Why do informal hackathons matter in the Digital Humanities community? I argue that the answer can be found by reading the (soon to be written and released) proceedings of the Interedition Symposium: Scholarly Digital Editions, Tools and Infrastructure. Joris Van Zundert, a member of the Huygens Institut in The Hague, Netherlands, played host to over 40 scholars, researchers, and programmers this past March. I got to meet Joris last year when I was invited through former MITH project lead Doug Reside and my work on the TILE project. The well-spoken and incredibly intelligent Van Zundert has been working on the Interedition project since 2008 to promote interdisciplinary, inter-collegial, and inter-departmental work in the Digital Humanities. To quote their website's advert for the Symposium, Interedition sponsors groups of programmer-scholars (such as Doug, MITH Software Architect Jim Smith, and myself) to gather and develop interoperable tools as well as generate "roadmaps" toward crossing institutional boundaries and research schedules to get DH centers to work collaboratively. March 2012 not only marked the ending of the general funding for Interedition but also a celebration of its efforts.
The festivities came in the form of a two-day series of presentations from researchers and programmers connected with Interedition, or at least sharing its ideals of collaboration. Interedition invites and encourages others to participate in all of their events, thus practicing their own preaching about cross-institutional collaboration. Speakers ranged from different disciplines in the Humanities, the tech industry, and researchers dabbling in code.
I've participated since early 2011 with two Interedition Bootcamps and have worked with Asaf Bartov, Moritz Wissenbach, and Marco Petris on annotation tools inspired by early Open Annotation Collaboration specifications. On behalf of those efforts, Moritz, Marco and I presented the annotation service infrastructure and related clients at the March Symposium. I opened by discussing the lack of true interoperable data in the TILE project: that we still have necessary development to be done on integrating different data streams and sources into TILE. What OAC offered the group at Interedition was a more interoperable format for storing annotation data, that is, the data is separated out from the presentation and analysis of the data. Marco and Moritz went on to demonstrate their annotation clients - a Google Chrome plugin that generates a copy of any XML text data to be annotated, and a GWT client that downloads text and allows users to create annotated highlights of the text. Both of these clients use the RAXLD Ruby-on-Rails annotation storage and retrieval service (Developer: Asaf Bartov) and the Java-based fragment-context server (Developers: Marco and Moritz).
The slides for our presentation are open and can be found here.
The proceedings of the Symposium were too packed and full of interesting subjects that, during our presentation, I had little time to explain the real importance of Interedition and my sub-project. Put simply, the experience of interacting with international programmers whom I would never have met in another conference or local THATCamps or hackathons, is enough for me to support the causes of Interedition. Open venues where programmers and career coders can meet up are sources of peer-to-peer learning, development, and progress in a career such as mine. This works for the academic field of Digital Humanities too: whether it is working for a powerhouse such as MITH or for a college humanities professor, DH is about learning from other's open-source work. As Doug Reside pointed out in his presentation on the first day of the symposium, hackathons serve as the career-developers scholarly conference. COST, Europe's funding agency for the Arts and Sciences, has somewhat unknowingly backed up funding for Bootcamps that extend over several days, allowing for evenly paced hacking sessions that felt more like structured projects in some cases. When Van Zundert closed the Symposium with a 30-minute presentation on the work of Interedition from a birds-eye view, he advocated this about the format and methodology of his bootcamps: a day-long hackathon is easy to generate and fund, but produces limited results. Week-long sessions require funding and additional planning, but can produce elegant work such as Interedition's Collate and CollateX services. Thus is a successful and enjoyable format for programmer interchange born.
Looking ahead, longer bootcamps found around the world at DHSI, Bamboo, and DARIAH are still needed and still need to be refined. Bamboo has encountered obstacles in its path of developing interoperable cloud tools, as has Interedition in its organization and funding. Yet instead of abandoning global and cross-institutional efforts such as these, it is vital to continue them because we are still working out the kinks on something great. In terms of Interedition-scale Bootcamps, developers such as myself need these to enthuse collaboration and discovery just as traditional scholars need to meet face-to-face once every year or more to share research and align their goals. Despite the rise of remote resource management tools such as Github and Basecamp in the open-source programming world, real human interaction is still important, so an argument that we all work on the internet and do not require anything more intimate is false. When creating quick mock-ups and prototypes for research and development for digital tools, having colleagues right at hand allows for quick development and sharing of knowledge. Skype doesn't allow the kind of inspirational moments that come from sharing time with a group of people, eating with them, then meeting later at the hotel to work even longer (all traditions that we kept at each Interedition Bootcamp).
Programmers are indeed pro-active at times and so our group, post-Symposium, wasted no time talking about what is next. Interedition continues to work to find additional funding and ways to continue offering programmers and research-field insiders the means to interact in hands-on sessions. Van Zundert has accepted the mantle of head of Interedition and will be in charge of seeing his framework of informal bootcamps and planning sessions live on. Whether Interedition gets picked up by another series of funding now or in the future, I assert that it will serve as a marker for the way in which open-source, academic programming careers will operate.
Learn more about__ Interedition on their website (http://www.interedition.eu). To get more involved, contact Joris Van Zundert at joris DOT van DOT zundert AT gmail DOT com.