sunnuntai 29. huhtikuuta 2012

Hello! Here I am again, down with a cold for the 5th fucking time this year. Therefore I must apologise in advance, if the following entry lacks enthusiasm and possible crappy English, because writing while under the influence of a raging fever isn't fun exactly (in any manner, whatsoever -___-). So anyway, we were faced by yet another assignment in the Digital culture course. This time we were supposed to ponder around the subject of computer programs and software as tools and methods of research of history. We were assigned to quite a few web pages and required to observe how the the computer programs these pages resorted to actually worked and if their functions could be used for wider research upon historical topics and agenda.

Digital Research Tools Wiki offered a wide range of useful information around the subject. According to its own words, "this wiki collects information about tools and resources that can help scholars (particularly in the humanities and social sciences) conduct research more efficiently or creatively." A Wikipedia for digital tools and resources, huh? Sounds pretty promising and useful indeed! Digital Research Tools Wiki clearly had a touch with beginners  too, as it offered a direct ink to a glossary on the front page, which seems helpful enough.

Under the headline "Types of Tools" the front page listed various suitable programs for sections of research methods such as eg. "data analysing", "brainstorming", "data collecting" and "networking" among others. Each and every section opened to a new tab with an explanation upon the topic (eg. "Analyze data"; Definition: "A statistical package is a suite of a computer programs that are specialised for statistical analyses. It enables people to obtain the results of standard statistical procedures and statistical significance tests, without requiring low-level numerical programming. Most statistical packages also provide facilities for data management." (Wikipedia)). This helps the scholar/researcher/whoever, to immediately determine, whether the wide array of computer programs and tools offered in the particular section can be to any help in the task they're working on.

The "Analyze data" section offered in other words software such as Analyse-It: "Powerful and accurate statistical analysis and charting add-in software for Microsoft Excel." (Commercial, Windows) and DataDesk: "brings fast, easy-to-use visual analysis to your desktop. It provides interactive graphical tools for exploring and understanding your data - for finding the patterns, relationships and exceptions." (Commercial, multi-platform) among others. Altogether this sections offered up to 17 different computer programs just for analysing data and all the other sections worked in the same manner. The Digital Research Tools Wiki is in other hands not only a normal Wikipedia, that offers information upon digital research tools, but also offers several computer programs necessary for digital researches to download for free.  
The types of tools the web page offered was initially used for planning and writing work, blogs and research papers, taking notes and organising - in other words software meant to ease the manual labour. Although the page is easy to navigate, it basically requires that you know what kind of method and tools you're looking for.

WraggeLabs Emporium on the other hand stated clearly that it supplied hand-crafted digital tools to the discerning historian, whereas Digital Research Tools Wiki had been generally more directed toward scholars in general. WraggeLabs Emporium pointed out, however, that it was mostly directed toward Australian historians, which could be easily seen in its range of programs offered, mostly to aid the Australian historian's research. The web page offered eg. software and tools for using The Australian National Library's Trove system (a system comparable to the database of the Finnish National Archives and National Library), such as Identity Browser. The RecordSearch tools were also quite reminiscent of the databases offered by he Finnish National Archives and National Library and the web page in general quickly proved to be useless, unless the interest and topic of your research limited to Australian history. As with most of the other similar pages, the software offered on WraggeLabs Emporium remained free of charge to download.

Dipity seemed a pretty easily accessible and usable web page, mainly serving to ease creating timelines of different kinds. Although I found this method rather unfamiliar, it did seem refreshing and fun - at least much more interesting than doing a boring timeline by hand onto paper.  According to the front page "Dipity is a free digital timeline website. Our mission is to organises the web's content by date and time. Users can create, share, embed and collaborate on interactive, visually engaging timelines that integrate video, audio, images, text, links, social media, location and timestamps." Sounds pretty impressive, I'd say! The wide range of digital material usable such as video, images, links and such immediately roused my interest, not to mention the prospect of collaborating and sharing timelines. The software seemed easy enough to use and available for people with interest outside scholarly and historical pursuits.

Text_Diff offered text comparison by using a program solely dedicated to such task called simply Text_Diff. The site offered simply the ability to compare two pieces of text easily online - this by simply copy & pasting the strings of text one wants to compare into the forms provided. This tool can be useful in case of a collaborated text a scholar has written with someone needs to be checked for facts and errors. Easy to use, but not of current interest to myself at the moment. 

Wordle is a toy for generating "world clouds" from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text. You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and colour schemes, print them, or save them to Wordle gallery or share with your friends."   I'm sorry, but what the hell? Who uses the word "toy" to describe a software tool? This takes away any credibility the page could have. I must cynically state that I see no whatsoever use for this tool regarding research upon historical topics. This page merely seems to offer "fun" and "creative" ways to make utterly useless clouds of words. What a waste of time...

Dataist claims itself to be a blog about data exploration. "This is a blog about finding, exploring and presenting data online. Or simply data journalism."  The blog did not directly offer any software, but offered methods to using different programs and software in the most effortless manner. Most of the topics aroused little of my interest, and I quite honestly did not show the page much interest at all. A "Tutorial: Using Google Refine to clean mortgage data" did not say me anything and most of the topics in this blog concentrated rather on journalistic, general aspects instead of historical data.

Last but not least in this formidable list of different web pages was Many eyes. The web page did not introduce either its reason for existence or functions on the front page, but after a moment of looking around I came to the conclusion that its main function was to provide a collection of data visualizations. "On Many Eyes you can: 1. View and discuss visualizations, 2. View and discuss data sets, 3. Create visualizations from existing data sets." The tool can be used for creating statistics, apparently, something I'm not manually very acquainted with. I can imagine, however, that this kind of tool can be useful in the future, albeit I'd probably lean towards a site that's more comprehensible, informative and less chaotic than Many Eyes.

The other part of the assignment (don't worry, almost done...), was to contemplate the subject digital history study and research is/could be and compare the outcome with eg. data journalism. Digital history, as a part of the much wider topic of history study, is a perspective or field, that is still quite unexplored and many researchers only tentatively approach it. The digital methods can, according to some, be comparable to the  genuine new methods and dimensions the use of  quantitative methods brought historians in the 1960's and 70's. The intentions of  introducing digital history as a research method are not to overthrow all earlier activity, but to further capacitate and further develop something already contemporary with more vigour. Practically, this would probably result to much more of the actual research, planning and organising done with different digital methods through software, eg. withing education, whereas using multimedia instead of traditional lectures and classes. This might also gain more interest among students bored with the traditional methods of teaching. The scarce resources and  access to technical equipment may however slow down the process, which could be considered revolutionary in some circles.    

The most important part of installing digital history as a method of research in general, is that its intention should rather be to complement the old manners and methods of research rather than  replacing them. Technical enthusiasts also tend to easily focus more upon the technical possibilities instead of discussing pedagogical reflections, which eventually are the actual basis for choices of specific technical solutions and methods. One should not, however, completely abandon the idea of technical spheres, despite the attitude towards it wouldn't be exactly welcoming.   

Wow, that was quite a long entry. Thanks for whatever interest this written piece will or won't arouse in you...

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