Bringing the Humanities into the digital age

Tuesday, 1 August 2017


The recent launch of the Colonial Frontier Massacres Map, an online tool which maps the Aboriginal massacres that occurred across colonial Australia, saw a huge influx of visitors to the Centre for 21st Century Humanities (C21CH) website to view the map.

Conjoint Professor Lyndall Ryan at the launch of the Colonial Frontiers Massacres Map.

News of the map had reached more than 28 million people within the first 2 days of its launch. A few weeks later the map website still has at least 10 people from around the world viewing the map at any given time of day.

The research team behind the Australian Research Council Discovery Project Grant funded endeavour is led by Conjoint Professor Lyndall Ryan and is supported by historian Dr Jennifer Debenham as Senior Research Assistant, Dr Mark Brown (University of Tasmania) as Digital Cartographer and Dr Bill Pascoe as Digital Humanities Specialist. They knew the launch of the map would create some response, however they were surprised by the huge public reaction.

Dr Pascoe believes the response was due to a combination of an issue of great importance and presenting it a visual, interactive and information rich way on the web.

“I think what makes launching a digital tool like this one so different to a traditional book launch is that the map is immediately accessible. Anyone can go to the map and the story is right there in a glance as you see so many dots marking the massacres. You can then dig deeper and get more information and nuance to the story such as how many people were involved and a narrative of the event,” Dr Pascoe observed.

The team behind the map had also expected some backlash to the digital tool in terms of disbelievers, however most feedback has been overwhelmingly supportive with many people coming forward with new information and evidence of massacres.

“People seem very interested to see and contribute information about massacres that occurred near them or where they grew up. Historians and school teachers interested in using it as a resource have also been contacting us,” Dr Pascoe said.

Dr Pascoe’s role as a Digital Humanities Specialist for the Centre for 21st Century Humanities meant he worked closely with the academics to get all the data for the digital tool into a format that can be used for web mapping. He also established processes for updates and corrections and did the actual web development and programming of the site.

“While maps are often used in history, it’s not that common to gather so much data and display it all through an interactive web map. There are other maps of massacres of Aboriginal people on the web but what we wanted from this was to provide more depth. This project is supported by many years of research and, especially because it is a much-debated issue of such great interest to the nation, we wanted to make more detail, sources and evidence easily accessible to the public,” Dr Pascoe said.

Digital humanities is a growing field and Dr Pascoe’s role with the Centre for 21st Century Humanities is an important one in that it helps dismantle some traditional research barriers.

“Digital humanities makes research possible that could not be done without the capacity of computers to process vast amounts of data, or the ability to communicate and collaborate across the world. We could not have gained some knowledge we now have about Shakespeare without computational methods. While most Australians would have been aware there were some massacres on the colonial frontier, I am sure that many have been shocked to see the extent of it.”

“This map is a great example of bringing humanities research out of journals and into people’s hands and minds.”

The future of the Centre for 21st Century Humanities lab is a busy one with many projects in the works including the improvement of the Centre for Literary and Linguistic Computing’s stylometry systems in function, capabilities and useability. Dr Pascoe is also developing infrastructure tools for researchers and the public to map texts and data and to create online video and audio archives of endangered languages.

“From day to day I'm working on text analysis software to figure out who wrote Shakespeare's plays, or helping publish translations of the newly discovered poetry of an executed Queen, or making videos and transcripts of endangered languages available on the web, or turning captain’s stories of Dutch ocean voyages into maps, or 3D imaging on high performance computing networks for laser microscopy,” Dr Pascoe said.