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A ‘New Digital Class’ Digs Into Data

Fifty-three thousand 18th-century letters. Twenty-three thousand hours of digitized world music. The records of more than 197,000 individual trials held in Britain over 240 years. What can humanities scholars and social scientists do with such large tracts of raw material? This year the Digging Into Data Challenge invited research teams to submit proposals for big-scale, computer-enabled “cyberscholarship” or “data-driven inquiry.”

On Thursday the National Endowment for the Humanities, one of the challenge’s sponsors, announced that the first Digging Into Data grants have gone to eight international (mostly trans-Atlantic) teams. Other sponsors include the National Science Foundation, the Joint Information Systems Committee in Britain, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council in Canada.

So a team of scholars from Stanford University, the University of Oklahoma, and the University of Oxford will investigate “Digging Into the Enlightenment: Mapping the Republic of Letters.” Their goal is “to analyze the degree to which the effects of the Enlightenment can be observed in the letters of people of various occupations.” A team from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Southhampton, and McGill University will attempt a “Structural Analysis of Large Amounts of Music Information.” They aim “to develop tools to tag and analyze the underlying structures” of music from “a wide range of styles, regions, and time periods.” And a team from George Mason University, the University of Hertfordshire, and the University of Alberta will focus on “Using Zotero and TAPoR on the Old Bailey Proceedings,” a project with the CSI-like subtitle “Data Mining With Criminal Intent.”

Announcing the awards at a Research Council of Canada meeting in Ottawa, James A. Leach, the NEH’s new chairman, invoked that old C.P. Snow “two cultures” chesnut. The divide between the humanities and the scientists persists, the chairman said, but a new breed of scholars is changing that.

“While the Digging Into Data Challenge signifies interactive, international scholarship of a distinctive kind, the bigger picture is that the initiative is a reflection of the emergence of a ‘new digital class’ composed of humanists as well as scientists and engineers,” the chairman said. “Divisions continue between scientific logic and cultural reasoning, but math-based technology can now be utilized as readily by the linguistically oriented as by the scientifically inclined.”

Ladies and gents, start your machines.

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