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.


Internship Post #5

Post #5: What about your internship has been an eye-opening (new or unexpected) experience? What were your initial expectations? Have these expectations changed now that you are half-way through? How? Why?  

Last week I started the second semester of my internship at the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife & Cultural Heritage. My assignment for the next several months will be working on the Institution’s “Earth Optimism” project which will be on display at the Folklife Festival on the National Mall June 22–26 and June 30–July 4, 2022. Earth Optimism, a Smithsonian led movement started several years ago to recognize the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, focuses on changing the narrative from doom-and-gloom to hope, inspiring action and mobilizing a global community.

According to Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch, “Earth Optimism shows us how to find hope in the face of odds that might seem overwhelming. It reminds us that change happens when we focus on what works—when we collaborate to find solutions and celebrate our successes.”

The concept of Earth Optimism is in itself “eye-opening” since it is an attempt to re-frame or redefine the global debate over climate change. For most people, the constant stream of negative stories about the world’s climate is forcing them to tune out the message. As a result the media needs to balance their climate change reporting. More positive or “optimistic” stories can help.

For example, Climate Scientist Katharine Hayhoe during a recent Ted Talk addresses the problem of “How do you talk to someone who doesn’t believe in climate change?” She reminds us that you can’t rehash the same data and facts that has been reported on for years. Instead, Hayhoe suggests that the key to having a real discussion is to connect over shared values like family, community and religion — and to prompt people around the world to realize that they already care about a changing climate.

For the past several years the Smithsonian’s Earth Optimism project has been accumulating an extensive collection of video material on climate change. Dozens of video files are available on the Earth Optimism website. However the problem lies in the fact that this compelling content is not easily “discoverable”. Video titles and brief descriptions are listed. Unfortunately, the necessary metadata tagging, and indexing of transcripts is non-existent. I find this “eye opening” as well. My expectation is that large organizations like the Smithsonian should already have in place more efficient “cataloging” or media search functionalities on their websites.

Since the public has grown accustomed to streaming sites like Hulu and Netflix, the Smithsonian is at risk of not reaching their intended audiences. These popular sites are rich in metadata and assist viewers in their search for content. As a result the Smithsonian needs to review its long term media strategy. It is evident that the value of any media content is diminished by its lack of visibility. In addition, there is a lot that can be learned from social media like Youtube and TikTok. These sites employ sophisticated algorithms that learn from user’s preferences.

For the next several months I am hoping to make the Smithsonian staff more familiar with new digital tools and applications that aid in media indexing. In addition, I will suggest that a Earth Optimism “media tool kit” be developed. I believe this tool kit would be able to provide a comprehensive index of available stories and interviews. This will assist journalists in becoming more familiar with current and future Smithsonian stories and media resources regarding climate change. It will also help promote the Earth Optimism exhibit this Summer at the Folklife Festival.


Internship Post #4

Post 4:  What are you doing that seems to be successful in the internship?  Challenging? How can you address these challenges?

In response to the question – what am I doing that seems to be successful? – I have been able to introduce a video component to the American Ginseng project. While only a brief video, it provides an easy to watch overview of the website and encourages visitors to explore the site.

The American Ginseng project is about sharing the stories of people with expert knowledge of this fascinating plant. So far, the site’s collection of dozens of stories are text based. But for visitors not familiar with the subject, they may find it difficult to determine where to start or what to search for. As a result an overview video of the project serves several important purposes. It provides a visualization of the overall theme of the site that can easily be shared and translated. It also becomes a key focal point of any social media strategy. Finally, the video serves as a template, on how to produce and develop future multimedia components.

The project team designed the website as a digital collection of “American Ginseng stories”. Individuals are encouraged to upload their stories in a text based format. But like a library full of books, visitors to the site might not know where to start. So there is a need for some resource that permits visitors to get an overview of what is available and where to find it.

