woensdag 12 november 2014

HistoInformatics, Barcelona 10 November 2014: the need for sceptics and heretics

This November the 6th International Conference on Social Informatics (Socinfo) has taken place in Barcelona, bringing together researchers worldwide from the social sciences and computer sciences. In conjunction with this main conference a set of workshops were held on related topics. One of these was Histoinformatics 2014, the second international workshop on computational history. As far as I know this is the only workshop dedicated soley to the use of computational methods for historical research, which sets it apart from the many international gatherings on Digital Humanities in general.

Placa de la Catalunya, Barcelona 9 November

The organizers claim they had to be quite rigorous in accepting papers for this workshop, since they had many submissions. Eleven papers made the cut to be presented there, including a paper from Antske Fokkens, Fred van Lieburg and myself on making an 'old' historical dataset of Dutch ministers available for current and future enhanced use. Considering the claimed high level of rejection it could be expected that the best of what digital history has to offer at the moment would be presented there. So with good hopes I took the plane to Barcelona, together with VU professor in Computer Science Guus Schreiber.

So was the workshop as good as anticipated? I would say maybe and no. Let me start with the maybe. Were the papers presented really the best what digital history has to offer? This is impossible to tell, since all participants came from Western Europe, which leaves out a huge field of digital historians from the United States, Asia and Australia.  The papers dealt with topics and techniques like linking different datasets, automatic data extraction, Named Entity Recognition, and methodological reflections on the use of computational techniques for historical research. All of these are worthwhile topics to investigate and it resulted in interesting and useful papers. Over all however, I did not hear much that was new to me and I feel this was true for most other participants as well. Maybe this is just the current state of digital history, that we all know what we are and should be doing, or maybe there was a lack of groundbreaking submissions for this conference only. It does make me wonder however, if initiatives like these are a bit too much 'preaching for one's own church'. Should we not rather concentrate on missionary work to convince other historians of the benefits of what we are doing?   

Prof dr. Guus Schreiber presenting his paper

Then there is the no of the workshop, which may or may not have all to do with the signalled lack of truely innovative papers. The discussions lacked liveliness and there were hardly any questions which took the presenters by surprise. This may partly be the fault of the location of the worskhop; a lecture room in one of the buildings of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra. The room was dark, the way people were seated did not facilitate interactive discussions and there were no facilities to stimulate a more informal exchange of ideas during the breaks. The fact that the keynote speaker did not show up, I assume for very good reasons, of course did not help either to stimulate a great sense of commitment to the workshop. While one would think that the city of Barcelona normally provides a more than stimulating environment, the city now only underlined the darkness and greyness of the workshop venue.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona 10 November

Of course not everything in academia has to be exiciting, and it is perfectly OK to have a 'boring' workshop on a boring location. When there is a general concensus on what is presented however, one might wonder if it would not be a good idea to stimulate contributions and attendance from digital sceptics and digital heretics as well. Maybe invite a keynote speaker who does not believe at all in the benefitis of digital history and who keeps everyone sharp during the day? I at least look forward to doing a presentation on the same topic for an audience of hopefully sceptical humanities scholars on 21 November.