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XSEDE humanities gateways

How do you define digital humanities?

In my role at XSEDE I take the broadest possible view. What I am interested in is any use of computation in the pursuit of scholarship and/or teaching in the humanities. I’ve been working with folks from departments like history, literature, philosophy, art, photography, music, archaeology, anthropology, political science, communication, and so on.

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Alan Craig
Alan Craig stands on the beach of the Arctic Ocean at Barrow, Alaska, where he recently assisted with a camp that helps students learn about climate change. (Courtesy Kate Cooper / XSEDE.)

What does the digital component add that we couldn’t do otherwise?

The single biggest thing is scale. For instance, you can close-read a book or a couple of books, but if you want to analyze thousands or millions of books at a deep level, no human being can do that. If we can effectively harness a machine to handle some of those tasks, we can speed up what we are doing. 

On the other hand, as opposed to thinking in terms of time, we can think of this in terms of capability because now we can start to attack problems we couldn’t have approached at all. Even if we have infinite time, we still can’t do certain things because certain problems are intractable.

Yes, HPC speeds up this process and enables you to sift a large quantity of books, videos, or images in a much shorter period of time than humanly possible. But it will also help you find all the relationships in those artifacts — the people-to-people relationships, people-to-place relationships, idea-to-person relationships, and idea-to-place relationships.

You can’t even think about building that huge graph of interconnections in a lifetime, and with each data asset you add in the complexity explodes.

Another example is in the social sciences, where scholars are interested in researching voting districts and re-drawing district boundaries. What if we redraw them every possible way as opposed to just picking a small segment of possibilities? With computation, you can try things exhaustively.

How does the humanities’ use of HPC differ from the hard sciences?

Primarily what we have seen in the sciences is simulation: Scientists use HPC to simulate some natural phenomenon. In the humanities, what we see is data analysis. For instance, consider the topic of authorship — if we feed the system images or texts by known creators, then we can feed images of unknown origin and have the computer suggest who might have been the creator.

What do XSEDE gateways add to the mix?

XSEDE Gateway services lower the bar, reduce the training and learning curve, and make high-performance computers accessible to humanities scholars. When people apply for XSEDE machine time — and machine resources, processing, storage etc. — if needed, they can request human support as a separate part of your allocation. We call it extended collaborative support services (ECSS). On the humanities’ side, we often provide help conceptualizing and implementing projects on the XSEDE resources.

XSEDE already has a multitude of science gateways. We’ve also identified a lot of common processes humanities scholars are after, but with different data. Recently we’ve been working with some principal investigators who are interested in putting up some gateways for the humanities community to use.

These gateways are website interfaces with drop-down menus that walk you through a workflow where you choose your data, preprocess your data, and choose from a variety of options and analytic tools. The GIS gateway has been in existence for a while now, and we’ve also got development projects going right now for text, video, and network analysis gateways that look for relationships between artifacts.

In short, the whole point of the gateways is to lower the barrier of entry so that scholars are coming to a friendly, higher-level interface. That way, every researcher who wants to do topic modeling on a collection of texts doesn’t have to implement their own topic modeling system if what we have in the gateway will do. It becomes so much easier, and a less technical background is required. 

What do you say to the humanities scholar hesitant to use XSEDE gateways?

Think about the name XSEDE — it’s the Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment. Some people might look at that and say, ‘Well that doesn’t include me, right?’ The answer is: ‘Yes, it does include you.’ Humanities scholars are welcome here at XSEDE.

At XSEDE we’re interested in bringing humanities scholars into HPC. But really the bigger hurdle is bringing the humanities into computing in general, whether it’s high-performance or not. At XSEDE, we’re looking at helping you make that jump into using computation in support of your scholarly and teaching pursuits, whether you need a supercomputer or not.

The other thing humanities scholars should know about XSEDE is that even though you are entering into a technical space, there’s a lot of support and assistance available. Some might fear being totally on their own without knowing what to do, but at XSEDE there are a lot of resources to help — after all, we’re interested in showing off successful projects, so we want to make sure people have the support they need. We believe that not only will they learn from us, but we will also learn from them.

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