Today NEH hosts the 2010 Start-Up Grant project directors meeting, featuring lightning talks on 46 projects funded in the last round. It’s no secret that I’m a fan of lightning talks, which are short elevator pitches — they’ve been a part of THATCamp and we’ll be hosting a panel at the American Studies Association conference this fall that will include them (more details, soon). As Melissa Terras said in her DH2010 Plenary, we must “be prepared by having at the tip of our tongues what we do and why we matter and why we should be supported and why DH makes sense.” This is good practice.
Since each project will be limited to only two minutes and three slides, I plan to gloss-over what was one of the more considerable parts of my grant proposal: a justification for APIs and funding of a workshop as a level-one startup. Instead, my pitch will address the basics: who, what, when, where, and why. I’ve also decided to share relevant text from my accepted proposal below for those that may be interested in learning more. Feel free to leave a comment or contact me directly.
Level 1 Start Up funding is requested to support a two-day workshop on Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), hosted by the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) at the University of Maryland. The workshop will gather 40-50 Digital Humanities scholars and developers who are using or interested in using APIs in their digital projects, industry leaders who will demonstrate their APIs, and practitioners who will help guide the group through the “working weekend.” The workshop will lay the groundwork for the integration of APIs into participant projects, and serve as a platform to develop future ideas for how to share and access humanities data through APIs. Presentations by workshop presenters will be video recorded, and recordings made available online through the workshop and MITH websites. Similarly, workshop activities will be archived on the workshop website, which will act as a clearinghouse and publication of all workshop-related content.
Enhancing the Humanities
Thanks largely to generous funding at both the national and global levels, there are now many large repositories of cultural and scholarly data freely available on the Web. The best of these repositories usually provide tools for searching, viewing, and manipulating their contents; tools, which, following the current conventions and values of web design, are often designed according to an uncluttered, simple aesthetic. These tools make the most common use cases as intuitive and simple as possible, and return nicely formatted results presented as a web page (rather than, say, an XML file or Excel spreadsheet) to be examined within the web space of the archive. There is much to be said for this approach, however, by itself, it can prevent (or make unmanageably difficult) uses of the data that while welcome and useful may not have been imagined by the original designers. A scholar may, for instance, want to ask a question that an elegant but relatively simple search interface does not allow. Another may want to combine the data from two archives together to create a visualization to illuminate previously unknown or unacknowledged connections. The growing number of scholars who have both content expertise and software programming ability increasingly want to access data programmatically (that is, within their own code) rather than by using an intuitive though limited web interface. At the same time, there are often reasons–practical, political, and legal–why it is not always preferable or possible to simply allow users to download the entire dataset for use on their own machines. The most common and arguably best solution to this problem is an Application Programming Interface (API).
An API can be informally defined as a set of published commands that computer programmers can use in their own code to interact with code that they did not write and to which they often have only limited access. For example, an API is often provided to allow third party programmers to retrieve data from a repository that they do not control. The emergence of APIs has facilitated the growth of “mashups”: the combination of data from different sources. Examples of mashups include, for instance, plotting photographs from the photo sharing service Flickr on a Google Map, or dynamically displaying book covers from Amazon.com associated with articles returned from a ProQuest query. Dan Cohen, the Director of the Center for History & New Media has written, “APIs hold great promise as a method for combining and manipulating various digital resources and tools in a free-form and potent way.” Indeed, the potential for APIs to be used in the humanities is significant.
The most-popular APIs have been produced for commercial products including Flickr, Google Maps, and Freebase. Few Digital Humanities scholars, however, have attempted to create APIs for their scholarly repositories. We are therefore organizing a meeting to bring together both Digital Humanities scholars and industry developers in order to study existing APIs and develop a set of recommendations and best practices for API development in the digital humanities. Sessions at the workshop will be videotaped and placed in an online archive to both preserve the work of the sessions and make it available to those who were unable to attend. Events such as the proposed API workshop not only help develop necessary skills within the Digital Humanities community, but serve as a platform for planning, sharing, and innovating.
September – October 2010: The project team will develop and launch the workshop website. This website will house not only information regarding the event but will also serve as a clearinghouse for all materials relating to the workshop.
November 2010: An official call for participants will be published on the MITH website as well as the workshop website. The two-day workshop will be promoted on Digital Humanities email lists and social media sites (such as Twitter). Potential participants will have one month to submit a brief application that explains who they are and what they’d like to do at the event. From that list, MITH staff will choose a group of participants (should the number of interested parties exceed the 50 participants budgeted). Participants will be selected based on their programming ability and their connection to an existing or emergent digital humanities project which might benefit from an API.
December 2010: Participants will be notified through email about the status of their applications.
Late January 2011 or February 2011: The two-day workshop will be held at the University of Maryland in College Park. Each of the two days will have similar structure: mornings will feature talks by representatives from data repositories with existing, exemplary APIs, followed by afternoon breakout sessions in which small groups of digital humanities practitioners will seek to implement the ideas shared in the morning sessions into their own code. Time at the end of each afternoon will accommodate brief presentations of ideas.
March 2011-May 2011: Lester and a web developer will produce a web exhibition of video from the workshops. Lester will produce a white paper and a set of guidelines for designing APIs for the humanities which will be vetted by workshop participants.
Final Product and Dissemination
The workshop will be promoted through a website developed specifically for the event, through various social media including Twitter and Facebook, the Humanist listserv, and MITH’s community mailing list. In addition, video recordings of the speakers will be made available on the website along with notes from participants. Additionally, MITH will publish a set of guidelines for developing web-based APIs for digital humanities projects which will be published on the site and promoted through the same channels that promoted the workshop. The resulting website will act as a resource for those interested in the event, as well as humanities researchers interested in leveraging APIs in their digital work.
Earlier this month the National Endowment for the Humanities announced 28 new awards from their Digital Humanities Start-Up Grants program, including the funding of my proposal to organize and run a two-day API workshop. The workshop will gather 40-50 digital humanities scholars and developers who are using or interested in using APIs in their digital projects, industry leaders who will demonstrate their APIs, and practitioners who will help guide the group through the “working weekend.” The workshop’s abstract is available online.
I was inspired to organize the MITH API workshop by discussion at last year’s NiCHE API workshop, organized by William Turkel. I hope our workshop will build off the success of NiCHE’s event and offer concrete ways that APIs can be integrated into digital humanities projects today. As part of the event, time for hacking/building is scheduled in afternoons to prototype ideas. Video of presentations will be recorded and made available online for those that can’t attend. I’ll blog further details about the API workshop and how to participate in October.
Funded by the same NEH program, congratulations to my colleagues Tanya Clement and Doug Reside on their “Professionalization in Digital Humanities Centers” workshop.