Internship Post #7

Post# 7:  What insights do you have about working in digital public humanities as a result of this experience? What new questions or ideas do you have as a result of this experience?

In response to the question above I’ll start by referring to George Mason University’s description of its digital public humanities program. It states that “digital tools and resources are transforming the ways in which organizations research, interpret, and communicate.” As a result of this transformation there is a growing interest in digital humanities. Organizations are keenly aware of the need to change the way they digitally communicate to the public. In fact during the past several years the digital media transformation has been amazing. Today, the Internet and social media overshadow almost all other traditional public media. However, with all transformations there are often many challenges to overcome. In regard to the introduction of new digital tools there is often a hesitancy to make a complete break with legacy processes. As a result organizations need to orchestrate a strategic approach that encourages their workforce to experiment with and ultimately adopt new digital tools.

My internship experience at that the Smithsonian Institution (SI) exemplifies this transformation. As an educational organization, the Smithsonian is recognized for its public facing and adoption of new digital technologies. But like most large organizations, the Smithsonian faces several challenges in managing this change. For example, in the past information technology was centrally managed, and new digital tools were introduced cautiously. But today, mobile apps, and cloud based applications, are being created with breath taking speed. In addition, large organizations are having a difficult time preventing various departments and individuals from purchasing and deploying new digital tools. As a result today’s workforce is growing weary of the introduction of new technologies.

Organizations are facing a significant technology fatigue. Many new technologies are disruptive (challenging the status quo) and end-users are becoming resistant to change. Especially if the perceived value of a new tool diminishes the value of an employee’s knowledge of a legacy system or process.

This semester I have been working with SI’s Earth Optimism (EO) team. EO is a rebranding of the original Earth Day which dates back to April 22, 1970 and was intended to generate awareness of the need for environmental protection. In 2017 the Smithsonian launched Earth Optimism to refocus the world’s attention away from the gloom and doom associated with climate change to a more positive message. As a result, during the past several years there has been a multitude of videos produced on the subject.

This year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall will feature Earth Optimism for the first time. The EO team is planning many activities and displays including a “pocket cinema”, or small tent theater, where visitors will be able to watch videos on Earth Optimism projects from around the world. The challenge is that many of the videos have not been transcribed or captioned, and do not meet current accessibility standards. As a result, the EO team needs a digital tool that can easily extract from the audio the necessary text, transcribe it, edit it, and then “burn” the captions into the video.

While this type of AI based, natural language processing technology has existed for sometime, the Smithsonian EO team is just now “discovering” the need for it. An interesting insight is that without a defined strategic plan to research, test, and adopt new technologies organizations will continue to have challenges with their digital transformations. When an organization has a strong enough business case they can accept the disruptive nature of a new digital tool and eventually it will organically be introduced. However the adoption rate is going to be somewhat chaotic or even random.

What I have learned so far is that the success of adopting a new technology usually comes from the organization’s perceived value of a new digital tool versus a legacy system, or an older process. In the case of burning in captions, the Smithsonian’s legacy process required contracting out the service. But I was able to demonstrate that existing online applications could accomplish the task at a drastically reduced cost and quicker turn around. It is clear that employees need to know that they will not be penalized for experimenting with or introducing new digital tools. In the future, the need to adopt new digital public humanities technology will only grow. Especially if organizations are going to keep up with their mission to “research, interpret, and communicate.”


Internship Post #6

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Post #6: What skills or knowledge from your coursework are you using in your internship?  Have you noticed a difference between theory and practice?  Why or why not?  

When discussing my studies at the Digital Humanities (DH) program at George Mason University, and my internship at the Smithsonian Institution, the difference between theory and practice becomes evident. The coursework has been very valuable in defining the field of Digital Humanities and its potential applications. But the internship, while reinforcing the importance of DH, especially in capturing, and sharing knowledge, has also pointed out the struggle many organizations face in leveraging advances in computing technologies in the workplace.

In looking back at some of my earlier class assignments, I came across this paragraph I wrote defining DH.

“While all fields of academia have been – digitized – the Humanities appears to have gone through a more contorted transformation.  This is a direct result of the impact computing has on digitizing text, and the corresponding development of taxonomies, ontologies, and metadata.  Early definitions of DH primarily focused on the collection of data, initially textual, that enabled academics to “objectify” their thoughts and concepts and to make them more public.  This reflects the early digital technologies that leveraged word processing.  The ability to search large corpus of text and analyze and research patterns of information was groundbreaking.”

My internship experience, on both American Ginseng, and now the Earth Optimism project, demonstrates that there is an evolutionary process in adopting DH technologies. For example, the Smithsonian embraced content management technologies, especially digital asset management years ago. But for the most part this has been more text based. Today, there is a demonstrable need for media asset management, especially with the exponential growth of audio and video files. As a result, the need to automate the process of summarizing media content by extracting metadata, is becoming a high priority.

The Earth Optimism Project over the past several years has developed large quantities of informative environmental videos, many linked on Smithsonian websites. But with no process of extracting metadata from these stored media files the organization faces a significant problem, how to make them more discoverable, and accessible? So far, my internship has taught me, that most people can define what the problem is that needs to be solved, but not how their organization can solve it. From other work experiences it is certain that the very nature of large, bureaucratic organizations, prevent agile procurements and adoption of new technologies and processes. As a result, the Smithsonian, while demonstrating its strength in developing and producing educational content, also recognizes that it has a significant gap in their processes of distributing and repurposing this media. Especially in today’s social media environment that leverages metadata, tagging, and content integration.

The major skills or knowledge that I am drawing upon from my coursework is that the broadening definition of Digital Humanities encompasses the reality that it is no longer about the technology but rather what an organization can do with it and who ultimately can have access to the information.  What I am learning from the internship is that the Smithsonian, like other organizations, is challenged by their traditional role as a gatekeeper of knowledge. But recognizing that information technology, especially Social Media, requires them to transforms the way the way they interact with audiences. As a result, the Smithsonian needs to reevaluate its strategic planning and the introduction of computing technology, especially artificial intelligence, to assist in sharing information and engaging with people seeking media content.

The Smithsonian obviously recognizes the need for investing in cognitive services like media indexing, tagging, transcribing, and translation technologies to automate content summarization and integration. However, in the past these services were expensive and difficult to integrate with existing applications. But today these cloud based technologies have become quite common, especially in the entertainment industry. For example, Netflix and other streaming providers use content summarization to assist audiences with searching and selecting programs. Finally, and most importantly, the cost of these services is dramatically decreasing. So the return on the investment (ROI) becomes more evident when comparing the human hours required to extract metadata from media files versus an automatic process. I expect in the next several years, the Smithsonian will introduce cognitive services across the enterprise and automate their metadata extraction. It will be another evolution of the impact that digital humanities is having on the workplace.