Sharing stories, especially oral and written stories, is rooted in the Smithsonian’s mission to preserve folklife traditions. For decades the institution has been a leader in capturing America’s heritage on both audio and video. But the challenge facing the site’s production team was sustaining the Smithsonian’s high production standards while producing videos economically.

Since the site is designed for a broad audience familiar with multimedia, it became apparent that further consideration for including some video components was necessary. The opportunity came when a production team was able to video a wide selection of American Ginseng experts talking about the plant and the Smithsonian’s project. The challenge was how to produce a short video from the available material on a very limited budget.

The solution was to use my background in video editing and leverage a low cost media tool, Apple’s “iMovie.” I was able to demonstrate that a short length, high quality video can be produced economically. The final video addresses the challenge of what is sustainable within the project’s restraints. But most importantly it provides a visible template for future Smithsonian web based projects.


Internship Post #3

Interview Clips that have been indexed

So for this post I am having to respond to the question “what new skills are you learning?” The answer is plenty. But in particular, the most important is a refresher from previous work experience, how to introduce new technologies at an organization with already established procedures and process. In my case, I have been asked to work on a video project that includes media that was taken at an event in Ohio several weeks ago. The new technology is a video indexing application that allows for an AI process to transcribe and translate text from audio. The application is invaluable for video production, especially if there a language component. However, for organizations not familiar with language versioning it introduces all sorts of complications.

What I am learning is that even well established organizations like the Smithsonian have hybrid production teams composed of members from various units. This usually works for rapid development, but does not always accommodate last minute changes or new requirements. In the case of the American Ginseng project, there is a need for a globalization strategy that would permit language versioning of text and media for key markets, especially China. But adding this functionality as a new requirement would add significant cost and effort.

A cooking video that was transcribed and translated into Mandarin

The prototype application that I am working with, Iomovo, provides a possible solution. My goal is to demonstrate this new AI technology and permit all of the various teams involved with the project to determine how it could assist with future language versioning requirements.

As you can imagine it is not always a new technology that is the most difficult thing to overcome. In the case of transcribing and translating, there are other complications. For example, Natural Language Processing (NLP) can only automate so much. There will always be a need for a human editor to review and ensure the quality of the translation. Unfortunately, not everyone who is a native speaker is a qualified translator.

So the important new skill I have learned is to always make sure that the introduction of a new technology clearly solves a problem and not create another one. For the remainder of my internship, I am hoping to assist the Smithsonian develop the resources, processes and procedures to ensure the success of their developing global versioning strategy.

Digital Humanities Internship

Internship Post#2

The best part of being an intern is observing and learning. Since you don’t have any responsibility you can stand back and gain a new perspective. It is expected that interns will only be given peripheral assignments, but this gives them the luxury of time to absorb and learn from what others have done. For my internship with the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife & Cultural Heritage, my job is to assist with the launch of their new website “American Ginseng: Local Knowledge, Global Roots.” Since the project was already well underway there was not much I could offer in the way of web development. However, by arriving at such a late stage in the project my user experience with the site offered some welcomed and neutral perspectives.

Often those close to a project lose their objectivity. They expect everyone to share their passion about the topic and have familiarity with the information presented. In the case of American Ginseng, the site tries to connect local folk knowledge with an overall global perspective. The site does a good job of collecting individual stories, the “Global Roots” is lacking. This could be a problem, especially for visitors that are encouraged to explore the site, but lack a broader understanding of the subject. As a result I recommended that an introductory video, 2-3 minutes would enhance the site’s potential to reach a wider audience. The inclusion of a video would provide the necessary background information to encourage visitors to click on the various stories. Also, overall web analytics confirm that users tend to stay longer on a site when offered the opportunity to watch a video.

The good news is that the idea, so far, has been received well and the production of such a video falls well into my area of expertise. The Smithsonian already has an extensive library of video and still imagery to draw upon to ensure their is sufficient media content for its production. The web team may be hesitant to embrace the idea since the current navigation does not provide a link to multimedia. This is where a shared goal may need to be communicated.

