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A Center Net Portal

A CenterNet Portal

A discussion document put together by a group organized by centerNet around questions of whether there was a need for a Humanities Portal. A panel at the Oulu Digital Humanities 2008 will discuss the issue and we hope feedback from that will enhance the discussion. (See the Appendix below for the abstract.)

1. Goals

The goal of the exercise was to:

  • Develop the case for a portal or for some other service(s)
  • To think about what centers in centerNet could do towards such services
  • To think about how we can support each other and get external support

1.1 Mission

The mission of centerNet is to create the cyberinfrastructure necessary to support collaborative, international e-research in the humanities. "Cyberinfrastructure" in this case refers to at least 1) collaborative professional relationships, 2) access to digital data resources and 3) the web-based tools necessary to perform these tasks.

We need to remember this is not a discussion about portals in general, but what centerNet could offer.

1.2 Process

The following was the process we set out to follow.

  1. We have a short metadiscussion to figure out what we would like to talk about and in what order. (Sounds recursive to me since this not is just that.)
  2. We spend a few weeks simply on an environmental scan of what portals and projects are out there that we should all know about. One of us might then digest that for the wiki.
  3. We then shift to a needs conversation where we spend a few weeks discussing what the community needs. We should not assume these will be served by a portal - just imagine what could be useful on the scale of centerNet. Again, these would be gathered when things go quiet and digested for the wiki.
  4. We then discuss what model of resource could facilitate collaboratively meeting these needs. Is it a portal or portlets? Is it centralized or distributed? From this we might be able to digest a "mission statement" that summarizes a way forward.
  5. Finally, if we have energy, we discuss how the proposed way forward could be facilitated. What are the funding opportunities? What are people willing to do already or have done already? How can we help those who could contribute? What documents could we prepare for circulation and comment?

1.3 Call for participation

The following call was sent to the centerNet list.

Dear CenterNet colleagues,
I am writing you about developing an International Humanities Portal.
A number of organizations have indicated an interest in the collaborative 
development of an international humanities research portal. We would like 
to form a working group in CenterNet to imagine:

- Who would be the audience/users of a humanities portal?
- Who might support such a portal?
- What a humanities portal might look like?
- What services it might provide?
- How it would interoperate with other portals and services like university student portals?

The goal at this point would NOT be to create it, but, as a web of centers, 
to define the need. Our aim is to present the findings back to the Digital 
Humanities community through a panel at DH 2008.

If you are interested, please write us.

Geoffrey Rockwell
Neil Fraistat

2. Examples of Humanities Services

The following are some examples of humanities services that have portal features or services of interest to a discussion about portals. A full list of the example portals, services, and web sites can be found at Heurist

Here is a representative subset:

Intute: Arts and Humanities: http://www.intute.ac.uk/artsandhumanities/

Intute prvovides reviewed access to the best Web resources for education and research. There are over 21,000 Web resources listed here that are freely available by keyword searching and browsing.

TAPoR: Text Analysis Portal for Research: http://portal.tapor.ca

TAPoR is a tool portal where users with accounts can manage a collection of texts, run tools on them, and save results to a research log. It also offers tools as web services to other sites.

VoS: Voice of the Shuttle: http://vos.ucsb.edu/

VoS is a organized list of lists of resources on the web. It is organized for humanists.

Griselda Online: Portale di Letteratura: http://www.griseldaonline.it/

Griselda Online is an Italian literature portal that has essays, learning materials, guided tours, and lists of online resources.

NINES: Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-century Electronic Scholarship: http://www.nines.org/

NINES is a a scholarly organization in British and American nineteenth-century studies that have tools and resources to support digital scholarship.

Heurist: http://heuristscholar.org/

Heurist is an online academic database service that stores internet bookmarks, bibliographic references and research data in a single integrated database, allowing them to be cross-linked, tagged, shared, annotated, discussed, selected, mapped and published live to the web.

Merlot: Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching: http://www.merlot.org/

Merlot provides organized access to online learning materials along with peer reviews. The peer review process is open in the sense that members can post reviews and comments.

SSRN: Social Science Research Network: http://www.ssrn.com

SSRN provides rapid dissemination of research news and is made up of specialized networks like one for philosophers. It provides e-mail abstract feeds that can be subscribed to.

3. Needs

The following is a list of needs that we identified that a portal might (or might not) satisfy.

