Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Religion and Digital Technologies

Last week I attended a one day conference at The Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University titled Religion and Digital Technologies. It was an interesting conference and I wanted to share some notes and observations from the talks. Some of the speakers employed more technologies in the research than others and I'm only highlighting things here that I found especially interesting.

The first speaker was John Boy from CUNY. His subject of research is church plants in Europe and part of his research necessitated searching websites for specific subject matter. He used data from commoncrawl.org which provides "an open repository of web crawl data that can be accessed and analyzed by everyone." The data is accessible via the Amazon Cloud so John had to do some coding in order to perform his research.

A few of the speakers used Amazon's Mechanical Turk service at various points in their research. The Mechanical Turk allows you to create small jobs which they call Human Intelligence Tasks or "HITs" that you pay workers to complete. One speaker used Mechanical Turk to find websites for over six thousand non-profit organizations so that she could analyze their websites (the IRS provided the organizations but not the websites). Other speakers had used the service to field test surveys, which was an interesting concept. An unexpected conversation around Mechanical Turk was the ethics of using a service that pays workers the equivalent of less than $2/hour of labor.

Thomas Carlson from Princeton spoke about the challenges of developing a hierarchy to classify religions as part of the syriaca.org project. They felt a need to classify religions in some way in order to enhance the search methods available on the site but things get messy very quickly when you start to consider the different possibilities. There weren't any clear cut ways to setup a meaningful hierarchy so the project is still looking for a good solution to the issue. A term which came out of this discussion that I enjoyed was "fuzzy specificity" which refers to using dates (and other data) that we aren't sure about.

Joseph Blankholm spoke about a website which came out of a class on the religion life in Harlem. The religionsofharlem.org site has lost much functionality due to maintenance issues but everyone agreed that it was a wonderful idea. Students in the class were tasked with visiting sites of religious significance in Harlem and blogging about them. The blog posts were geolocated and the website had a map showing the blog posts by location. Joseph shared that the students got a lot out of the course and the professors had hoped to use the site as a resource for future classes but that didn't turn out as they planned. We had a discussion around the value of maintaining digital work like this and why it isn't always necessary to move course work into a permanent repository, and indeed why sometimes that would be problematic.

Marcus Bingenheimer from Temple shared some challenges that arose when digitizing Dunhuang Manuscripts. An interesting part of this discussion was how complex text encoding can become when you are working with non-western languages.

Ben Johnston and Michael Myers, both from Princeton, spoke about two projects they collaborated on and Ben mentioned a term that he holds to and I really liked. The concept is called "modest DH" (digital humanities) and it speaks to not using the technology to dazzle the audience but to make sure there is a focus on functionality. The point of digital humanities should be to allow great research and interpretation, not necessarily make things look awesome. There is a place for design and for sites meant for a broad public audience that's important, but when working on sites intended for scholars flashy elements should be left behind.

Overall I found the day enjoyable and picked up some great resources and areas that I'd like to spend more time on. If you have any questions about the day's topics, please feel free to leave a comment.

1 comment:

Mary Hess said...

I'd love to hear more of what you learned there, and what you make of it!