THATCamp Project: Dogpatch update

January 12th, 2011

Hi folks,

A lot of people have been asking and I’m sorry for the radio silence.  I wanted to give a quick update on where we’re at for THATCamp Project.  We had an open organizing meeting in December and had a good turnout.  What we came up with is a rough framework of geotagging various events, photos, oral histories, etc and feeding them into an open,  publicly accessible database like Freebase, and then making map tiles out of those.

If that sounds a little complicated, that’s because it is.  But that doesn’t mean you need to be some geohack or coder or something to have fun with this or learn from it.  That’s kind of the backend.  The frontend would be having several stations that we would use to learn and utilize different tools, like recording oral history, mapping historic photos, lining up old Sanborn insurance maps, creating an iPhone app to display historic maps, using Open Street Map, Google Maps, or Layar to come up with various presentations and stories of local history.

That’s the idea.  It will still take a bit of doing to get this off the ground.  I had a great space almost lined up in Dogpatch, but it fell through.  We’re now talking to folks at the UCSF Mission Bay campus to see if some place there could accommodate us.  Obviously, we’d really love to be in Dogpatch somewhere, and we don’t have a ton of money left over to rent someplace, and we need good internet access.  For my part, my contribution right now is trying to nail down that place.

As of dates, we’re looking at Saturday, February 26th, but obviously, we can’t commit to that until we confirm the space.  I’ll certainly let you know as soon as we nail something down, and by all means, feel free to reach out to your connections in the area.

Hopefully we’ll have more news soon.

Proposal for THATCamp Project: SF Bay Area

November 30th, 2010

I have a music therapist friend named Craig who once penned a clever little ditty called “Book about Zen” which contains this delightfully snarky observation:

I go to all these workshops, they’re always ending up the same.

Hug everybody, then go home forget their name.

I get where he’s coming from: it’s very easy to go to conferences, get really excited, make big mental plans and then…


Let’s avoid this. Following an email exchange with Jon Voss, and a meeting with Barbara Hui, I’m proposing that we come together to work on a collaborative Digital Humanities project, a proposal for which follows.

Please have a look, and if you’re interested in working on this, please let me know, either in the comments, or by email to john at memoryminer dot com.

THATCamp Project

I was one of those kids, who, during long car trips would often ask “are we there yet?” Now that I’m a more or less fully-formed adult, I often find myself asking “how did I get here?” The fact that I ask this may be due to being a big fan of Talking Heads, particularly their song “Once in a Lifetime.” During my teenage years, the video for this song was shown with surprising frequency on the then nascent MTV. I can vividly recall my excitement over David Byrne’s crazy dance moves and bemused wonderment while asking: “Well, how did I get here?!!”

Next time you’re out and about, I invite you stop on a street corner in any urban area, then ask yourself how did we get here? Though not a uniquely American phenomenon, nowhere else in the world are cities so radically transformed in so short a time as they are in the US. Right here in the SF Bay Area, the twin cities of Oakland and San Francisco have seen their fortunes rise and fall by the tides of great social and economic changes.  Think Gold Rush, think Transcontinental Railroad. Think Dot fucking Com.

These great historical phenomena reshaped the two cities, sometimes in an odd, zero-sum kind of way. Here’s one example.

If you were to take a walk in the Dogpatch neighborhood of SF, you’d see many rusted remains of San Francisco’s once bustling port. Look across the water to West Oakland, and you’ll see an army of mechanized cranes unloading massive container  ships. While San Francisco’s port benefits from naturally deep water, the port of Oakland must be constantly dredged, so why move the port activity across the Bay?  There are many reasons, but a major one had to due with the battle between mechanization and unionized manual labor. Mechanization won. With the death of port activity, the Dogpatch neighborhood feel in to decay for many years, only to see its fortunes rise again in recent years.

Looking back in time, if you were a unionized dock worker who had a nice house with a nice family up on Potrero Hill but saw your job move across the Bay to be performed by machine, you probably weren’t too happy. Even without the benefit of MTV, you might have had occasion to dance a crazy dance while asking yourself “How did I get here?”

Imagine if we were to organize the considerable skills that exist in the THATCamp Bay Area community and bring them to bear on a Digital Humanities project that seeks to answer a “How did we get here?” type question. We could tie the question to a relatively localized geographical area, but trace the threads to any number of different areas on the globe. We could look at the question from any number of angles, using any number of techniques from oral history, augmented reality, text mining, etc.

I’d like to propose that we act on this as a community by choosing a date in the near future for a THATCamp Project where we agree in advance on a topic, do our best work, then assemble for a show and tell, the result of which will be shared with the world.

