THATCamp New Souths

THATCamp New Souths logo
I had the privilege of participating in THATCamp New Souths at VCU over the past couple of days. This was my first THATCamp unconference, and I’ve been looking forward to it for a while. I’ve been trying to push myself beyond my normal sphere of interaction in Richmond, so it was a real treat to have this particular THATCamp opportunity in my backyard.

Friday’s workshops were incredibly useful. Ashley Brewer, VCU Libraries Web Systems Librarian, gave a great overview on UX for DH. Since I’ve developed so many of my digital skills as-needed for particular projects, I’ve never had any actual training on UX and design. Ashley’s focus on accessibility and inclusive design was very helpful.

Some prompts I found useful:
- Who is your audience?
- Who could your audience be?
- Are there actions your users should complete?
- Are there key takeaways?
- Why does this need to be online?

Other advice that hit home (gulp): don’t get too attached to your product. You’re not building it for you.

Conscious Style Guide
Inclusive Design Principles

I also attended Google Sheets for Digital Humanities Data/Display, by Tom Woodward and Jeff Everhart.

The workshop materials are here.

I didn’t quite know what to expect from this one, but I’m so glad I went. Tom and Jeff walked us into pulling data into Google Sheets with some magical functions like IMPORTTABLE and IMPORTFEED to suck in live web content. I’d done a little bit of experimentation in the past with pulling API data into sheets, but this gave me some wonderful glimpses of possibilities.

The most exciting part to me was the introduction to Google Apps Scripts and examples like Jeff’s registration and voting web app, running entirely on Google Sheets and Google Apps Scripts.

This whole discussion inspired me to pick back up on my Virginia Archaeology News map idea that I started a few years ago. This one also has a Google Sheets back end, but I was hung up on figuring out a way to append new results (the Google feed has a small maximum output limit and old things were disappearing) and efficiently georeference them. Between some of the tips from this workshop and a bit more experience messing around with APIs that I’ve gotten in the past few years, I might be able to make something pretty cool.

The Unconference
I had been hoping to propose a session on ethics of data sharing in DH projects, but I wasn’t quite confident enough to submit a proposal before the event since this was my first THATCamp. However, informal conversations around the Friday workshops led several of us in that direction (and got me quite excited), so I threw in a proposal.

The best part of this group was the diversity of perspectives. I was the only archaeologist in the room, unsurprisingly, and was thrilled to work with folks from so many other disciplines. Our work is really different at times, but the richness of the experience was in the cross-pollination.

In the morning, I joined the field trip to VCU’s new Institute for Contemporary Art and saw the remarkable Declarations show, which tied in amazingly well with themes of THATCamp New Souths. From the website:

…we’re particularly interested in exploring the point(s) at which technology intersects with social justice, history and society, activism, and the sharing of hidden voices, especially in the modern American South.

The afternoon began with Dork Shorts lightning talks. I presented my work on the East End: A Place and Its People website, talking very fast in four minutes. I’ve been working on this project for a year, but since it’s not yet live and it’s built for clients, I haven’t really shared a whole lot about it yet. Stay tuned. This was the first time I’ve widely shown the site to an audience, and it was wonderful to get good feedback (and to see which images weren’t loading well during a live demo).

Next up was an ethics “super session,” weaving together multiple proposals and interests. VCU Political Science student Stephanie Jones spoke about activist DH projects and safety/vulnerability of living subjects. Gianluca De Fazio, assistant professor in the Department of Justice Studies at James Madison University spoke about his work developing the Racial Terror: Lynching in Virginia, 1877-1927 project. I brought along my perspectives dealing with archaeological data: unintended consequences of revealing sensitive information, power structures, and narrative authority.

We set up a collaborative doc for notes during the discussion. It’s available here.

The following sessions were just as powerful, tackling challenging issues in oral history (and resulting digital works), working with painful subjects, gentrification and segregation. There was at least one element of every single session and presentation that aligned with my work in some way.

I came away completely exhausted and energized, with new connections to folks beyond my usual archaeological and bureaucratic bubbles. I very much enjoyed working through some of the thinking behind our tools and projects, beyond just hands on tutorials. Thanks to everyone involved for a stimulating experience.

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