Friday, March 30, 2007

Digital Infrastructure for Collaborative Research

Web 2.0 teaches us to think in terms of remixable web services that can join people together on the fly to create collective intelligences. Such groups can readily solve problems that are well beyond the scope or capabilities of any particular individual, and thus will have important ramifications for future research. One of the key opportunities for digital humanists is to find ways to harness this power in our collaborative work.

Here I will lay out a few principles and ideas for such an infrastructure; as always, I'd be grateful for any feedback.

1. Open access and open source. The principle of open access is to make research results freely available to everyone. Open access research reaches a greater audience than gated research and has more impact. Errors are more readily caught. Copies are more likely to be archived. Social inequities are lessened. The principle of open source is to make software and code freely available. New tools can be built on the work of others, code is maintained indefinitely, and, again, errors are more readily caught.

2. APIs. At a low-level, the creation of application program interfaces allows content providers to share information in such a way that it can easily be reused. It also becomes much easier for tool makers to integrate different sources of information as necessary, or as they become available. For example, once Google provides a web service that maps things, and OCLC provides a web service that gives the location of library books, it is quite easy to create a "mashup" that plots the location of books on a map. Any serious infrastructure for the digital humanities will require the low-level cooperation of researchers and repositories of cultural heritage. One mechanism by which this may be accomplished is the creation and distribution of open source APIs for catalog software. Then, when a library, archive or museum makes their catalog available online to human searchers, they will also be making it available to mashup developers.

3. Information dashboards. Individual researchers will need an interface that shows them the state of the field at a glance and facilitates communication with colleagues. Presumably they will have an account with a customizable homepage that supports RSS feed remixing, collections of shared and private documents, access to text, audio and video communications channels, and other tools. The system will flag information that they haven't seen yet. New widgets can be added to support tasks like information trapping, customized search, data mining, and visualization.

4. Browser-based tools. For work with online sources, researchers will also make use of tools that are built into the browser, like Zotero. At the moment, Zotero allows you to automatically scrape bibliographic information from a webpage that you are viewing into a citation database. Future releases will allow you to do things like synchronize your own database with a server, share citations with colleagues, or provide an RSS feed of your recently tagged items. By making the server-side infrastructure compatible with Zotero, both tools will become more powerful.

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