipulate quantitative data within the context of a specific academic field (genetics, chemistry, geology, etc). The second, less narrow approach, frames informatics as a discipline that creatively applies digital technologies, methods, and approaches (broadly construed) to the questions and challenges of particular field. By this token, cultural heritage informatics applies digital technologies, methods, and approaches to cultural heritage questions and challenges.

While The Cultural Heritage Informatics Initiative (CHI) tends to take its framing from the more liberal conception of “informatics,” there are two things that are both particularly important and shared by both definitions. First, informatics is applied. Second, informatics is in service of disciplinary questions, problems, materials, and content. Both of these are absolutely critical to the way in which CHI’s activities, goals, and outcomes have been shaped.

An Ethos of Openness

Perhaps one of the strongest threads that runs thought much of what we do in these programs at MSU is a strong commitment to the idea and practice of openness. This expresses itself in a variety of ways. First, all the initiatives that we have discussed privilege the use of open-source tools and platforms. Open-source software supports sustainability, is more secure, is more financially accessible (as it is usually free to use), is more community driven, is not beholden to the whims of any corporate entity, is much more interoperable, and is built on de facto community standards. By extension, a commitment to using open-source software also means releasing work under an open-source license. By doing this, scholars and students contribute to the broader ecosystem of digital archaeology and heritage. In practical terms, this often means using GitHub to share code and develop openly. GitHub is hardly the only platform to do this, but it is the most popular and widely used. As such, using GitHub to build digital archaeology and heritage applications and digital experiences makes work more visible and accessible. By extension, a commitment to producing and consuming open-source software means a commitment to building on and for the open web.

Beyond open-source software, all three initiatives described build on the idea of working openly and writing publicly. Writing publicly about process and product creates connections between scholars and practitioners and is particularly valuable to students and new scholars. It encourages fruitful and valuable discussion and collaboration.