Have wings, will fly – as Cambridge University slowly but surely opens its events up to the wider public, and to local dragon fairies too.
It either takes a lot of courage, or a completely zero sense of self-image to wander into one of Cambridge University’s research institutes carrying a big cuddly toy. Either that or I have gotten so used to carrying Puffles to gatherings all over the place that the act of carrying Puffles with me is ‘normal’ – in a bizarre personal way.
Remember that I grew up in this city at a time when if you were not a member of the university, you were definitely not welcome. I can point to numerous examples of where snotty-nosed staff had little time for us townie children and young adults. Fortunately things are beginning to change. Puffles and I plan to help them along the way too. Hence deciding to see what the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities was all about. Having been following them for quite some time, I guess I didn’t know whether I’d be out of place or not being surrounded by all these bright academics. After all, I’m just weird scary dragon bloke…aren’t I?
When I found out Dr Melissa Terras was coming over to deliver a lecture on all things digital humanities, I felt that this was something worth heading over to.
I’ve been following Melissa on Twitter for quite some time, and have been more than impressed at what she’s been tweeting. But something was not quite connecting or chiming with me on all things digital humanities. Until she delivered her presentation. Then it all made sense.
There were three sections Melissa’s talk was split into. I was a little worried when she said she’d be talking for an hour – simply because with my current state of health my attention span isn’t the greatest. Not that it ever was. But I needn’t have been worried. Melissa is a knowledgeable, passionate, powerful communicator – essential when talking about complex things to a non-specialist audience. Which to all intents and purposes for her subject area we were.
The first area was about the use of data. One of the things that has become more noticeable in recent times is the way people are able to collect and process huge data sets in very quick time. This was an area that I had stumbled across within a local leisure services context when I went to a Culture Hack Day last summer. Lots of very bright people playing with lots of different data sets – a number from Cambridgeshire County Council, of whom Rich Hall was one of the participants. Both Melissa and Rich used data to give insights into what museums and other leisure services could do with the data that they were collecting.
Digitising manuscripts. Lots and lots and lots of them
The second part was all about the Bentham Project. Now, beyond holding the preserved head (don’t look it up online if you’re squeamish about dead things) of a long-deceased academic, UCL also have thousands upon thousands of manuscripts written by him too. The challenge? How to digitise all of that material to make it useable and accessible – transcribing it. You could pay someone to spend ages doing the transcribing. Or you could crowd-source it. UCL has lots of alumni, surely tens of thousands of people transcribing a few each would do the job fine? Melissa and team tried the latter – hence the project Transcribe Bentham.
The thing is, persuading tens of thousands of people to familiarise themselves with the software then getting them to make sense of Bentham’s handwriting is not an easy task. For a start, having lots of alumni doesn’t mean they want to do stuff for your institution, let alone like it. Then you’ve got to hope that people will get themselves up to speed with the software. Then there’s the process of transcribing itself. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But Melissa and team found a number of people out of the thousand or so that did sign up to keep going, transcribing lots of things.
The model isn’t new – The Guardian did exactly this with MPs expenses back in 2009 – as Melissa pointed out. There, you had people dotted about all over the country willing to transcribe the expenses either of their local MP or of high profile people that might have something to hide. The point is, the model has been demonstrated that it can work. (It doesn’t mean it will work in every circumstance though).
Interestingly, the software that the Transcribe Bentham team have developed is open source. This means that it can be used – for free – by anyone anywhere. (So long as they have the knowledge on how to use it!) You don’t have to buy the software as you do for things like mainstream Office software. This is important because it means that every archive in the country (if not the world) can now use this software and harness the power of their communities to undertake the transcribing work. Think of what this might mean for local county and parish archives. You could unleash the potential of lots of small groups of local historians working with county and parish archivists to unlock the secrets of their local histories. Not only that, they become much more accessible to more people – in particular those with mobility impairments or those that simply cannot afford to travel to where the originals are deposited.
Textal – a one-button app that does text analysis on speeches to hashtags
This was an interesting one to end on, even though a couple of people have told me similar apps exist. UCL will be launching Textal later this year. With the touch of a button you can do text analysis. At the moment, it’s only for the iPhone. They don’t have enough money to make an Android version. (So if you have a spare several thousand pounds or know/know someone who knows how to write Android apps and have some spare time, let them know!) For me there’s a huge commuter market for this. On a train and can’t be bothered to listen to the Prime Minister’s speech? Press the button and get a text analysis of the long speech. After all, the speechwriters will be thinking of which words to repeat so as to maximise impact. And it’s not as if political speeches are hot on policy detail these days anyway. [Oh you cynic!]
Puffles with lasers and 3D-printers
Later that evening Puffles and I popped round to see Sam Smith and friends at Cambridge’s local community inventing shed – Makespace Cambridge. This was a Cambridge Geek Knights talk featuring the new Cambridge Science Centre that opened recently.
I had never seen a 3D printer before, nor had I seen what a laser cutter looked like, let alone what it could do.
There is lots of really interesting kit there, yet at the same time stereotypically I felt uncomfortable at the prospect of using any of it. It’s as if my office/academic path through education said: “Middle class boys like you don’t get their hands dirty. They get someone else in to do it.”
Hence one day I hope to turn that on its head and get my own shed, kit it out and start making stuff. But I have this mental block that prevents me from doing so. And it frustrates me. Because I’m jealous of someone like Astrid who can build stuff like her own tardis. (AND she can make her own digital videos too!) No, I don’t know where I stumbled across Astrid but am kind of glad that I did.
Anyway, the reason why both Makespace Cambridge (I get mixed up which way around it’s supposed to be) and the Cambridge Science Centre interest me is because it takes learning far away from the classroom, being bored to tears with uninspiring teachers and dry dusty textbooks. This was one of the things we discussed – one of the things the science centre seeks to overcome is the barrier to science that is created when children and their teachers don’t get on. Have a negative learning relationship with your teacher and you risk switching off of the subject altogether.
Which allows me to leave you with this article – an article of hope. What happens when you ask children to design their own ideal learning environment? The Guardian tried that in 2001. Time to re-run that competition?