Miskatonic University Press

THATCamp GTA 2011


On Saturday 22 October 2011 I attended THATCamp GTA, where THAT = The Humanities and Technology and GTA = Greater Toronto Area. I thought I'd post a quick summary and some links, though be warned, this will be nothing like as well written or thoughtful as A Walk with Love and Data, Peter Binkley's memoir of his time at Access 2011 in Vancouver.

(Digression on humanities: there's a building in Toronto that used to be called the Medical Arts Building and is now called the Jackman Humanities Building. The old name was carved above the door in mock Roman lettering: MEDICAL ARTS BVILDING. When the University of Toronto took it over and renamed it they kept the same style, so now it says JACKMAN HVMANITIES BVILDING. I wonder if there is much DIGITAL HVMANITIES going on inside.)

I'd never been to a THATCamp before but from all I'd seen online they were exciting events with smart and interesting people, where @dancohen and @nowviskie briefly confab with @eosadler in the hall and whoosh, a Zotero/Blacklight hybrid is born and two weeks later we're all running #zotelight (or possibly #blackero), a Ruby on Rails discovery layer and collaborative scholarship tool implemented as a browser extension, and everyone's Twitter feeds are drenched with chat about it.

This one wasn't quite as exciting as I'd hoped (it was more yackfest than hackfest), but I'm glad I went, and it was definitely filled with smart and interesting people. I think that because it had more humanities professors than programmers it was less solution-oriented than I'm used to: academics habitually problematize, while geeks at hackfests want to solve a problem by the end of the afternoon and then head out for beers. I would have liked some more concrete next steps, but I certainly enjoyed it as it was.

We started off in a very nice room down at Ryerson University in the centre of Toronto, on the seventh floor with a great view of the skyscrapers. There were perhaps fifty people there. Ryerson prof @jasonaboyd introduced things, and then we began, as unconferences often do, by writing down ideas for possible sessions and posting them for people to see, discuss, and vote on. We ended up with three streams of four sessions each, with some sessions being a glomming of several proposals. That often happens at unconferences like this, I think, and it means more people at the sessions, which can be good, but also that they can be watered down or a bit unfocused. I chatted with @adr, @scriptavore, colleague @timothybristow, and others.

The first session was about digital humanities and libraries. Good discussion, with a mix of people, including professors from various disciplines and librarians and archivists and library school students. I didn't make any notes, and I can't remember the details, but I remember recommending that people use version control tools like GitHub and that people be ready to host their projects on domains they run, so they have flexibility and control, because at most institutions, as much as the library wants to help, it can't be as flexible or fast as people will need.

The second one I went to was about augmented reality. Good discussion, and I learned about some platforms I didn't know, like Qualcomm's platform and Unity, and I talked a bit about Layar and BuildAR, which look more immediately usable.

At lunch a few folks went to The Queen and Beaver, a very nice pub a couple of blocks away. I was with @deantiquate (my archivist colleague from York), @devonelliott, and @electricarchaeo and his student @mtl_zack, all of whom are doing very cool work. I didn't expect to run into an archaeologist who had done his dissertation on Roman brick stamps and then later used NetLogo to write software agents that tested a model of information transmission in the ancient world, or a historian who was looking at how information was managed and transmitted by early twentieth-century magicians (and fabbing old tricks), or a fourth-year student who was modelling who attended feasts in ancient Greece, but there we were, sitting around at the pub, chatting away.

It's times like that when I'm reminded of how much fun this business is.

We got back to lunch a bit late, so I missed some of a session about computer programming and the humanities. The last session was about timeliness and mapping. Someone whose name I missed had some interesting data about Tibetan monks that she wanted to visualize, along the lines of SIMILE's Timeline, but she wondered if there was any way not to use the old standard time slider widget. We ended up all shooting the breeze and throwing around some fun ideas (what if she froze time and made sliders for spatial dimensions? Whoa, man!) but no-one had actually ever done anything with timelines or much with mapping, so we didn't get too far.

Then it all wrapped up with a discussion about how to keep Toronto-area digital scholars in touch with each other through GTA Digital Scholarship and generally how to continue all the good things that had happened that day. I chatted with two people who finished their PhDs at York this year, @jburnford and @ianmilligan1. A bunch of people went to what sounded like a really fun hardware hackfest (and where @williamjturkel would appear in person, his name having come up many times through the day even in his absence), but I missed it because I was off to see I Send You This Cadmium Red.

Some links I noted: