Make it Innovative, Make it Intelligible, Make it Accessible: Designing Successful Digital Projects

This week we’re learning all about digital projects, particularly how to design, develop, and implement web projects that engage with and benefit the humanities. This is a rather daunting task. Organizations like the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), however, which award annual grants to support digital humanities projects, provide simplified directions for project proposal format.


The NEH awards two types of grants for digital-based projects. Level I grants—awarded for small brainstorming sessions, workshops, and projects in the early stages of development—range from $5,000 to $30,000. Level II grants—awarded for more advanced projects in the implementation stage—range from $30,001 to $60,000. In the NEH guidelines for Digital Humanities Start-Up Grants specific details are provided regarding how grant proposals should be written. These guidelines outline the kinds of projects most desired by the NEH and the application information required. Within the Narrative Section, Part IV, applicants must clearly explain their project and the questions it addresses; describe its value to scholars, students, and general humanities audiences; conduct an environmental scan to situate their work within the field and provide evidence for original contribution; explain the history of the project; detail a work plan, staff participation, data management, letters of commitment, and budgets; and describe the final product and dissemination.   Above all, NEH stresses that projects should be innovative, free, and easily understood and accessible by the public.

In their push for transparency and accessibility, NEH also provides samples of successful grant applications. For example, Georgia Tech’s application for their project, TOME: Interactive TOpic Model and MEtadata Visualization, effectively follows the guidelines established by NEH.   The application clearly lays out the goals of the project, the questions it addresses, its innovative interventions into the field, and its contribution to the humanities. The narrative explains the need for computational analysis of digital archival collections and proposes a new web-based tool, TOME, which will allow for “the visual exploration of the themes that recur across an archive, based on the text-analysis technique of topic modeling.”   This tool will “enable humanities scholars to trace the evolution and circulation of these themes across social networks and over time” (TOME 4). The applicants explain that TOME’s interface will be the first to allow users to visually explore relationships among textual content and related metadata. Focusing on a specific set of digitized nineteenth-century abolitionist newspapers, TOME will allow scholars to address the main themes within the collection—and their historical chronology, the authors and subjects associated with those themes, and the spread of those themes and ideas within the community. The application then goes on to include in more detail an environmental scan, which discusses other websites that provide interactive interfaces for exploring topic modeling, and details the ways in which TOME will allow for different, and more nuanced, interpretations. This section also explains how this tool will allow for new understandings of antislavery and abolitionist history, specifically by highlighting new evidence of women’s roles within the movement. A project description is also included, which more specifically explains the TOME interface and how it will function. This is followed by a project history statement, staff bios, a work plan, and goals for the final product and dissemination (a publicly-available interactive web application hosted by Georgia Tech’s College of Computing, goals for published reports and conference presentations, and a white paper on findings and issues). A detailed budget, data management plan, and letters of support are also included. All these sections follow the guidelines clearly, and succinctly explain how and why this project is important, what it will do, and how it will be accomplished.

After reading the basic NEH guidelines and this example for TOME it’s clear that digital project proposals require immense preparation and research. Above all though successful applications and projects foster collaboration, promote innovation, and provide content that is free and intelligible. The multiple references in the NEH guidelines to “free access” and “innovation and excellence” made me picture flashy laser-show filled websites advertising FREE and INNOVATIVE in large letters. I also found myself picturing that Oprah show where she gave her entire audience free cars—remember that?


But I’m getting off track.  Bottom line, the best digital humanities projects take risks.  They allow a variety of users to easily explore and understand subjects in new and exciting ways.  This is how NEH defines success in the digital humanities, but how do we actually measure success when it comes to digital projects?  Are innovative ideas and proposals, followed by project development and white paper conclusions enough?  And more particularly, are digital projects ever finished/should they be? Matt Kirschenbaum presents these questions more directly when he asks: “What does it mean to “finish” a piece of digital work?” “What is the measure of “completeness” in a medium where the prevailing wisdom is to celebrate the incomplete, the open-ended, and the extensible?” (2009).  Additionally, what are the ways in which we can actually measure use and accessibility of these projects?  With so many new digital humanities projects appearing, there is no doubt they are contributing to the field and changing historical research and exploration, but have we/will we see the tangible results of this immediately or will we have to wait for future historical publications, etc.?  Is there a way to truly review the ways in which these projects are “changing” the study of history?  More to the point I guess, does this even matter or are the creation of functional digital projects “enough”?


One Reply to “Make it Innovative, Make it Intelligible, Make it Accessible: Designing Successful Digital Projects”

  1. To be fair, NEH has started funding Digital Project Implementation grants separate from the start up grant, exclusively designed to help carry projects through after the initial start up phase. On one hand I agree that the question of success and completion for digital projects is still left wide open, but on the other, I don’t think the open-ended nature of digital projects is all that different from most public history projects. When you interact with the public there’s a constant focus on innovating, sharing your knowledge in new and exciting ways, and coming up with unique methods for engaging visitors and users. It’s tough to measure the success of physical museum exhibits and educational programs, and to know when they’re complete, similar to digital projects. I think major differences lie in the overall newness of digital projects, the unfamiliarity with digital project timelines, and the fact that in many organizations, funding digital innovation isn’t always a priority and continuing support after those initial grants run out can be tough. Perhaps by emphasizing the role of digital projects and tools as an extension of the institution’s mission, rather than a totally new and different vision for the future (that is, if the institution is not in fact trying to use digital humanities to radically change their mission and goals), the perspective that digital projects are often open-ended and may not be finished or completed in a traditional sense can become the norm.

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