Postcards from Berlin: Reflections on Running a DH Project

I’m writing this post in Berlin’s Tegel airport on my way home from an excellent visit to the Digital Classicist Seminar hosted by the DIA and TOPOI. I had intended for our second post to share some reflections on running a grant-funded digital humanities project. In particular, how we communicate in the PBMP and how much that matters. There was an excellent question from the audience last night, and it is still nagging me, so I’m going to wrestle with it an addendum.


Running a grant-funded project is a lot like running a small business. Having co-directed an archaeological field project, Pompeii Quadriporticus Project or PQP for short, for as long as four years, this was not terribly surprising to me.  There is, however, an important difference between the administration of the PQP and the PBMP. That difference is not in the archaeological fieldwork vs. digital information production, but rather in duration. Imagining a graph of the PQP administrative duties forms a nice bell curve of work in my mind. It starts off at a slow pace by finding grants and writing applications for them. If successful, the next step is to begin recruiting students and staff. Then things really get moving as tasks shift to arranging travel, food, and accommodation. Intensity spikes during the field season itself. Afterwards there is the reckoning of what was accomplished. Some expect you to describes these accomplishments in archaeological reports, some in new course material, and some others need you to describe your activities in receipts. By September, there’s a peaceful lull before you yawn and look around again at the CFPs, thinking of next year’s work.

If a fieldwork project is a small business, then it is also a seasonal business. A grant-funded DH project, by contrast is a construction contract. You’ve promised to deliver a product, even it that’s only proof of concept, and you’ve got a year (for example) to do it. Where I’ve noticed this difference most starkly is in the sheer volume of time spent in communication. On average, I spend three hours a day writing emails, making phone calls, attending meetings, and updating comments in our project management environment (more on that below)…and if I’m moving the project forward, this pace of communication needs to continue. The most disappointing aspect of this communication load is that it takes me away from the data itself, from reading the digitized books, browsing the names and places in our authority lists, or perusing the topography as it flows into our GIS. Perhaps this should not have surprised me as directing an archaeological field project also takes one away from the day to day shifting of dirt (the old saw is that there’s an inverse proportional relationship between one’s authority in the field and the size of the tool she uses).  It is sitting in the airport that brings the following metaphor to mind: if you’re good enough at flying planes, one day you’ll get promoted to air traffic control.

Fortunately, intermediaries, both people and technologies, help to ease that communication burden and permit some meaningful contact with data. In the first instance, having student managers who know the work and can communicate it well to their peers are of incalculable help. In passing information and instructions “downstream,” I only have to explain things once, and when confusion arises from those instructions, only the most confounding questions make their way back “upstream” to me.  I also find the web-based project management tool, Trello to be especially helpful communicating aspects of the work. Trello functions like being in a room full of bulletin boards, to which you can affix individual tasks, also known as “cards”, like expandable “post-it” notes in categories of “To Do”, “Doing,” and “Done.” Trello and the PBMP are alike in this respect, each using a physical metaphor as a basic structure to organize information. Within each task, is a flexible work space that permits users to assign a task to individuals or a team, to create checklists, add comments, and to attach files to the card. The free account offers only 10MB of hosting space, but Trello is well integrated with both Dropbox and Google Drive. The later is especially useful for extending the shared environment from task manager to work space.  The checklists offers a great way to track the progress of work in both serial and sequential tasks and even the most bureaucratic duties, like students reporting the hours worked each week.  Finally, because it tracks the progress of tasks and records not only the content of comments, but also their order, Trello functions as a de facto (but incomplete), documentation system. In the context of a fast-paced, communication-rich project like the PBMP, it is especially important to record not only that we accomplished something, but also how we did it. Since the PBMP is committed to serving as a model for other topographically and bibliographically rich subjects, whether archaeological or not, documenting our discursive work process at this micro level will be valuable documentation of successful strategies and common pitfalls.


Trello “card” assignment

This brings me neatly to one of the insightful questions raised Tuesday night at the Digital Classicist Seminar. Paraphrased, that question was:  “How should one go about doing their own project like the PBMP?” For all my rhetoric about the possibility of extending the lessons of the PBMP to another project, I must admit to having been temporarily stumped. My eventual answer was practical and technical in nature:

  1. Assess the suitability of the physical landscape in your project to scaffold your bibliographic data or other resources. For example, Pompeii is neatly divided into individual regions, city blocks, and properties with addresses and (mostly) unique names. How well divided and labeled is the space of your subject? How well does the content of your bibliographic data map onto that space? That is, do the texts use this spatial system regularly and consistently?
  2. Take an inventory of the available resources in both analog and digital formats. For Pompeii, we are fortunate to have its 250+ years of scholarship and 64 hectares of space already well defined in accessible print publications. The initial challenge was one of digitization. If your subject, however, has not codified its sources or maps into nominally canonical resources,  the first step would be to undertake a comprehensive, “state-of-the-field” project. If starting here, building a carto-bibliographic system like the PBMP would be a far heaver lift.

Having had a night to think about it, I wish that I had added another issue to my response: take a personal census. Put simply, are YOU the best fit for such a project. In many cases, answering the technical questions above would act as a personality sorter, driving away only those most committed to a subject with the volume of work the project represents. Still, running a major digital humanities project is facilitated by certain skill sets and personality traits. Let me express these, as I understand them (and not necessarily because I possess them), as a series of questions:

  • Do you prefer to work in teams?
  • Are you a good judge of talent? Of character?
  • Can you hire and fire people?
  • Can you motivate people with your own enthusiasm about “the big picture” when their daily work might be monotonous and dry?
  • Are you immune to the monotony of repetitive tasks?
  • Is salesmanship a positive word?
  • Do you like it when a new email arrives?
  • Can you share your work publicly before it is perfect?
  • Can you give away the data you’ve worked so hard to produce?
  • Is the recognition for what is essentially altruism a sufficient reward for you?

If you answered “Yes” to most of these questions, you may be well suited to accomplish and enjoy running a grant-funded digital humanities project.


Next time, the PBMP and the copyright hustle.