Science research at VU-UvA: CHAT

How can computer scientists work with academics from the humanities? That is a topic the future Center for Humanities and Technology (CHAT) will be focusing on. One of its founders is Lora Aroyo, a researcher from the Web & Media Group in VU Amsterdam’s Computer Science department.

11/17/2015 | 11:16 AM

Data in the humanities is hugely diverse, says Aroyo, ranging from ancient texts to all sorts of very different objects. Organisations such as the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision and the Rijksmuseum have started to digitise those various items, she adds, and have made significant progress in doing so.

Because of this huge quantity of digital data and the associated technological developments, the humanities also are on the verge of a new era, or have entered it already, according to Aroyo. ‘It’s no longer about choosing a topic and studying it in exhaustive detail. Now you can take a birds-eye view of data on a large scale, bring it together, and gain insights into it. And all from the comfort of your own desk.’ This brings with it changes in the questions that academics in the humanities will ask. Take the question of ‘What were the most popular expressions in the 16th century?’ says Aroyo, by way of example. It’s still reflective scholarship, but might have statistics and data science added to it.

This is because the tools for that kind of new research are largely provided by computer scientists. They, in turn, have to work with data they have never used before. And that data is welcome, says Aroyo. ‘Applications were once taboo in computer sciences. Ten years ago you could still publish only on algorithms and statistics. Now it’s impossible to get funding or to publish a paper without an application showing the scientific and social value. Collaboration is essential.’

Aroyo says CHAT is a highly ambitious project which will bring together computer scientists from the UvA, VU Amsterdam, the Netherlands eScience Center and IBM, with academics in the humanities from both universities and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. They will work together to both develop and use new tools. The founders of CHAT have been discussing the initiative since 2011, and in 2014 they published details of their plans in a white paper.

The thinking that has gone into it over the past few years has already helped spark a series of new initiatives. These include the digital humanities project CLARIAH; DIVE+, for the creation of online heritage collections; and the UvA-VU research project QuPID2. Aroyo herself is involved with the latter, researching the modelling of data quality and how it can be improved.

She is enthusiastic about working with computer scientists from the UvA. They complement each other well, she says, both in general and specifically in this project. ‘The UvA is a global leader in multimedia analysis and computer visualisation. At VU Amsterdam, we’re good at the semantic aspects of the web and in the modelling and textual processing of data. If we bring all that together, we'll have all the expertise we need.’

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