The ground rules would be simple:

* Use whatever technology you want, but the data has to be mash-able (e.g. RSS feeds can be consumed by any number of other applications and services)

* No spectators: to attend the show & tell, you have to be prepared to show & tell

* Be willing to get your hands dirty so that we may create a model for other THATCamp Project

So, fellow happy THATCampers, what say you?

Introducing: THATCampLite Bay Area

November 11th, 2010

In withdrawal from the THATCamp experience?  Longing for radical humanities and technology collaboration?  Wanting to learn how to organize a great unconference?  Now’s your chance to get involved in THATCampLite Bay Area, a one day THATCamp experience to take place in the San Francisco Bay Area some time in February.

The event will be contingent on volunteer organizers (I’ll be one of them), who will need to find a suitable space, arrange a date, determine if there should be a theme, publicize the event, and deal with logistics.  The event will be of the first come first serve variety.  As an organizer, you will enjoy rockstar status for a full day.  At least.

I propose three optional face-to-face organizing meetups, from 9:30-11am 11/17, 12/15, and 1/19.  These are really just for fun.  Most of the work can be done via email and conference calls as necessary.

I’ve heard some great ideas for this already, now’s your chance to get involved.  Post a response here, drop me a note (jon at lookbackmaps dot net), or email the Google Groups list if you want to help change the world with THATCampLite Bay Area.

THATCamp Bay Area Google Group

October 29th, 2010

THATCamp Bay Area now has a Google Group!

Please feel free to sign up and spread the word to anyone you think would be interested in future THATCamp Bay Area meetups, unconferences, news, discussion or other events related to the humanities and technology in the area.  The list will be open to the public, and the group application just has a simple question to filter out spammers.  Just click the link below to go to the group page.

Behind the Scenes Look at Organizing THATCamp Bay Area

October 20th, 2010

From @unthinkingly: “Nap session at #THATcamp led by @lookbackmaps

It took about a week for me to recover/relax/catch-up and normalize after THATCamp Bay Area. But the exhaustion was worth it. I was so happy with how the weekend turned out, and am hopeful that this kind of collaboration will continue to grow in the Bay Area in months and years to come.  I’m extremely grateful to the many generous people worldwide involved in THATCamps, and for their support in helping us pull off this local rendition.

Now that the organizing is behind me, I wanted to share some of the ideas that worked and didn’t work with this, some of the things I learned, and break down the actual costs of a non-university hosted THATCamp, looking at money, time, emotion, and politics.

First of all, some of the things we did that I think really worked.

  • We took it outside. I was insistent that THATCamp Bay Area be held anywhere but a university, and having the Automattic Lounge space donated for our use was a huge boost.  Aside from just being an open and inspirational space, it allowed us to include, but not be limited to “digital humanities;” it gave us a very fresh space to break out of our industry cliques and normal meeting routines; and it provided neutral ground for the various academic and corporate institutions we were drawing participants from.
  • We had a party. To me, the whole weekend was a celebration–of life, of passion, of intellectual pursuit, of hobbies, etc.  But we also had the very fun Dork Shorts element along with some very smart entertainment by Megan and Rick Prelinger together with drinks on Saturday night.  The night ended in fireworks (a total accident by the way!), Scottish country dancing led by Candace Nast, and music curated by Jordan Gray.
  • We did it ourselves. This was a completely volunteer effort.  No one got paid a cent and any time we committed to it was squeezed in amongst our other jobs and projects. We set out folding chairs, brought donuts, had lunch catered by a local grocery store, chipped in to get a keg.  It was a DIY event from the get-go, and like other THATCamps I’ve been to, that constructive atmosphere was very pervasive throughout the weekend.
  • We had widespread support. We had a great core team of volunteers, and we also had a larger organizing committee that volunteered to spread the word, reach out to their respective communities and help solicit sponsorship (thanks!!).  This was the key to our success in bringing in a great group of sponsors and having so many different sectors represented in the applicant pool.
  • We used Open Space. As the principal organizer, I relied heavily on my experience with Open Space Technology and stuck pretty close to the main organizing elements (organizers, I highly recommend checking out this book).  I was careful to open and close with a circle and make clear to participants that a lot of work went in to providing the space, but that it was entirely up to them what to do with it.  The result was fantastic.

