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iSGTW Opinion - Beyond books: grid technologies for arts and humanities research

Opinion - Beyond books: grid technologies for arts and humanities research

The Virtual Vellum project investigates technologies that facilitate the retrieval, manipulation and annotation/hotspotting of very high resolution image datasets.
Image © Bibliothèque d
'Etude et de Conservation, Besançon, and Scriptura Ltd

Tobias Blanke of the UK's Arts and Humanities e-Science Support Centre reflects on the growing popularity of grid technology for arts and humanities research.

Who could resist the idea of joining resources from across the world to form global virtual spaces of computing resources, libraries or observatories?

I started working for the UK's Arts and Humanities e-Science Support Centre almost two years ago, and since that time I have been fascinated by grid computing and e-science, and what they could mean for arts and humanities.

Experimenting with the newly possible

Digital resources in such disciplines have mushroomed over the past decade: The Arts and Humanities Research Council in the UK commits roughly half its annual budget to projects which produce some form of digital content.

Although arts and humanities data may not ever be automatically produced on the scale of "gigabytes per hour," a lot of data already exists that is of genuine interest to arts and humanities researchers.

Just one example is the Shoa Multimedia Archive of Holocaust survivors' testimonials in the United States, consisting of 200 terabytes of compressed data and several petabytes of uncompressed data.

More and more humanities data is being produced: The American Council of Learned Societies' Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for Humanities and Social Sciences predicts that by the end of the Bush administration we will have one hundred million emails in which the administration describes important historical developments such as the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina and so on, including a myriad of events yet to occur.

These are small volumes of data when compared to applications in the sciences, but they are still difficult to handle on a single computer.

Putting pixels in the picture

Another challenge that arises with the burgeoning of digital material in arts and humanities is that such material is often fuzzy, incomplete or inaccessible.

Automatic processing is relatively easily when you're dealing with numbers and sensor measurements, but with unstructured information such as that in texts or multimedia formats, complicated statistical calculations are required before knowledge can be extracted. This brings exactly the kind of challenges that grid computing and e-science can address.

And yet, in the opinion of the Arts and Humanities e-Science Initiative in the UK, grids are not just about processing power and incredible data scales.

Prototype manuscript viewer for the Virtual Vellum project, by Colin Dunn, Scriptura Ltd.
Image © Stonyhurst College, Lancashire and Scriptura Ltd

Sharing in a secure environment

Grids stand for the development and deployment of a networked infrastructure and culture through which resources can be shared in a secure environment.

Thus e-research and e-science are about joining things up, and not purely about CPU power or computer networking.

This infrastructure allows a culture of collaboration in which new ways of working together can emerge. According to the Arts and Humanities Data Service, and in particular the AHDS e-Science Scoping Study, it is this global collaboration in virtual spaces that will be of key significance to the directions arts and humanities researchers will take over the next ten years.

In my own case, the Arts and Humanities e-Science Initiative in the UK is only two years young, but already many researchers are interested in the new possibilities grid technologies offer.

Our e-Science Support Centre has already seen early stage ad-hoc experimentation with exciting results, and the AHRC is also embracing e-science.

The next stage will be a more long-term systematic investigation of the changes new network technologies bring about in performance and other practice-led research, the musicology of digital music, the study of ancient documents and manuscripts, library science, and virtual simulation of historical events.

- Tobias Blanke, Arts and Humanities e-Science Support Centre, King's College London

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