Last week, I presented part of my MAP research and did a quick demo of my app for the audience. It was a great experience and I enjoyed getting to interact with the audience and answer questions afterwards. Here are my slides, with a transcription of my talk below each slide.
SLIDE 1: Hello! My name is Eric Mistry, and I’m a senior History Major and Technology Studies Concentrator. I am here today to talk to you about my yearlong MAP project, which I like to call the MAP MAP APP.
SLIDE 2: My project is a smartphone and tablet app designed to make exploring the history of the old and current buildings here at Grinnell College easy and accessible. It contains two main components, a Google Map of the old and current campus buildings, as well as a section that contains indepth historical information and more pictures.
SLIDE 3: My talk today will cover a few components of my project. First, I’ll examine the questions of Grinnell’s past and present that led me to my topic of research. Next, I’ll explain a bit about the Digital Humanities, and how this upcoming field has really influenced my project. After that I’ll explain how my MAP advisor, Sarah Purcell, and I came to decide that building an app was a better fit for the project than my original plan to have an ebook. Finally, I’ll explain a bit about learning how to build an app, and the many resources I found along the way. We’ll then see a brief demo of the latest app prototype.
SLIDE 4: Something I’ve come to realize with my research is that campus is incredibly fluid, as students, we exist here for four years, just a brief moment of the College’s history. I came into this project really interested in seeing how the changing buildings on campus affect student life. My grandparents came here in the early sixties, my Grandpa is a chemistry professor and my grandma ran the Forum. The Grinnell they arrived at is very different than the Grinnell of today. In fact, many of the buildings that were here upon their arrival are now gone or completely transformed. My dad came here from Mumbai in the early 80s as a student, and his stories of Grinnell revolve around the Forum and the PEC. My campus life revolves around the JRC, the Bear, and East Campus, none of which were around when my dad went here. I’m curious to think of what the campus will look like when its my kids or grandkids coming here. Norris will still be here, but what else will be?
SLIDE 5: As I dove into researching the college buildings, I found a wealth of incredible information hidden in the archives, buildings that once dominated campus life were forgotten. I’ve even seen this history disappearing from the recent campus. The PEC was demolished my first year, now almost no students on campus have any idea what it even was. We have an incredibly short institutional memory due to only being here for a brief flash of time. That led me to the question, “How can this history of the college be spread and preserved?” A history paper or display just would not cut it. I found the answer thanks to a little help from the Digital Humanities.
SLIDE 6: A relatively new field called digital humanities is asking a similar style of question. Here’s a brief definition from Matthew Kirschenbaum- “The digital humanities, also known as humanities computing, is a field of study, research, teaching, and invention concerned with the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities. It is methodological by nature and interdisciplinary in scope. It involves investigation, analysis, synthesis and presentation of information in electronic form. It studies how these media affect the disciplines in which they are used, and what these disciplines have to contribute to our knowledge of computing.” In short, it’s a field that looks at what happens when the humanities meets technology and the two create something new. In our discussions of the digital humanities, my MAP advisor, Sarah Purcell, and I came to find a few key tenets of the digital humanities. 1. Make something new 2. Combine new and old methods 3. Use data in new ways & 4. Engage in interdisciplinary work.It was these tenets that led me to decide to make an app.
SLIDE 7: Originally, I intended to write a history of each of the college buildings and present the information in an ebook, making distribution incredibly easy and making my project “digital”. However, as we talked, Professor Purcell and I realized that there wasn’t very much of the philosophy of the Digital Humanities in this idea. The form may be digital, but at heart, it was just another history paper. We focused on the tenet of making something new and thought about ideas to use the data in new ways. We then started thinking about making an interactive ebook, at which point the now obvious idea to create an app was suggested by Professor Purcell. We both thought it was a great way to create something new and engage in some interdisciplinary work. There was only one small problem to solve. I had about zero programming experience.
SLIDE 8: Luckily, I had some design experience, and a wealth of tools and resources helped me along the way. The main class that helped me in building the app was TEC295- a course I took last year on Value Sensitive Design. I used the lessons learned in that class to identify my primary stakeholders, those who would be using the app, and realized the app had to be easily accessible on whatever technology they had, and it had to be very simple to navigate. This led me to try to find something to program apps in HTML5, which is the main programming language that many websites are built in. It can display content on a wealth of devices, so I thought it made a good choice. That led me to discover a software platform called Intel XDK (an unexpected Grinnell connection right there!) It essentially lets me program the app once, in HTML5, and then packages the files so I can build apps for iPhones, iPads, Android devices, Facebook apps, Chrome apps, and many more systems. I had found the perfect tool, now I just needed to learn to program. I learned HTML5 and a few other necessary programming languages using a service called Codecademy. Codecademy is a free, online-learning resource that teaches you code at your own pace by using instructions and actual coding projects to help you learn. While it is no replacement for a computer science course, it was crucial in helping me learn. Besides the Intel XDK and Codecademy, my biggest resource was Grinnellians, from my advisors who checked in on my project regularly, to Catherine Rod and Chris Jones in the archives, who helped me unearth the treasures, to the offices of admissions, ITS, and communications for their assistance, to my fellow students, who helped test the app, and in the case of some of my AppDev floormates, helped me fix a few minor issues before they became major issues. In short, I had to learn a ton to actually make this project happen, but it’s also been incredibly fulfilling. It’s also been interesting to see these new technical skills mixing with the traditional skills of my humanities background. I was still doing pretty standard historical research, including using the decidedly non-digital technology of the card catalog to work my way through the archives and find this information. All of this normal research combined with my newfound (and still somewhat weak) programming skills to create a unique project, my Grinnell MAP Map App.
Without further ado, here’s a quick demo of the latest app prototype! APP DEMO: We start out at this intro page. Let’s take a tour! We can choose from either a campus tour or a historical tour. Let’s check on the historical tour. The map view is my personal favorite part of the project, so we’ll start there. The map you see here has two types of markers. The red markers are the current day campus buildings, and the blue markers are buildings that no longer exist. When you tap on a marker, you get some information and a picture. If you want more information, I’d encourage you to check out the list view. Here’s north campus, for example. For a building from the past, here’s Blair Hall. Now, I’ll take us briefly back to the historical list view, so we can see a bit more information and pictures. … On this section, we simply tap on the name of the building we want to explore. Take Blair Hall, for instance. It was one of the first three buildings built after the cyclone in 1882. Here’s some more historical information, as well as some more pictures of the building. That’s unfortunately all we have time for today, but I will be presenting my full MAP research, as well as the finished app, on the evening of April 29th in ARH 302.
To me, this app is a different way of presenting history- with huge potential for changing the size of an audience. If I had written a paper, or even made a small exhibit covering the same material, it may be read or examined by those who are interested in the topic, but would likely end up buried in an archive. With this app, the history is placed directly in one’s hands, whether on a tablet, or a smartphone, or even a computer. Because of that, anyone can look at it or find it. It’s also easier to navigate an app than to read a paper, which lowers yet another barrier to entry. As app creation becomes simpler, I’m willing to bet we’ll see it expand into academia as a common product of research. It also makes interacting with the data so much easier. This initial project, this foray into the Digital Humanities, has not been easy, but it has been fulfilling. I went from having zero programming experience to creating an app in a semester. I also had the unique opportunity to combine my two passions, history and technology. They don’t often mix, but when they do, the results can be wonderful. Thank you very much.