Previous Research

The Arts and Humanities Research Council of the UK has posted a report titled RePAH: Research in Portals in the Arts and Humanities (http://repah.dmu.ac.uk/report/) that concludes that many researchers do not feel they need collaborative or communicative portals. The report says:

"Our users responded positively to the possibilities of a personally-managed research environment. There were specific, realizable functionalities that they identified as being of direct use to them in carrying forward their research agendas: workflow management tools and resource discovery tools. Researchers wanted greater personal control over digital resources. They readily perceived the advantages of tools which enabled them to integrate searching the web with searching their own hard-drive. They saw benefits to more developed bookmarking features, personal editing features, and an automated copyright management system. They wanted to be able to filter the quality of hit returns, search distributed databases. They responded positively to a web-based news feed feature, and liked the idea of RSS feeds that by-passed personal email accounts.
They were less excited about tools to enable communication and collaboration. The picture that emerged is of researchers who find asynchronous and largely mono-media communication channels such as email, web pages and telephone quite satisfactory.
...
Many of the features presented in the demonstrator imply a more sophisticated portal tool than the current gateways provide, and that requires a development in the ICT skills-base of the user-community which it is clearly reluctant to make. The investments made in the ICT skills-base through the Methods Network, IC Tguides? and training/awareness programmes organised by the AHDS cannot be expected to uplift the skills-base of researchers who do not currently see the need to do so. " (RePAH Executive Summary, p. 11)
"At various points in this report we have referred to this as a ‘managed research environment’. The use of the term “environment” rather than “portal” is significant here because it does not necessarily entail a single provider. It could comprise a selection of Web portal services, or “portlets”, that users draw down to their desk top and configure personally or it may take the form of a pre-configured set embedded within a trusted supplier such as an institutional or professional society web site." (RePAH Executive Summary, p. 13)

This report suggests that researchers in the arts in humanities in the UK do not want complicated portals, especially if their purpose was communicative or collaborative. They wanted simple and personal tools for resource discovery and workflow management.

Matchmaking

One need identified is for a structure for matching people and projects.

"As a scholar/technologist, I'd be very interested in any match-making structures that you could put into place with the 250 responses you've gotten. I teach a course and am finishing a book on web mashups and believe that there are profound implications for this technology for scholarship. I'd be very interested in finding partners to work on some of these ideas. I'll certainly be working my own networks to fins such collaborators, but it would be great if some of those self-identified folks on your list were interested in identifying themselves to the rest of the community too."

Other community services were also discussed. A portal could be a way of exploring community participation. It could be a super-community in the sense that is brings together the communities of centers.

Publishing Services

A need that was identified was for portal for publishing materials. The idea was that the materials published could be available as services that could be integrated into other resources.

"Might the right kind of humanities portal encourage faculty to produce digital scholarship (and get professional credit for it), while helping libraries deal with their financial issues by providing non-commercial access to information and scholarship, while giving students an alternative to Google searches when they are writing research papers? If the hypothetical humanities portal were designed to be integrated into existing library portals, and if it were a gateway to the right sort of open-access materials, I should think that there might be a lot of interest in it."

Web Services

As mentioned above, a general need for well defined web services that could be organized into other portals was identified. What if we didn't create a portal so much as a suite of services people can weave into a web page or a student portal? More importantly, what if we tried to integrate good resources that are already out there.

Evaluation

One need that was identified was to evaluate the resources already out there. While our group discussed some research resources one could imagine a portal like the Merlot site where people can find peer reviewed online learning materials and, if a member, submit reviews and comments.

Tools

A number of people commented on the need for good tools. The RePAH report identified the need for workflow management tools, for example. These might be workflow for editing or journal publishing, but other types of tools would also be useful.

Internationalization

We had a lively discussion about the importance of true internationalization and how that was not simply a matter of different language skins or of translated abstracts. In some cases internationalization means organizing materials differently to fit different models of knowledge or academic structures – it is being a) multicultural and b) multilinguistic. In other cases it may mean recognizing regional dialogues where what matters to researchers in a country is more what is happening in their region of influence than what is happening internationally.

4. The argument against a portal

It is worth look at the arguments against centerNet developing a portal.

