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Home > iSGTW 10 February 2010 > Opinion - Supporting the arts and humanities with e-science

Opinion: Supporting the arts and humanities with e-science


There’s a reason why certain tools become classics, almost indispensable for everyday life. Image courtesy Annette Gulick, stock.xchng

Supporting really useful general tools is often the best way to support specialists, says EGEE’s Danielle Venton.

The early days of the World Wide Web were primarily an exclusive, though not a closed, party. Its main attendees were elites in the physics and computer science communities.

Today, the bulk of the developed and developing world is involved. Every sector of society puts the Web to use: your local dance company, church and city council likely all have Web sites. Through these you can learn about and communicate with them in ways not possible before.

Similarly, managing data with e-Infrastructures (distributed computing systems and the like) was, like the Web, initially confined to specialized communities. Today, however, nearly all researchers, including those in the arts and humanities, can use distributed computing systems, and every year more do.

And, like the Web, it is making it possible for them to investigate their field in ways that were not conceived of, or not possible, before.

While the applications used by researchers in the archaeology department of a university may be specific to their field, the e-Infrastructure supporting it would very likely be exactly same as the one used by their colleague in the physics department.

Consider the work of Nicolas Ray at the Computational and Molecular Population Genetics Lab at the University of Bern, Switzerland, who reconstructs human migrations of several thousand years ago by using the genetic diversity of current populations. Ray says that new statistical tools, larger data sets and the robust computing power of computing grids mean he can now examine human migration in greater detail than ever before.

“This is a very exciting field right now — we have so much to study,” he says. “The technology required to obtain genetic data is much cheaper now. We can acquire a large number of genetic markers in many individuals, and obtain data much more rapidly than before.”

The Europeana project makes use of e-infrastructures, by combining the functions of digital library, museum and archive to become a single, all-purpose site where users can swiftly and easily access some 2 million “digital objects” of the continent’s cultural heritage. Image of 'Girl With a Pearl Earring’ by Jan Vermeer, courtesy Europeana.

Unexpected uses of a technology

In a similar case, Nick Malleson, a researcher at Leeds University, depends on the UK’s National Grid Service to power a computer model he has designed to forecast burglary rates. While an imperfect science, Malleson’s model attempts to identify general trends based on a neighborhood’s social structure, geography, proximity to public transportation, and the presence of security systems. Malleson hopes that this will one day help neighborhoods enact policies to predict and prevent crime.

Both Malleson and Ray used computing systems also used by physicists, computational chemists and geologists. The best way for their national e-Infrastructure authority to support them therefore is by supporting the general e-Infrastructure.

The existing infrastructures present a good starting point for the next crop of large scale research infrastructures, some of which are on the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures, or ESFRI, roadmap. Many of these will concentrate on human culture and preservation. The proposed CLARIN (Common Language Resources and Technology Infrastructure) project will interweave digital archives across Europe with language data and tools offers tools for computer-aided language processing.

Meanwhile, the European Social Survey, initiated by the European Science Foundation in June 2001, and now seeking a continuation and expansion, monitors social values in Europe over time. This is improving the rigour of comparative sociology in Europe and beyond. The proposed DARIAH project, or Digital Research Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities, will collect and support digitally-enabled documents and images for research across the humanities and arts. Each of these research initiatives are examining Europe’s public grid infrastructure in closer detail.

“For projects looking to fill their data needs — in all fields — plugging in to the existing systems is a huge advantage,” says Steven Newhouse, EGEE technical director and EGI.eu interim director. “These platforms automatically fulfil the vast majority of a new research communities needs, and the remaining requirements can be customized and tailored individually. Rather than turning their attention to infrastructure provision, this will allow the next generation of research projects to focus on their science.”

—Danielle Venton of EGEE is a former iSGTW editor. For more on this topic, see the “Digitizing Culture” GridBriefing on GridTalk. If you want to comment, see our Forum on Nature Networks.

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