Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Why should humanists attend GovHack?

Pixtory iPhone app
The following blog post was adapted from a short paper I delivered at Digital Humanities Australasia 2014. If you'd like more details on how I prepared for GovHack 2013 you may like to read my previous post Don't Code? You've got plenty to offer at GovHack.

In May 2013 I attended GovHack, Australia’s largest civic hacking event, where I worked alongside a team of local web developers and designers to build an iPhone app in 48 hours. Governments produce huge amounts of data and civic hacking events aim to bring people together to develop apps or websites that release the social value of these data sets. Propelled by a growing Open Data movement these kinds of events attract problem solvers with a social conscience.

The vast majority of participants were developers, designers and entrepreneurs. Where were all the humanists? I think that humanities researchers can make important contributions to civic hacking events as storytellers and strategists, ensuring concepts and executions are grounded in the latest research in their fields. Civic hacking events also provide opportunities for humanists to learn about ways to create more user-focused digital humanities outcomes.

What can humanists offer? Research driven outcomes

Opportunities for collaboration and creativity.
As a humanist, you can ensure that outcomes at GovHack are grounded in the latest research within your discipline. It’s an opportunity to work with developers and designers to put theory into practice.

So how did this work in my case? As a history PhD candidate, I have become inceasingly interested in the ways in which social media platforms enable users to share and comment on historic images.

Over the past few years, these kind of sites have become immensely popular – reflecting a groundswell of public interest in history and visual culture. For example, the 'Lost Perth' Facebook page, which features historic images of local places and ephemera, was launched in May 2013 and amassed an astonishing 50,000 ‘likes’ in the three weeks. Twitter accounts such as History in Pictures and Historical Pics have millions of followers.

These highly popular sites can be problematic. The images are uncategorized, unsearchable and lack meta-data and appropriate attribution. Little context is provided, nor any indication of the complexity or ambiguity of the image. This is a shallow understanding of history. Social media accounts that share historical images drive vast amounts of website traffic and promote high levels of interactivity  but the encounters with history they facilitate can be ephemeral and transitory. Do they help large corporations such as Facebook and Twitter more than local communities?

I wanted to create a web application that would tap into a growing public fascination with historical photographs but also facilitate a deeper understanding about history and heritage. In a 2013 journal article, 'Public History in a Digital Context: Back to the Future or Back to Basics?', Fien Danniau argued that the potential of digital media for public history has not been fully realised, reminding us that the ultimate goal of public history is to ‘develop historical thinking’.

With these issues in mind I pulled out a sketchbook and started to develop some ideas. When I arrived at GovHack I was lucky to join a seriously talented team of like-minded collaborators.

Over the next 48 hours we created Pixtory – an iPhone app that allows people to uncover the hidden history around them.  Pixtory was created with the intention of harnessing public interest to increase engagement with the State Library of Western Australia’s photographic archive, which contains over 70,000 online images. The app allows users to have an immersive experience with Perth’s built heritage, by collecting and exposing geo-tagged historic photos using the Trove API.

What can humanists learn? How to design more user-focused outcomes.

Collaboration with web developers and entrepreneurs outside the academy brings design and usability to the forefront and provides an opportunity for historians to engage with the logics that drive the competitive world of online start-ups.

When you are at GovHack, you might hear developers talking about UI and UX.  User interface design (UI) sets out how people will interact with the website and includes content, information architecture, design, functionality and interactivity. The user experience (UX) design includes the user interface but spans beyond it. It's mapped out during a user-centered design process that spans from initial concept development, all the way through to production, launch – and beyond. During this process,  research and insights into specific audience/s are taken into account at every stage of the product’s development.

Mapping out the user experience.
User experience design (UX)

A recent study by Claire Warwick highlighted the importance of user-centered approaches to tool building within Digital Humanities. Warwick refuted claims that humanists have been slow to take up digital tools because they are luddites, arguing instead that they are critics. Slow adaptation was not because humanists did not know how to use the tools created for them - but that they did not find the tools useful. Some tools failed to meet their needs and others were hampered by overly technical documentation and design.

User-centered design is crucial for public audiences too. Several speakers at DHA2014 mentioned crowd sourcing projects. But what’s the difference between a crowdsourcing project that gains critical mass and succeeds – and one that doesn’t? You can bet that one of these platforms resonates strongly with a specific community - and that this is by design, rather than accident.

In order to define and more deeply understand the audience for Pixtory, we examined the Lost Perth Facebook page to understand how and why people were using it.  We then discussed issues related to these kind of platforms from a public history and archival perspective. The user experience we designed for Pixtory was based on these insights.

Discussing research insights and audiences.
User interface design (UI)

In 2012, Fred Gibbs argued that humanists needed to allocate more resources to user interface development stating ‘The user interface for many digital projects often seems developed as an afterthought, thrown together after completing the core functionality’.

Visitors to websites make judgments about them in a fraction of a second. They won't assess your website against a similar platform within your industry or field - they will compare it to the best experiences they have online. Full stop. Companies such as Facebook, Instagram, Dropbox and Wordpress are continually setting benchmarks for interactivity and design.

This is huge challenge for humanists. We simply don’t have access to the same level of funding, let alone long-term sources. Furthermore, funding can be tied to specific deliverables along a timeline, negating an agile design process.

Our Pixtory prototype has a clean, simple, design with an instagram-style layout that allows users to scroll through images  - because we know that people prefer scrolling to clicking when browsing content. It features a simple, intuitive menu and social sharing that allows users to share content and recommend the app to others. You can experience Pixtory's user interface here.

Promote or perish

In 2007, Claire Warwick and Mellissa Terras interviewed teams who had created successful Digital Humanities tools and they found that the single most common factor in the success of a project was a good dissemination strategy. A 2008 report by Dan Cohen, Neil Fraistat, Matthew Kirschenbaum and Tom Scheinfeldt reiterated the need for community building. The report stated that 'user bases must be cultivated and are unlikely to appear naturally' and recognised that 'few projects do the necessary branding, marketing, and dissemination of their tool in the way that commercial software efforts do’. Waiting until the end of your project to define your audience and create and execute a dissemination strategy to reach them is too late.

Civic hacking as a gateway to digital humanities

GovHack 2014 is happening 11-13 July
In her 2011 article ‘Getting Started in Digital Humanities’ Lisa Spiro recognized that digital humanists were 'to some extent self-taught and/or gained their knowledge through work on projects'.  She suggested that humanists with a mind to developing new skills and competencies should ground their learning in a specific project, find collaborators and insightful people with whom they can discuss their work, and learn standards and best practices.

For humanists new to digital humanities,  outcome-driven events like GovHack provide opportunities to gain practical experience and establish networks with like-minded practitioners and organisations outside the academy. For many, civic hacking events could offer an a potential gateway into the field.

Digital humanists make stuff. That’s what we do. But we work under considerable constraints. How do we access the specialist skills we need to make our projects sing? How can we ensure they are executed and disseminated in the most effective ways possible?  I don’t think you need to learn to code to be a digital humanist.  But as digital project managers, perhaps we do need to know about UX/UI



  1. Thanks Jane! It was an intense experience and a steep learning curve - but a great deal of fun!