  1. There are too many portal like services already around and run by organizations with resources to maintain them. We should just use existing resources from Google to Facebook to Ning.
  2. There is no service we need from a portal that is not offered from another center or commercial organization. Any service that is not offered could be built without building a portal.
  3. We have no funding for a portal and if we did it would be in the form of a grant which would eventually run out. Portals to be useful have to survive and be perceived to be able to survive for a long time. Therefore they need ongoing committed funding similar to a library. Research centres are the wrong type of entity to set up a portal as they get burst funding.
  4. If we could get funding it would be better spent on .... (put your favorite need here.)
  5. Universities are building student and faculty portals. We should be working with those. Researchers don't want to be on any more portals than they need to be. We should be developing services that can be used by university portals.
  6. Social networks are taking off as an alternative to portals. They have many of the features of portals - they save account information and they offer integration of services. We should think about research social networks or plug-ins for the existing social networks where researchers are.
  7. A portal to be useful would have to be international as humanities research is international. That means, among other things, getting funding from different national councils, translating the interface and key content, having an international board, and meeting privacy/security expectations of different countries. A portal in the US would not be considered private given the Patriot Act and there might be reluctance for non US researchers to use it.
  8. A portal is not what a network of centers should do.
  9. There is evidence (see the RePAH report) that few researchers use or see the need to use portals, especially RDN (Resource Discovery Network) portals.

5. What a Humanities Portal could be

Arguments for a portal

  1. A portal can provide close integration of services. For example named people and projects could link to appropriate entries. A bibliographic management tool could be designed so that all references are coordinated and searchable.
  2. A portal can build community by being a first stop for people entering the community and being a way for those in the community to stay in touch.
  3. A portal can offer people without resources access to basic tools and tools coordinated with each other.
  4. A portal could offer tools like blogs that are customized to our community. Imagine a blog that is tied to databases of people, projects, and bibliographic references.
  5. A portal could provide a venue of greater international collaboration. Why many in North America may have access to too many portals, in other parts of the world there are fewer resources. A multicultural and multilingual portal could serve to include a broader range of research voices.
  6. Likewise a portal could provide well maintained services to colleagues, wherever they are, who don’t have access to the cyberinfrastructure common in well appointed centers. It would enable colleagues to participate fully with equivalent support, at least online.

What a portal could be

Model 1: Ning and Zotero

One model would be to build on what Zotero is doing (given their success) and identify other centres willing to work with Zotero to enhace their coming online presence with other features. For example we could try to create a social network site that had the features of Ning (groups can create open or closed networks) but with good bibliographic support. Or we could add tools to the API. My point is to build on success.

Model 2: Build on the Digital Humanities Site

To some extent we already have a portal of sorts emerging through Digital Humanities (ADHO). We could scale up the services to be available to any center or center approved person. An example would be the conference tool, another would be the wiki, or the blogs. We take what we are using and get support to generalize it so that services we already use are generally available to centers and their constituencies.

Model 3: Resource Discovery

Looking closely at the RePAH report it seems that resource discovery is something users expressed an interest in. That said, the report also mentioned how few respondents had used resource discovery networks like Intute. Are there some bright ideas about ways that centers could contribute to a common people, projects, news and resources portal. This might harvest metadata from participating centers and try to do some intelligent linking so no one has to do the same data entry twice, but we get enhanced information.

Model 4: Digital Utilities, Recipes, and Training

Some people on the list argued that we don't need another portal so much as tools and knowledge about tools – a “toy chest” like the one Alan Liu has set up. What about a portal that aggregated information about the utilities out there, the training that is available, and the recipes for how to use these tools. This would not be like the TA Po R? portal which specifically gives access to tools that can be run on the web. It would be organized according to tasks that humanists typically do and would point them to useful tools, reviews of tools, training for tools, and ways of using tools for tasks. Such a portal could then begin to identify the tools that are missing or those that are underdocumented and therefore not used as they should.

Model 5: Specialized Society Support

The NINES project and the SSRN suggest that one way to go is to provide the facilities for specialized societies to work together. We would not develop one portal, but the infrastructure for groups that have organized to roll their own subject portal. We could make available tools like Collex to other communities.

Model 6: Interoperability

No one tool or site is the solution to everyone’s needs, but centerNet could start a interoperability standards process that involved existing developers to make their systems more interoperable. This would not lead to a portal, but to guidelines for developers who wish their tools or sites to work with others to be customized portals.

6. Next Steps

  1. Perhaps the most important next step is to get feedback from the community. That is the purpose of the DH 2008 panel (see appendix for abstract.)
  2. Another important step is to see how the Bamboo project unfolds. In principle it is a thorough listening to the community that will deliver a much better sense of what the needs are.

