Conference “(Retro)Digitalisate – Kommentarkultur – Big Data” 8-9 October

In this blog post I highlight a few aspects which were of particular interest for me during the conference (Retro)Digitalisate – Kommentarkultur – Big Data: Zum Stand des Digitalen in den Geisteswissenschaften. The concept behind the conference was quite intrigueing: No classical paper presentations as an attempt to stop people from saying what they always say. Instead the organizers opted for a combination of panel discussions and keynotes. The conference’s subtitle describes the angle: “The state of Digital in the Humanities”. I was invited to talk about tools and the (re-)use of digital materials and would like to thank the organizers Lilian Landes and Norbert Kunz for the invitation.


As far as I could tell, the conference brought together people from very diverse fields of work (libraries, publishing, humanities research, IT, lexicology…) who mixed together in four panels with the topics “Digital publishing”, “Tools”, “Communication” and “Post-publications”. In the end however, the issues which were really up for debate found their way in all of them: What counts as Digital Humanities? Which consequences does this have for the humanities? Are the rapid changes we are experiencing changes for the worse, better or are they just changes?

The four panels made it very clear that “digital” is changing the humanities and makes me agree even more with Mareike König who calls the humanities digital already. But following the discussions also made it very clear that at this stage, old models of publications, career planning, self-identification are in a state of profound transformation which is experienced in a positive way by some and in a negative way by others. At this stage there is no way to predict where this transformation will lead the humanities and continued cuts in funding in- and outside the universities are reasons to be concerned. This is also reflected in one common angle in all of the keynotes and panelists: Sitting it out is not an option.

Conference “Europa baut auf Biographien”, Vienna 6-8 October 2015

This blog posts highlights just a few aspects from the conference “Europa baut auf Biographien”, especially those which are particularly close to my field. I was there to talk about networks.

National Library of Vienna

National Biography projects are seen as trusted repositories for information on selected personalities in a nation’s history. In most cases, three conditions need to be met in order to be considered for an entry: significant accomplishments, death and – since these projects typically ran/run for very long periods of time and move alphabetically: having a surname which starts with the right letter. This procedure is of course pragmatic in the pre-digital world but it also meant that Konrad Bloch, a biochemist and nobel prize winner who died in the year 2000, never made it to the German national biography.

Apart from these selection biases and sometimes outdated information the biographies remain a valuable resource for scholars and the public. It was great to see how keen national and regional biographies projects in Germany, Austria and Switzerland were to interlink their entries by means of VIAF and GND ids.

Growth and enrichment of national biographies were of particular interest: Paul Arthur’s keynote referred to a recent change in biography-scholarship: A move towards a biography understood as a network of intersecting lives and activities. His own efforts in this domain for example seeks to aggregate biographical data from different parts of the population, all branded similarly: there is Indigenous Australia, Obituaries Australia, People Australia, Indigenous Australia, Women Australia, Labour Australia as well as a crowd-based project HuNI which lets the public add relations between objects from Australia’s cultural heritage.

Piek Vossen presented their work in BiographyNet and focused on the automated extraction of additional metadata by means of text analysis. Their accomplishments are impressive and a short video on the site describes the project in detail.

In my interpretation and tightly knit to the current wave of networking thinking, a number of talks circled around the idea that biographies should no longer be thought of as isolated depictions of the great but reinterpreted as collective, explicitly European efforts. This is a big, great and most of all: fundable idea.

Making histoGraph open source

As many of you already know, histoGraph is a web platform designed to help researchers to explore large multimedia archives akin to what we have here at the CVCE. The histoGraph tool has two main goals:

  1. To enable users to find and identify the most relevant documents for research
  2. To discover  document connections between persons.

In the last few months our designer/developer Daniele Guido, has started the redesign and development of the tool: this screencast shows some of the new features of Histograph as well as identifying the benefits and limitations of the new design.

We can now explore the “neighborhood” of a person in terms of other co-occurring people and documents, follow the paths that connect one person to one another; or simply search for resources and pose questions related to the person or the document.

Still under development, the open source version of Histograph starts from this assumption and basically serves as recommendation system. The original database has been enriched with CVCE text documents and been transposed to a graph database in order to speed up all network related computation. Moreover, a simple and powerful text extraction chain has been added:  thanks to the powerful Yago disambiguation engine, all text captions, titles and abstracts have been annotated with Named Entities in at least two languages.

Additionally, dates of both pictures and text documents have been reconciled to ISO standard; geographical places to latitude and longitude by using Geonames and Google Geocoding API; finally, person entities have been enriched with related dbpedia information. We will shortly be updating the data curation workflow to  assess and validate the quality of the automatic extraction of these entities and we plan further develop our concept of expert crowdsourcing techniques.

We will use the blog to update you on progress so watch this space.

Sneak Preview of the new histoGraph at Sunbelt 2015

We presented the first screenshots of the all-new histoGraph during the poster session at this year’s INSNA Sunbelt conference on Social Network Analysis in Brighton. histoGraph facilitates the crowdbased indexation and exploration of multimedia cultural heritage materials. Click on the poster to get an idea of how this works and looks like.

We have outlined our ideas for the future development of histoGraph in this short article titled Interactive Networks for Digital Cultural Heritage Collections – Scoping the Future of HistoGraph (Cite).


Developing personalisation tools for ePublications

Digital Tools_51_43_42The CVCE has been working on the development of digital tools that enable our users to personalise content from our virtual research infrastructure on We are developing the idea of a Digital Toolbox where users will be able to customise content from all CVCE ePublications. The mid-term goal of the Digital Toolbox is to provide a personalised research infrastructure where users can create, collaborate and comment on their own personal ePublications.

Structure of an ePublication using MyPublications tool

Structure of a personal ePublication using MyPublications tool

In the later part of 2014 we launched, in beta version, the first version of the Digital Toolbox.  We have concentrated efforts on the development of the MyPublications authoring tool, development using a recently implemented Scrum methodology. The MyPublications tool will enable users of to write ePublications on topics of interest based on personalised research, teaching and learning needs by organising and structuring CVCE resources, such as historical documents, press articles, photographs and other multimedia material alongside your own text. The tool includes a presentation viewer, a sim ple interface where you can sequentially step through your ePublication (like a book!).  In the coming weeks the developer of the tool, Frederic Reis, will also add more features including a share link feature which will enable a MyPublications to be shared with colleagues and friends.

To find out more have a look at our first introductory video.

What about the technology underpinning the tool?

simplified model of mypublications tech infrastructure

Simplified model of MyPublications technical infrastructure

In diagram shows a simplified model of the MyPublications technology derived from the research infrastructure. The CVCE data repository uses Alfresco content management system to manage, store and retrieve a wide variety of cultural heritage objects such as documents, photographs, cartoons and videos.  These objects are then served to the Java based open source Liferay documents and media portal which delivers our CVCE ePublications to the web and our half a million website users.

The tool then works through the client side and is written using a combination of HTML 5, CSS & JavaScript to create an interface that calls saves and embeds links to any type of cultural heritage object found within the CVCE collection. The resulting MyPublication is essentially a series of sequential object links and original texts (sections, sub sections and paragraphs) all stored alongside the metadata in a MYSQL database.

We will launch the full, tested version of the MyPublications tool in the early part of 2015. In the meantime if you want to be a beta tester please feel free to sign up.