Bursary Reports 2019
Alice Blackwood, University of Oxford, Faculty of History
Workshop: Humanities Data, Case Studies and Approaches
I was very pleased to receive a bursary this year to attend the Summer School and broaden my understanding of the digital tools available for expressing humanities data. My doctoral research on women in parish government in early modern England involves mapping of credit relationships and political and genealogical networks. I have been using NVivo to organise my data, but I was looking for a tool to visualise and present the relationships within my data in an effective way. The Humanities Data track gave me several possible new solutions for my data to consider – namely, RStudio, RDF network mapping and relational databases on Microsoft Access or Filemaker Pro. Most importantly, the sessions I attended gave me new ideas about how to represent unclear or conflicting data and how to account for gaps and different degrees of certainty within my data in a way that would not impede qualitative analysis.
The Humanities Data strand was focused on presenting a variety of different ways humanities data could be analysed, presented and preserved as a collection of digital objects. These standards and tools were presented in the form of case studies from both within and outside of academia, to give us a sense of the real-world applications of these digital technologies and the wider impact of digital objects (and hence the importance of their preservation). One major take-away that I got from attending the Summer School sessions was that digital humanities is already a more established and respected field than I realised, and that there are Oxford training resources that I should be taking advantage of and other people at Oxford working on similar projects in early modern history that I can connect with if I need help with my own data visualisation project. Before this programme I had only really been exposed to the more traditional side of history at Oxford and had not encountered many historians using digital methods or databases.
Coming into the Summer School, I was mostly using digital databases to analyse my data, but I had not considered how that data might be presented and preserved in an interactive way that would make my research reproducible. Michael Popham's lecture 'Digital Preservation: An Introduction' made me realise that digital preservation of data was not only about preserving the finished product, but also about documenting and managing all the data that brought you to those conclusions—not only for others to reproduce your research, but also for your future self to be able to re-use data in other projects. One thing I've always struggled with is going back to old research and finding that the organisational structure of my data was too convoluted or inconsistent for me to find the information I needed once I came back with new questions. Popham highlighted how consistent file naming, use of metadata and extensive documentation of what programmes and methodologies were used can help prolong the usability of our digital data.
Another talk I found particularly useful was 'An Introduction to Relational Databases', in which Meriel Patrick and Duncan Young walked us through how relational database software like Microsoft Access or Filemaker Pro can be used to relate different categories of data in a way that permits simple querying. While much of my data is relating people to other people with many different types of relationships and thus is better expressed by RDF triples, this lecture made me realise that I shouldn't rely on just one type of database, and how incorporating a relational database for select data sets might allow me to make other types of queries and display information about my nodes in a simpler way that is more user friendly and conducive to text searching. It also made me think deeper about how to account for varying degrees of precision in fitting humanities data into a database so that it will return accurate results when queried (e.g. having separate fields for 'year', 'month' and 'day' instead of 'date'). This will definitely change the way I structure my database input going forward.
Finally, one of the most interesting and helpful sessions of the week was Martin John Hadley's workshop on Data Visualisation, which is a topic which I am very keen to learn more about since I would like to eventually create a network visualisation for my parishioner data. In this session, Hadley had us download RStudio and walked us through the user interface and basic functionalities of R, and finally he pointed us to an online tutorial that could walk us through how to use R to create our own data visualisations. I had never used R before, but I really appreciated being able to try it out in a classroom setting because having an instructor there to help streamlined the frustrating process of learning how to use a new tool and programming language. It gave me the confidence to try continuing to learn R at home, and I am especially motivated now that I know that it can be used to transform my data into a visualisation.
The Humanities Data strand certainly left me with an expanded understanding of what constitutes digital humanities and what tools are available for me to improve my own contribution to the field. The afternoon lectures only served to enrich the experience; in particular, Martin Poulter's presentation on Wikidata opened my eyes to an expansive data resource I did not realise existed, and Nicholas Cole's talk on the Quill Project showed me that the Oxford History faculty is much more involved in promoting the digital humanities than I had previously understood. All in all, this week has alerted me to resources and ideas that I will continue to come back to as I work on completing my doctoral research and preparing it for publication.