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Venturing Into Computational Humanities

Venturing Into Computational Humanities
New field seeks to bring advanced computing to humanities, social science research
By Ronald Roach

It’s natural to expect that a significant degree of contemporary scientific discoveries stem from the application of high-performance computing and supercomputers to complex problems. Given that high-performance computing has exclusively been serving science for some time, a California-based researcher and administrator is looking to change all that by bringing advanced computing power to the aid of humanities and social science research.

Dr. Kevin Franklin, the assistant director of the University of California Humanities Research Institute (UCHRI), promotes the term “computational humanities” as a way of describing his work, which is developing the infrastructure so that researchers in the social sciences and humanities can access the computational power of high-performance computer networks and supercomputers.

“We’re trying to pull together humanities research centers and supercomputing organizations into a conversation on how to apply high-performance computing to the humanities and the social sciences,” Franklin says.

Currently, Franklin is pushing two projects as the basis of the computational humanities field he hopes will emerge with the collaboration among the humanities, social science and high-performance computing communities in the United States.

The first project is being led by his organization, UCHRI, and the Duke University John Hope Franklin Center. The effort, titled the Humanities Research Core, is promoting the widespread adoption of interoperable standards and scientific technology within the humanities and social science fields. It also will develop specialized networks and systems for knowledge discovery and communications across the humanities and theoretical social sciences, according to Franklin. The first workshop for the Humanities Research Core will be held in Irvine, Calif., June 6-7.

The second initiative has UCHRI developing a computer system to be known as the Humanities Grid. The system will serve the University of California campuses. Computing grids are computer systems that connect together multiple servers, storage systems, databases and applications over a single network, and provide its users access to computing power that is on par with a supercomputer. Grid computing typically involves coordinated resource-sharing and problem solving with computers spread across numerous institutions.

Some practical uses of high-performance computing include visualization and simulation projects, database development, number crunching and data analysis of research, and collaboration among scholars at numerous institutions, according to Franklin. He adds that another component of computational humanities will have scholars debating and defining the significance of advanced computing.

“Scientists and computer experts in this area have done very little in the way of thinking about and explaining what advanced computing means for modern society,” he notes.

A veteran administrator of educational outreach programs in nonprofit organizations and higher education, Franklin says the idea of marrying humanities and high-performance computing occurred to him when he served as deputy director of the University of California-San Diego Supercomputer Center before coming on board at UCHRI in January 2002. At the San Diego Supercomputer Center, Franklin directed business development, government affairs and technology transfer in biotechnology, environmental informatics and high-performance computing.

“I realized that there hadn’t been enough dialogue between the two communities,” Franklin says.

Dr. David Goldberg, director of the UCHRI, says the idea of combining high-performance computing with the humanities has rarely been discussed. “Some people have been saying that high-performance computing could be brought to our research. This project is taking actual steps to make it happen,” Goldberg says.

Stephenie McLean, the program director of access and inclusion initiatives with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), says computational humanities could help her organization attract interest in high-performance computing from faculty members in the humanities and the social sciences at minority-serving institutions. NCSA, which is based at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has partnered with minority-serving institutions to share the benefits of high-performance computing.

“We’re hoping the humanities project will stir additional interest in supercomputing and grid computing among the minority-serving schools,” she says.

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