By all counts, the weekend was a great success, but it was not without some challenges:

  • We did it ourselves. There was certainly a downside to doing it all ourselves on a volunteer basis without having institutional support: it was exhausting.  Of course, part of the success was due to just how much love and energy we put into this, but I’m not sure that’s a sustainable model–nor is it entirely necessary.  It was the first THATCamp in the Bay Area, so personally, I wanted to set the bar high and put in a lot of extra effort to make sure we started off strong.
  • Sound was a problem. The majority of our space to work with was a big open room, in which we made space for three breakout sessions.  We had a fourth space outside on the patio and a fifth smaller place in a cubby on the way outside.  The good part of this is that we had a very dynamic energy and space in which people could easily drift in and out of sessions.  The down side was that it could get pretty hard to hear or focus on your sessions.  Uh, not to mention Blue Angels and Fleet Week–though that also added to the excitement in a way.
  • Bigger space? I thought we’d be lucky to get 75 applicants, so figured that was plenty of space to plan for.  But we had 110 applicants and could not accommodate everybody.  I think if the space was permitting, 110 people would have certainly been manageable, though a bit more expensive.

Financial Costs

I’ve provided a full accounting of our income and expenses for the event. On the income side, we had 4 presenting sponsors who gave $500 each, and 6 supporting sponsors who gave $200 each (we had two in-kind supporting sponsors, LookBackMaps and Prelinger Library).  I did not include the value of the space, which would be about $3,000, and was generously donated by our hosting sponsor, Automattic Inc.  About 76% of participants who weren’t volunteers or direct sponsors contributed $25.

On the expense side, the major expenses were t-shirts and catering, which included coffee, bagels, pastries, and donuts Saturday and Sunday, and lunch on Saturday.  Catering also included juices, sodas, ice, and lots of fresh fruit (great idea Cornelius!), etc.

We have a surplus of $522.04, which I propose be used to support future THATCamp Bay Area events during the next year that continue to widen the circle of participants (somebody said something about a November 7 event?).

Investment of Time

I’m not sure how accurate this is, because I did it in hindsight, but thought it was worth doing as I got a lot of questions from potential THATCamp organizers about how much time I spent organizing this.  This is just for my hours and doesn’t include time that other folks helped out on, and it’s for what I would consider “billable” hours, not time I spent doing research, bringing THATCamp into various conversations and meetings, or just thinking about it.  I think this is a pretty fair guess though, and should give you a good idea of what kind of work to expect and when to plan for things.  For THATCamp Bay Area, the key dates were June 1, when we decided on space and officially announced the date and venue, applications opening on Aug 1 and closing Sept 1, invites sent out Sept 7, and the event on Oct. 9 & 10.

Emotional Costs

I already mentioned the exhaustion factor.  I love the photo at the top of this post that Chris took of me laid out on the couch on Saturday afternoon. I was so wiped out!  Mainly, by the time Saturday started to come together, I could actually relax and enjoy the gathering, which for me entailed laying low and listening in on the various sessions and conversations (though I was drawn in to a couple of Linked Data sessions).  Of course, after that photo, I got some food and rallied for Saturday evening and had a blast!

Another thing I want to point out that definitely weighed heavily on me and my team was the emotional cost of having to choose who made the first round of participants and who went on the wait list.  Of course, we wanted everyone to come, but that just wasn’t possible.  It was tough for us to have to choose one colleague or another, despite having agreed to our methodology and informing folks of that.  For the most part, applicants were very gracious, and many attendees let us know right away if they couldn’t make it so that we could offer spots to others on the wait list.

Political Risks and Rewards

THATCamp was started by “digital humanists” to create what has become a pretty radical space for open dialogue and conversation, largely within the academic environment (I use the quotes only because I’m still not sure what a digital humanist is).  There has been a very conscious effort to not limit THATCamp to the digital humanities or to the academy, for which I’m very grateful.

But it turns out that it’s no small feat to create a space in which humanists and technologists, from professional to enthusiast, feel welcome.  The best way I could think of to do that was to make sure that we were not in an academic setting, not let any organization be over-represented, and have a diverse enough representation of sectors to prevent a focus on internal bullshit.  The downside: I pissed some people off.  The upside: I heard from a lot of people how excited they were to have a chance to pursue issues from a variety of perspectives, how happy they were to not be bogged down in the politics of their industry (be it digital humanities or the tech sector), and how rewarding it was to explore collaborations with people they would not have otherwise reached out to.

This is not to say that you can’t reach beyond a largely academic audience when having THATCamps at universities, *if* you want to… it just may take a little extra work.


I hope this post is of some help to organizers of future THATCamp or other similar open space style events.  You certainly don’t need to be an expert to pull off an excellent unconference, though I’m sure it gets easier with practice.  I know I had a lot of help from other THATCamp organizers throughout, as well as my fellow organizers, the organizing committee and the participants themselves, who put together one great event.  To sum it up in a word: Thanks!

