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”?

Created by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, is an interactive Web site that allows visitors to explore—and actively participate in—the history of Philadelphia through multimedia formats including Google maps, historical essays, audio and video files, and photographs. Although is focused on telling the story of two specific areas—the Old Southward and the Greater Northern Liberties, both historically immigrant and working class neighborhoods—the site contains information on multiple neighborhoods and streets. It aims to promote the rich cultural history of the city’s spaces and sites, and provides users a glimpse into how their neighborhoods evolved over time.

The site allows users to investigate this history in many different ways. Visitors can search by collection, neighborhood, topics (including cemeteries, immigration and migration, education, and over forty-nine oral interviews), type of media (image, audio, video), and contributor (Historical Society of Pennsylvania, partners, and even community members); all of which provide interactive information on the historical events, buildings, and people associated with each location/topic. A blog post, with essays written by the PhilaPlace team, partners, and community scholars, also provides further information and in-depth stories about local history.

The most exciting and interactive feature of PhilaPlace is the Google map interface. Geographical representations of the site’s historical information allow users to take a virtual historic tour of contemporary Philadelphia. The home page contains a modern map of the city in which users can discover historical information about particular pinned locations. Prominent historic sites, buildings, etc. are pinpointed and linked with stories and media files that unveil that location’s history, both past and present. Visitors can also explore maps by topic, focus in on specific neighborhoods or individual streets, and view city maps from 1875, 1895, 1934, and 1962. Additionally, interactive map tours are featured that take visitors through two neighborhoods and over three centuries with photographs, oral interviews, videos, and stories.

A key mission of PhilaPlace is to “encourage investigations of place as a lens to understanding history and culture,” and the creators have done much through their site to promote this through community education and involvement. Not only does the site contain interactive media, it also features a section for educators. Lesson plans and school projects, aligned with Pennsylvania state standards, are provided for grades 6-12. Teachers can use the interactive exhibits to engage students—both virtually and physically—in local history through GIS mapping projects, public art and cultural expressions, and treasure hunts through particular streets.

All visitors are also encouraged to “map their own stories in place and time.” The site contains oral interviews with local historians, immigrants, and other community members whose knowledge and experience informs and enriches the history of these Philadelphia neighborhoods. Any user can also “add a story,” meaning they can upload images, videos, audio files, and other information regarding specific places or street addresses. One hope of the creators is for the site to eventually encompass information on the entire city, in large part from contributions made by local community members. This “add a story” feature, however, is not prominent on the site.

Searching through the site, I found myself captivated by it.  It brought the neighborhoods and history to life and provided me a rare glimpse into the Philadelphia streets that my great-grandparents traversed. Its interactive content was easy to navigate and the variety of media, topics, and stories invite users of all kinds—not just academic historians. In this way, the site impressively accomplishes its mission of producing history from a community perspective and for a diverse audience. The inclusion of modern community voices and experiences also enriches the site. This, however, could be done better. The “add a story” feature could be more visible on the home page, and throughout the site. Users could also be invited to expand the site in other ways—such as asking volunteers to transcribe archival documents or oral histories, encouraging students to comment on their experiences using the site for school projects, or including a genealogy feature that allows users to share information about specific individuals or families and connect with other researchers.

These ideas and additions, however, raise other challenges and questions about how to maintain and update sites like this in the most effective ways. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania also hosts many other websites, projects, etc., so how can staff best reach users and continuously connect with them and encourage participation, both virtually and physically? What are the advantages and disadvantages to active community member participation on Web sites like PhilaPlace? In what other ways could staff members improve this kind of project?

Ultimately, though, PhilaPlace presents an innovate digital archive of Philadelphia’s rich history—juxtaposing images and stories of the past and present for users to interact with and explore.