Spring 2016 Workshop Recap: Decision Design & Visual Analytics for Sustainability Applications

The Decision Design and Visual Analytics for Sustainability Applications workshop, run by the Institute for Humanities Research Nexus Lab this past spring, is an excellent example of the kind of transdisciplinary and engaged humanities scholarship for the 21st century that both ASU and the IHR generate and support. Sustainability, or “ecological integrity, human well-being, and social justice for present and future generations,” is a complex goal, one that needs a host of different perspectives as no one field of knowledge can achieve all of those objectives. The needed range of knowledge was on display in the attendees of the workshop: undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty, staff, and community members, in fields ranging from linguistics to industrial engineering, art to ecology. Personally, as a literature scholar focused on the environment, I attended for a variety of reasons: to better understand different ways of looking at environmental data, to begin to work in the digital humanities, and to have interdisciplinary conversations about sustainability decision making. While the material was at times both mentally and technically challenging the workshop space helped us all gain new insights unto our own fields and others.

The workshop was led by Michael Simeone, the director of the Nexus Lab, and was structured around three different modes of analyzing and understanding data: network analysis, geographical information systems, and text analysis.

For the first third of the semester we learned about network theory and modeling. Network theory, at its base, very simple – the researcher identifies the actors in the network and their relationships and then organizes them visually (either by hand or with a computer). For an example, here is a network analysis of the popular Game of Thrones series published in Quartz. The researchers chose the characters in the series as the actors (referred to as nodes in network theory), and then decided to link them together depending on whether or not they interacted (edges in network theory). The computer then counted up and organized the relationships into the network. Ultimately, the network of the particular book confirms that three of the point-of-view characters (Daenerys, Tyrion, and Jon) are centrally important to the social networks of the book. But the data also shows that other characters also hold central importance, such as Robb, who is not a point of view character, and Sansa, who is a point of view character but has no political power, or Robert, who is dead. The network suggests that characters who might not seem influential in the series still move the plot along or alter the plot through their centrality in the social network.

In the workshop we worked with the programs Gephi and ORA to make our on networks. For example, my group made a network model for the Orbit public transportation system in Tempe to map the relationships between the riders, drivers, and Valley Metro who runs the system. I would also note that I am providing a simplified version of network analysis: there is a great deal more to the process than drawing lines between bubbles. I do not claim to be an expert on network analysis now, but thanks to the workshop I better grasp what it is and could begin to investigate the field more with the base of knowledge that I learned from the workshop.

The middle third of the semester was devoted to geographical information systems and mapping. These days were led by Josh MacFayden of the School of Sustainability. Geographical Information Systems, or GIS, is more complicated than being merely a map, as the map itself is able to contain multiple layers of information. For example, Josh showed us a research project where he used mapping tools, in combination with other digital drawing tools, to estimate the amounts of firewood that were being taken from Canadian forests in the nineteenth century. We worked with Google Earth and QGIS to design and manipulate maps with multiple different layers of data. Using GIS to look at data suggested, to me, new ways of understanding data, especially the way that human civilizations and the environment change over time.

The last third of the semester we worked with text analysis tools. These tools read and sort text, usually large bodies of text that would otherwise not be easily readable by a person or persons. Programs like Voyant Tools or Google Ngram Viewer, among many others, allow us to see macro scale pictures of texts and also know where to look at a micro level for further insight. For example, take the 1818 and 1831 editions of Frankenstein. In the 1818 edition the most frequent words (once a series of stop-words like The, a, an etc. are removed) are father, man, time, and life, in that order. In the 1831 edition though the most frequent words in order are man, life, father, and time. This suggests that the two editions might approach the question of fatherhood differently. It is important to note though, as we discussed in the workshop, that this evidence is not enough for a conclusion. Rather we have a lead now that we did not have previously which we could track down at a micro-level, i.e., reading the book with an eye towards fatherhood to see if the texts bear that interpretation out.

At the end of the semester we used text analysis tools in conjunction with network analysis to look through the emails of the Enron corporation right before and after their collapse. One of the tools that I used, in this group project, was Mallet. I sent the emails through the program which sorted them into groups based on shared, commonly occurring words. I noticed an interesting grouping of ‘non-business’ words and examined the top emails in the grouping. There I found quite a few personal emails: people talking about weekend plans, betting on football games, and ultimately trying to setup a get-together to commiserate when the company went under. The emails helped show that while there were major problems at the top, there were also a majority of people just trying to do a good job.

Ultimately, the workshop was not only educational but also fun. While I am by no means an expert on these various tools now, I have the foundations that I can build upon in my future scholarship. The workshop, for me, provided an aperture into the digital humanities. I feel fortunate that the Nexus Lab and Michael hosted this workshop and would encourage members of the ASU community, in addition to the larger Phoenix community, to take advantage of the lab's programming in the future.

Department of English Faculty Associate and recent PhD graduate, Kent Linthicum, is a scholar of American and British literature from 1783-1912, science, and the environment. He recently defended his dissertation titled “Scientific and Cultural Interpretations of Volcanoes, 1766-1901,” which used literary and scientific texts about volcanoes to examine both the popular and intellectual understanding of these geological phenomena.

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Spring 2016 Workshop Recap: User Experience with Technology

At the start of the 2016 spring semester, the IHR Nexus Lab offered a free workshop on user experience (UX), an approach to design that draws from the humanities and STEM fields to think about how people will engage with the product. All too often, designers focus on the tangible benefits of a new product—how it will offer its user new abilities, speed up productivity, or refine pre-existing technology—without bearing in mind that those benefits are only fully realized when the product also makes sense to the human being who has to use it. By paying attention to this aspect of design, UX tries to bridge the gap between innovation and practicality so that the final product can be deployed to the best possible use.

