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Constant Content:The Humanities Go Digital

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By Robin Keats

Published Jan 1, 2014 8:00 AM


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Artwork by David Schwen

The Revolutions Will Be Tweeted

With YouTube videos, tweets and blog posts coming out of the Iranian capital in 2009, graduate student Eskander manually geo-tagged them, showing when and from where the media originated. Sometimes updated as fast as every minute, this was pure news — free of the filter of reporters, tape editors and news producers who usually decide what we learn and when we learn it.

“Social media provides an avenue for this communication to happen, and to be recorded in real time,” says Kawano. “Archiving this dialogue allows us to study any number of conversations that happened during the different critical phases of a crisis unfolding. It [gives us], in a sense, a transcript of an event — not from a singular perspective, but from a vast populace engaged in simultaneous chatter.”

The success of HyperCities Now in Eskander’s project prepared Presner, Kawano and Shepard — however unwittingly — for the tweets that were to come from Egypt and Libya a couple of years later, during the revolutions that took place after Tunisia set off the so-called Arab Spring.

Presner, Shepard and Kawano used hundreds of thousands of tweets from people on the streets of Cairo (and later, Benghazi) and a method of computerized cartography called “thick mapping” to report and archive what was happening, all from participants in real time, all digitized and all currently being analyzed. Presner, a self-described “techie-humanist,” has famously used thick mapping to create an online geodatabase that enables visitors to virtually explore the world’s great cities, layer by layer and era by era.

By studying the commonalities and contrasts between the Egyptian and Libyan tweets, digital investigators are looking for patterns and relationships between the uprisings and how they influenced each other. The researchers use the large data sets to seek inflection points within complex events that are happening in real time and have not reached a resolution. Social media and digital tools, UCLA researchers say, are making it all possible.

What is the practical application of their innovative work? “It is conceivable,” Kawano says, “that [digitizing] could enable operations such as resource allocation of health services, psychological therapy based on behavioral patterns, and real-time search and rescue during times of crisis.”

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That’s the application down the road. Presner explains how this database is now being used. “University researchers are asking, ‘What are the key words in these tweets; how do the Egyptian ones relate to the most common words that showed up in the Libyan tweets a few months later; what can we learn about the public sphere and the nature of public discourse among Twitter users at those times?’ ”

Take 500,000 Tablets and Text Me in the Morning

A little more than a decade before UCLA digital scholars turned their attention to Iran, Egypt and Libya, UCLA Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures Robert Englund embarked on a massive initiative that also focused on the Middle East. It was the ancient records of Sumeria, Babylonia and Assyria that he wanted to digitize — the inscribed, cuneiform tablets from between 2,000 and 5,500 B.C. that are found primarily in the area that comprises modern-day Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

The clay tablets, bearing some of history’s first written records, are so fragile that they can easily dissolve into powder if not excavated and conserved properly. Other cuneiform inscriptions waiting to be deciphered are found on two-ton stones that aren’t very accessible, being not only huge, but located in Iraq. Nor, it’s easy to figure, can they be shipped elsewhere for study.

Englund was an early digital activist at UCLA. In 2000, with $650,000 in grant money from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, he began a campaign to digitize the estimated 500,000 cuneiform tablets and tablet fragments in collections worldwide.

UCLA staff members and graduate students also worked with collaborators at the University of Oxford and with curators at the British Museum and the Louvre to digitize their respective cuneiform collections. Collections at the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, the University of Chicago, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the State Museums in Berlin became part of the digital catalogue.

The realized dream is called CDLI (Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative). Go to http://cdli.ucla.edu — or to the iTunes store for the iPad app called “cdli tablet” — where nearly 300,000 relic records are available for anyone interested to see at broadband speeds.

But that was then. News is now — and that’s also being transformed in the Digital Age.

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