From a learning perspective, trying to engage the project team and get them to accept the necessity of adding the video reminds me of an earlier point in my career. As an assistant producer it was important to present the “facts” to senior staff and gain their acceptance of an idea. Sometimes even let them think that it was their idea. For me adding the video is a no brainer, especially if it will enhance the overall success of the project.

Since it is easy for me to produce such a video, I will need to be sensitive to others who think it might be too complex. They might tend to lean towards saying no due to the bureaucracy. In presenting the case for why it is important I need to stress that an introductory video is an opportunity to leverage the tradition of “oral history” which the Folklife Festival is so well known for. The American Ginseng site was originally designed just for text stories. I understand why, since the submission of “video” would create a nightmare of media quality issues. However, multimedia, especially video, is a clear preference for time conscious visitors. This is evident in web stats and the popularity of YouTube and Instagram.

Finally, as an intern I am having to re-learn how to not only point out a problem but also offer the solution. While I have the luxury to second guess the project’s original goals and objectives, I also have the responsibility to ensure that it succeeds as well. Stay tuned, it will be interesting to see how the outcome.

Digital Humanities Internship

Smithsonian Internship Post #1

Smithsonian Castle

Last week I officially started my internship with the Smithsonian’s Folklife and Cultural Heritage Department. Having lived in Washington DC for over 40 years, working for the Smithsonian has always been high on my bucket list. Also, 40 years ago I started my first internship with the United States Information Agency as a still-photographer. One of my first assignments was taking pictures of the Folklife Festival on the Mall. Its funny how life can come full circle.

According to the Smithsonian’s strategic plan, its goal is to ” build on its unique strengths to engage and to inspire more people, where they are, with greater impact, while catalyzing critical conversation on issues affecting our nation and the world.” In regard to Folklife and Cultural Heritage, its mission is to “through the power of culture, we build understanding, strengthen communities, and reinforce our shared humanity.”

As part of this strategy one of the primary goals and objectives is to “Promote awareness of our collections through conferences, presentations, and digital outreach.” To support this digital outreach effort the Folklife and Cultural Heritage group is turning towards social media and that is where my internship comes into play. I have been assigned to a particular project called American Ginseng: Local Knowledge, Global Roots.

American Ginseng is a new website developed by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife & Cultural Heritage. This site presents the shared stories of a wide variety of people with intimate knowledge of the harvest, cultivation, trade, medicinal use, and conservation of this fascinating plant.

Relatively unknown, American Ginseng is highly prized in Asian traditional medicine. Grown in the wild in the eastern United States, the plant’s root can be worth well over $500 a pound. The story of American Ginseng goes back several hundred years and for many communities in Appalachia, the prized root has been a source of much needed income.

Unfortunately due to its high value and the degradation of its natural habitat, wild American ginseng faces many threats, from encroaching suburban sprawl and extraction industries to the environmental impact of climate change. The goal of the American Ginseng project is to promote conservation efforts. By using social media to encourage growers, dealers, and researchers to share their stories, it is hoped that the site can be a digital advocate for — “protection by government agencies, education on good stewardship, cultivation in forest settings, and research into accelerating its propagation” — and most importantly help ensure the survival of American ginseng for future generations.

My initial role is to assist with the development of a social media strategy. A brief online survey has determined that there are hundreds of websites and Facebook groups dedicated to the subject of American Ginseng. The new American Ginseng site will be launched later this Fall. Its success will be dependent upon a strategy that includes the creation of a social media toolkit to help promote the site. The toolkit will include the graphic presented above, #GinsengFolklife hashtag, and suggested language for Facebook groups to post links to the new site.

I am most interested in observing how effective a social media strategy will be in generating interest in the website. The topic of American Ginseng is a fascinating story, but it is definitely not mainstream. However, the global brand of the Smithsonian is very powerful and it will be interesting to track how quickly the word spreads about the website and if the content overlaps into mainstream media.