We began with by looking at everyday design choices in a parking lot and gradually shifted our attention to questions of digital design such as information architecture and content strategies for websites. Regardless of whether the design choices were for a physical tool or a digital one, the questions remained the same: who is going to be using this and how can that use be made as intuitive as possible?

We dissected websites so that we could do a card sorting exercise where we grouped content into categories and thought about what categories would be most immediately recognizable by users. As the workshop continued, we followed that up by developing “personas,” miniature biographical sketches of potential users with a sense of what sorts of skills that person might have. Once a persona had been designed, it often became surprisingly clear what that person would need or want from a website or product. By combining the two, we started to be able to think through questions of web design not in terms of aesthetics—a perhaps too common starting point—but in terms of actual use. From there, we could start sketching out and prototyping different possible websites.

The workshop culminated by taking a look at a website for a series of collected online teacher training courses and taking it apart to see how it worked and to consider how it might work better both as a teaching tool and as a resource for the teachers after they had finished taking it. Having gone through card sorting and taking a look at different personas, we could then sketch out and prototype different possible variants on websites showcasing the already extant content as well as make suggestions for new content creation.

I personally came to the workshop from a background in English literature and object-oriented criticism and found a lot of overlap between high theoretical questions about the role that objects play in everyday life and the practical choices that have to be made by the designer. The workshop also served as a welcome reminder of the degree to which material culture is, deliberately or not, designed with a particular set of goals and ideas in mind. As someone interested in the role that physical books played in identity construction, this was a fruitful thought. As an added bonus, the workshop also taught me how to set up a useful personal website for myself, one that doesn’t just provide information but does so in a way that makes that information easily accessible.

Department of English Faculty Associate and recent PhD graduate, John Henry Adams, is a scholar of Renaissance literature, book history, and literary theory. He teaches courses in first-year writing, and is currently working on a critical edition of the works of Isabella Whitney.

graduate students and workshop attendees sit around a table talking in the nexus lab
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Spring 2016 Workshop Announced: User Experience (UX)

User Experience (UX) is a quickly growing area of specialization in the technology sector that focuses on having a deep understanding of users of technology. This understanding includes what users need from technology, what they value, their abilities, and their limitations. UX specialists must be knowledgeable about issues at the core of humanities disciplines, such as ethics in the use of technology, and also have knowledge of the technology itself. In this way, UX as a profession draws from both humanities and STEM fields. In this workshop, we will explore UX in many of its components, including user research, usability evaluation, information architecture, user interface design, content strategy, accessibility, web analytics, and more. We will work for the first eight weeks, alongside industry and academic experts, to learn more about these areas of UX. The second eight weeks will move to hands on experience as UX consultants for a client, working to make specific findings for improved user experience of their product. Technologies taught in this class include Keynote Wireframe Tool Kit, Blueprint CSS, and Google Analytics.

Join us to see where your current interests in humanities and technology might take you. All backgrounds and disciplines welcome. The workshop is free and open to ASU faculty, staff, and students. It will meet once a week for 2 hours on Friday mornings beginning January 29, from 9:00am to 11:00am. Please feel free to email Dawn Opel, Nexus Lab Postdoctoral Fellow, at to register, or with questions.

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Stories from Data launches for Fall Semester

Stories from Data is a workshop that emphasizes the intersection of design, cognition, data science, decision-making, and storytelling. In the first weeks of the recurring sessions, participants learn about bias, color, layering, and data presentation.

We focus on the crucial work visualization performs for analysis, as well as the importance of narratives both prior and subsequent to data visualizations of analytic processes. The workshop culminates with hands-on instruction of programming interactive visualizations using the D3.js javascript library.

Over the past 3 weeks, faculty, undergraduate, and graduate students have met for training and exercises. Stay tuned for updates and samples of work!

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Developing Insights with Wassaja

This semester the Developing Wassaja Working Group has hit the ground running in an amazing fashion. We have learned about some mission-critical concepts to web application development like user-centered design and project management, while also moving forward and getting our basic Drupal installation up-and-running. As we continue on this journey, you will occasionally find some of us blogging about the insights we are developing. Lyndsey Buchanan, staff at the ASU Ross Blakely Law Library and member of the Developing Wassaja team, has shared her insights regarding some of the concepts from project management that we have learned so far in a blog post titled “Stalled Projects and Other Ghastly Happenings.” Lyndsey’s insights are particularly wonderful, as she now has the role of Project Manager for the project status updates on Developing Wassaja site, including our Project Charter that outlines our goals, milestones, and the rest of the team roster!

Image of building being refurbished
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Extending Qualitative Data Through Computational Methods

How do experts in humanities and social science fields make meaningful interventions when working with large collections of documents? How do we move from text data to public, community, or organizational change?

Nexus Lab Director, Michael Simeone, and Assistant Director, Jacqueline Hettel, have been leading projects in the Nexus Lab that address exactly these questions for the last 6 months and have decided that it is time to share their expertise with the ASU community. The IHR Nexus Lab announces its spring working group in Text-Based Modeling (TBM) for faculty and graduate students, where participants will learn how to move from document collections to datasets, from datasets to analysis, and from analysis to presentation and impact.

The TBM group will meet once a week during the Spring Semester of 2015 to learn new methods and skills, devise methods for analysis, and collaborate with other participants. Sessions will last one hour, with an optional hour afterward for additional work. Once participants are enrolled in the group, consistent attendance at the TBM group meetings is mandatory. Location will be the Nexus Lab, 5519 Lattie F. Coor Hall at ASU Tempe Campus, 2pm Friday afternoon starting January 16, 2015. Click here to register and get more information!

multiple colored building blocks on a flat grey surface
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