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Honors College Prof Wins NEH Grant for Visual Interface Project

Over the past decade, one of the fastest expanding fields supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has been digital humanities—a new specialization that supports the use of technology in humanities, from providing open access to materials to supporting digital libraries, data mining, and multimedia visualization. While it didn’t exist 15 years ago, today the field of digital humanities is supported by the Office of Digital Humanities (ODH) at the NEH and offers much-coveted, prestigious grants—both start-up and implementation grants—that have resulted in projects such as the Old Bailey searchable online archive, and a Mobile Shakespeare Scripts project. Now, Honors College professor Dan Price and his team have been awarded one of this year’s 32 NEH Digital Humanities Start-up Grants to support their Visual Web Interface for Researchers, or Vwire, project.

Professors and researchers turned to projects in the digital humanities at first because they saw the need for the humanities to step into the technological age and take advantage of the kinds of tools that the natural sciences and mathematics have been using not only to do things more efficiently, but also to do new things that couldn’t necessarily have been done before. According to Price, at first the digital humanities relied on, and was dominated by, taking tools and technology from the sciences and finding ways to apply those to the humanities. Now, Dr. Price says, “It’s about developing humanities-specific tools instead of adapting existing scientific tools.”

One of these humanities-specific tools is Vwire, the project being developed by Price, a research assistant professor in the Honors College; Jerome Crowder, an expert in visual anthropology at the Institute for Medical Humanities at the University of Texas Medical Branch; Rex Koontz, an art historian and the director of the School of Art at the University of Houston; and Ioannis Konstantinidis, a mathematician at the Texas Learning and Computation Center (TLC2) at the University of Houston. The project, which has been under development for three years, consists of the tool—Vwire, which represents images in a web-based collaborative database and allows researchers to organize these images in a purely visual manner—and the project that will use the tool and interviews to understand qualitatively why users organize images the way they do.

While many visual-organization tools require tagging or other quantitative categorization, the Vwire tool and other projects at this next stage of digital humanities respect the “privilege of expert intuition,” Price, the lead researcher and programmer for the project, says. Users build meaning by organizing photos visually, in relationship to each other, based on their needs and expertise. Inspired by research in material culture by Dr. Koontz, part of the project funded by the grant has archaeologists and art historians use Vwire to electronically and visually organize images of masks from Teotihuacan. Dr. Crowder, a visual anthropologist and ethnographer, then interviews the subjects to understand why they sorted the images as they did. In later phases of the testing, subjects view how others organized the images. The team will interview the subjects again to see if they understand what others' sorting means just from what they see. In the background, the team will be mathematically representing what the various sorting methods mean—what’s important about how the images are categorized. After Dr. Konstantinidis provides the mathematics on the back end, the tool can be used to understand the patterns in different sets of visual data. Vwire can display to researchers how their interpretations of images are similar or dissimilar to others, how the interpretations relate to other characterizations of the data, and how the images may or may not fit into their interpretations.

Dr. Price gives a great deal of credit for the success of the project to the ongoing support of the Honors College and its dean, William Monroe. According to Monroe, the project has found a perfect home in the Honors College based on the College’s role as a “crossroads” that allows it to support projects, like this one, that bridge the “deep and unnecessary gaps between departments, and even between quantitative and qualitative approaches within departments.” By its interdisciplinary nature, Honors is uniquely situated to span the range of discourse among the fields that are necessary to the digital humanities. The department providing the computational power for the project—TLC2—is like Honors in that its purpose is to provide collaborative spaces across fields.

As part of the pilot stage of the tool, Honors College student researcher Lauren Lovings has been working with the team to do some of the foundational set-up work, such as entering data about the mask images. While this data will be hidden from the archaeologists and art historians viewing the images, when their results are in, the data will allow Price and his team to compare the visual results from their work to the more traditional tagging methods being used now.