7. Appendix

Abstract for the DH 2008 Panel

What would a portal for humanists look like? Who would it serve and what services would it provide?
centerNet, an international network of digital humanities centers, proposes a panel to discuss an ongoing conversation about the need for an International Humanities Portal (IHP) to serve students and researchers. The panelists will present different perspectives a number of questions we have posed to the larger network. The panel will both present their own positions on the case for a Portal and will report back on the collaborative development of a common Needs Analysis that identifies the need and the potential scope of such a portal. We propose a panel as a way to reflect back to the community the discussions so far and the solicit further input on the need and case for a common infrastructure. The participants bring an international perspective to the discussion, that is central to what we imagine.
Some of the questions the panelists will address are:
1. Who would be the users of a humanities portal? Would a portal serve only researchers or would it serve students and anyone else interested in the humanities? Would a portal be serve primarily digital humanists or would it serve all humanists? The need for a portal starts with the definition of the audience and how a portal might serve their interests. As the title suggests and the participants in the panel we have also started from the position that research crosses national and linguistic boundaries and that we should therefore imagine an international portal that can be multilingual and support the needs of international research.
2. Who might support such a portal? How might the development of such a portal be funded and how would it be maintained? centerNet includes centers will access to development and support resources, but no center has the capacity to support a successful international portal. We therefore imagine a distributed model that will draw on expertise and support from the centerNet community and beyond. We also imagine that the development of a consensus about the need and scope of a portal by centerNet could help individual centers to secure support from national and other funding bodies to develop and maintain components. Ultimately we hope the support needed at any one center will be easier to secure and easier to maintain if backed up by an articulated Need Analysis from a larger body like centerNet.
3. What a humanities portal might look like? Will it actually be a portal or should we imagine providing services to existing university portals? Many universities are developing student and faculty portals as are scholarly associations and projects. Portals now seem dated in light of Web 2.0 social technologies. For this reason we imagine that an IHP will need to interoperate with other portals through "portlets" or OpenSocial (http://code.google.com/apis/opensocial/) plug-ins that can be added to project sites. The IHP will itself need to play well with other resources rather than aim to organize them.
4. What services it might provide? What services are already provided by centers and projects? Can the portal provide an entry point into the richness of existing resources? The panelists will survey the variety of resources already available to their communities and discuss what new resources are needed. Above all a portal should be a door into a area of inquiry -- panelists will reflect on what they and their community would expect to have easy access to from something that promised to be an International Humanities Portal.
Just as important as defining the services is imagining how services might interoperate. A humanist familiar with the web will know of resources from Voice of the Shuttle to Intute: Arts and Humanities, but can we imagine how these services might be brought together so that one can search across them? Can we imagine a mashup of services providing new and unanticipated possibilities?
5. What are the next steps? How can the case for an IHP be strengthened? How can centerNet help, not hinder, projects that want to develop and support components that meet the needs of the community? One of the purposes of this panel is to solicit feedback from the larger digital humanities community.
Portals are typically characterized by two features. First, their users can customize their account to show and hide the resources they need. Thus a user of the TA Po R portal, for example, can define texts and tools that they want to use and ignore the rest. The ease of customization and the depth of customization are important to users if they use portals regularly. Second, users expect that a portal provides access to the breadth of services and resources they need for a domain of inquiry. Thus students expect a student portal to provide access to all the online resources they need as a student from the library account to their course information. A portal should be just that -- a door into a domain. Is it possible for an IHP to be on the one hand easy to use (and customize), and on the other hand truly provide broad access to resources? Is it possible that an IHP is too ambitious and would either be to complicated for humanists to use or not broad enough in scope to be useful? The answer in part lies in imagining an initial audience and conducting the usability studies needed to understand what they would expect. Thus we imagine a iterative process of designing for a first set of users and redesigning as we learn more. This means a long term development commitment which is beyond most project funding. The challenges are enormous and we may be overtaken by commercial portals like Google or Yahoo that provide most of what humanists need. We believe, however, that the process of defining the opportunities and challenges is a way to recognize what is useful and move in a direction of collaboration. We hope that in the discussion modest first steps will emerge.
Bibliography
Detlor, Brian. Towards knowledge portals: From human issues to intelligent agents. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004.
Intute: Arts and Humanities: http://www.intute.ac.uk/artsandhumanities/
TAPoR: Text Analysis Portal for Research: http://portal.tapor.ca
VoS: Voice of the Shuttle: http://vos.ucsb.edu/

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