Museum trends webinar

October 14th, 2010

A very good and comprehensive overview of some of the issues discussed at some of THATcamp, as they affect museums, can be found in this report: The report identifies and describes the 6 new technologies that are likely to have an impact on museum education in particular, over the next 5 years, including augmented reality and the semantic web. Major trends and challenges impeding adoption are discussed and benchmark projects incorporating the technologies and key readings etc. There’s a free webinar on Monday that may be useful to participate in. and

ThatCamp De-Brief

October 14th, 2010

ThatCamp Bay Area opened on October 9 and October 10 in an open-space loft with much excitement and energy. In the Bay Area, Silicon Valley looms large and the organizer Jon Voss was able to attract the likes of Google, Yahoo, OCLC, and the Internet Archive, as industry partners. Graduate students, faculty, librarians, programmers, archivists showed up to construct Saturday’s schedule, which was quickly and quietly revised as the afternoon went on. The green post-its are bootcamp sessions while everything else was an intriguing session. The only downside to the unconference are the choices! I proposed a session on pedagogy and digital humanities but had a difficult time setting the slot because every hour had something that I wanted to attend.

Saturday Schedule

But, I attended ThatCamp to gain some understanding, and, well, to feel uncomfortable. I wanted to immerse myself in areas that were not so familiar to me, sessions where I couldn’t be an authority. The invigorating aspect to the two days’ of sessions was that no matter how hard I tried to avoid familiar topics, I found myself reflecting on the intersection between my work and all of the cool, interesting work being discussed. Steve Ramsay was right; I was prepared to be the dumbest person in the room, and that prepared me for being inspired by the cross/multi/extra-disciplinary work that so many people came together to discuss.

Those are the generalities. Big questions plagued me during and after sessions, even at the bootcamps. But, these weren’t questions of despair; rather they were invigorating because they required that I think about pedagogy and curriculum in a different fashion, but they were there nonetheless: How can this apply in the classroom? How can I teach my students some of this technology without sacrificing content? Is this the content then in a Digital Humanities course? What kind of Humanistic inquiry comes from integrating tools with literary studies? How can I educate my colleagues about Digital Humanities using georeferencing as an example? How can GIS impact my work on history of the book. But mostly I just wanted to play with all of the toys in order to explore what kind of Humanistic inquiry is possible. I wanted to see what happened when a major corpus of work was available; what questions could I come up with, because I don’t have any to start with. Perhaps if I had a chance to play, though, I could find something. And this is the crux of the entire weekend – playfulness and imagination is perhaps something that academics and scholars have moved away from, something that is stolen from us as we move into full time positions. The demands of the position and the service steal that moment. I wish ThatCamp were really Summer ThatCamp. I definitely needed more time to work with and digest. I got just a smattering of everything that makes me uncomfortable.

Here’s some specifics on the bootcamps:

Adita Muralidharan offered a bootcamp session on text mining, an area that I’m familiar with and can perform, but one that is mystified behind linguistic computing and encoding. Using n-grams as a model, Adita took us through parsing parts of speech and plotting changes over history. Some of the participants pushed further to ask about irony, metaphor, humor – the things that literary scholars are interested in. Adita told us that it was a dream to be able to do that but we aren’t there yet. A musicologist however alerted us to the use of this type of parsing on sound files in search of melodic formulas. We lead each other into discussing dance and preservation of American dance culture, especially since some of the greatest choreographers have died recently and with it, shortly, their companies and style of dance. After my brief lamentations about marking up poetry in TEI for poetic elements, Matt Jockers jumped in to talk about a recent program his students have written to mark up metrical poetry. Wow! This applies directly to a collaborative project, The Poetess Archive

At the next bootcamp, Mano Marks offered help on Google’s new Fusion Tables, a beta Google Maps app that allows users to upload, store (up to 250mb) and visualize data, even more robustly than Google Docs. It’s in Google Labs now: From that one, I was left with questions about the bootcamp itself; what did it teach me that I couldn’t teach myself from playing with the tool?

Saturday Schedule

Worldcat representatives offered a bootcamp on using Worldcat but I think the presenter was not used to a non-programming crowd and was a bit stymied about how to discuss the product. The final point he made was to demo Worldcat/identities – a chart that depicts the number of publications for authors. This was incredible! It visualizes all of the publication data of materials entered into WorldCat – I wish he would have lead with this one.

