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Constant Content:The Humanities Go Digital


By Robin Keats

Published Jan 1, 2014 8:00 AM

UCLA is at the forefront of applying digital technology to news and the social sciences. Web-based media forms, data archiving, social networking, mapping technologies and visualization environments have opened limitless possibilities.


Artwork by David Schwen

A 9.0 earthquake strikes 80 miles off the coast of Sendai, Japan. A 30-foot-high tsunami slams into the country, and its huge Fukushima nuclear power station goes beyond critical. Victims caught in the devastation, or fleeing it, begin tweeting what’s happening to them. One asked of anyone catching his tweet: “What’s going on? Why are we made to suffer so much? Haven’t you shaken us enough? What have we done to deserve this?”

One person taking note was Yoh Kawano M.A. ’97, UCLA’s campus geographic information systems coordinator, who captured the desperate tone in real-time tweets. The Japanese native had seen what a tsunami could do. He had been to Indonesia three months after the catastrophe caused by a quake generated killer wave in 2004. “Standing on the shores of what was left of the city of Banda Aceh, where more than 100,000 people died, and then witnessing my home country suffer through a similar catastrophe fueled a desire to study these crises in an effort to advise on future ones,” he says.

Kawano, along with Todd Presner, faculty chair of the UCLA Program in Digital Humanities, and Dave Shepard, lead academic developer at the UCLA Center for Digital Humanities (DH), had supported graduate student Xarene Eskander as she analyzed social media coming from Tehran during the politically turbulent post-election days of 2009. Using Google Maps and a UCLA-created mapping platform called HyperCities Now, Eskander combined YouTube videos, Twitter updates, blog posts and images in chronological order to create a revolutionary genre of Internet news coverage — all live, all eye-witnessed — that was then digitized, analyzed and shared with the world.


Artwork by David Schwen

The study of our past, present and future is being deeply and permanently transformed by technology. In the social sciences, humanities and news, the Digital Age is ushering in new ways to understand our world. And perhaps nowhere has this revolution taken deeper root than in Westwood.

Welcome to the E-Humanities

It’s clear how new technology benefits engineering, medicine and science. But applying new technologies to gathering and analyzing more subjective data, such as those used in the social sciences, requires a different kind of inventive mind.

Under the auspices of UCLA’s Center for Digital Humanities, faculty and students are digitizing distant corners of the field with fervor akin to Google’s techno-hunter-gatherer approach to data.

While Google seeks to chart every keystroke we make in order to generate targeted advertising revenue, the Center for Digital Humanities is digitizing wide-ranging elements of civilization for academic study: from Egyptology to Scandinavian folklore, from a virtual tour — in UCLA’s Visualization Portal — of ancient Rome’s enormous forum complex, to 3-D modeling of a horse stable thought to be King Solomon’s.

“Databases are big piles of messy data,” explains David Schaberg, UCLA dean of humanities, about the university’s leading efforts in uniting algorithms and academics. “Students can learn to work with that data and to pose questions that the data might answer under certain circumstances.”

The Center for Digital Humanities, consolidated from predecessors in 2013, has exponentially expanded our understanding of the immediate world and our depth of knowledge of the historic humanities for more than a decade. Not only does it give faculty members an opportunity to work on the very edges of research, it also gives undergraduates opportunities for hands-on experience in digital humanities scholarship.