The bootcamp lead by biologists on georeferencing and mapping was immensely interesting if only because of the attention to exactness capable in using georeferencing. Again, though, I asked the question of the group in general how it could apply to Humanists’ study. The biologists were there to talk to Humanists about how to adapt the tool for them. We were all a little stumped and ran out of time. But mention was made then (and later over Twitter) about some projects that use georeferencing quite successfully, Barbara Hui‘s being one as well as Visualizing the Rural West project at Stanford. This is the moment that’s always frustrating; I know I have questions, but I’m not sure about what I know and don’t know. I mean, I know I need to learn things, but I’m not sure what they are.

I didn’t expect to walk away knowing a program language, but ThatCamp certainly pointed me in the direction of being able to articulate what I need to learn and how I can expand my own limited style of thinking. Now, I need to attend a TEI workshop or the DHSI University of Victoria’s week-long seminars. Whatever it is that I need to know, I’m so gloriously stupid and uncomfortable that it’s restored my faith in learning!

While I didn’t blog through the weekend, I did tweet prolifically. Those can be found archived with TwapperKeeper

What’s the result of all of this, other exorcising my existential professional ennui? I’m reporting back to my Dean about ThatCamp and potential for collaboration with industry partners. I met with other San Jose State faculty and students (several from our Library Science program were in attendance) – no small feat considering we’re all so fractured. I learned that San Francisco State University Literature faculty are attempting to create a Digital Humanities certificate (and we’ve now all been in contact). The representative from the Internet Archive has offered to work with me in scanning those 30,000 pages remaining in my digital project. Glen Worthey, from Stanford, made a great suggestion to review some Digital Humanities Conference proposals in order to help me understand the vetting process (and I’ve now been invited to do so). The Gap archivist, Google developer and a dance archivist all introduced me to new possibilities for collaboration. Another SJSU faculty, James Morgan, and I rarely have a chance to chat about DH curriculum and how to create project-centered courses; we had 3 hours in the car to do this and plotted some amazing curricular changes to be slowly developed over the next 5 years at SJSU. Based on my tweets Doug Reside invited me to attend a symposium in New York on digital preservation of dance (and my amateur enthusiasm for dance).

Finally, ThatCamp demonstrated that I know what I’m doing, that Digital Humanities is valid and authoritative. While encouraging me to dive into the unknown, the meeting restored some confidence in my abilities and offered a level of collegiality that is often missing from my daily work. This is because of the generosity of each and every “camper” to entertain and explore ideas in a truly free environment.

Thanks ThatCamp.

Games, Development, Art and Story Telling.

October 10th, 2010

I have been looking at the intersection of games, MMO’s, virtual environments and art for a few years now.  It would be interesting to have a conversation about the future of the form as desktop game development continues to take hold and under-represented populations see it as a viable form of storytelling.

It would also be interesting to play some games from the show (games as art)

—update with notes—

Notes from Memory:

If you have not played it yet, look at passage by Jason Rohrer (download and play), it takes no more than 5 minutes and expresses the idea of an aesthetic experience in the game play, it is not the same as reading about it, watching video of it or watching it being played.

If you liked the game I demo’ed during the Dork Shorts it is called Every Day the Same Dream by Molleindustria.   On top of being beautiful the process of playing teaches and facilitates the aesthetic experience.

Game Development tools are cheap and run on low end machines for examples see Scratch by MIT (which is also a visual programming language but lends itself very well to moving and interacting with sprites on the screen) and Game Maker which is now available for the Mac and the PC and provides a simple development environment that can be introduced to young audiences as well as non-programming audiences.

In curating the show Learn to Play there were several basic lessons regarding art and games.  The subject is still somewhat contentious among both groups (artists and game developers) and there has always been a degree of crossover. L2P specifically looked for art at the point of interaction, one of the side effects of this is similar to that of conceptual art in that the experience is not always visual or obvious.  Game Developers seem (like many creatives) to want to see much of what they do as culturally relevant and artistic, artists have long employed game like features in both interactive and other work.  Our greatest takeaway was that the fundamental stories in games are still essentially controlled by the hegemony, or in this case by the white male game developers.

This is unfortunate for two reasons, the first is that the tools are so simple and the skills used in creation of games so valuable that essentially everyone should practice them at some point (and in fact my art students will all be required to make video games this semester). The second is that this is such a powerful medium for expression of stories and transmission of understanding.  The industry feels like it is gridlocked and stuck in blockbuster mode where it cannot deviate from the stories that have been told. This is sad and unnecessary.

Moving forward we want to reach out to underrepresented communities and teach the tools that will encourage them to put forth their stories.

THATCamp Sessions: A Collaborative Canvas

October 10th, 2010
THATCamp Bay Area 2010 Sessions

THATCamp Bay Area Sessions Schedule

October 9th, 2010

I’ve put up a rough spreadsheet of the sessions schedule, please refer and edit away:

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