DETECt: the contribution of Digital Humanities to Cultural Studies research

By: Frederik Truyen, KU Leuven CS Digital, Roberta Pireddu, KU Leuven CS Digital, Ilaria Bartolini, Dept. of Computer Science and Engineering (DISI), University of Bologna, Anne Marit Waade, Aarhus University, Cathrin Helen Bengesser, Aarhus University

As it is mentioned on the project’s website: “DETECt is a large collaborative initiative that involves scholars, teachers, students, professionals of the creative industries, and the general public in investigating how practices of transnational production, distribution, and consumption in the field of popular culture have facilitated the appearance of engaging representations of Europe’s cultural identity.”

The project researches the popular genre of crime novels and TV series, and in particular, tries to find out what explains the successful circulation of e.g. the European Noir.

Not only does the project bring together top experts in Europe on this very genre, but it also, from its inception, stated some very specific ambitions towards the role of digital approaches, methodologies and tools for the research as well as the dissemination activities.

There is little need to convince even the most hardcore humanities scholar of the necessity of going digital in these COVID times, unfortunately. But it is important to stress that it also offers key advantages from a research and teaching point of view, regardless of this direct urgency. In this short blog, we want to discuss how the DETECt project involved Digital Humanities in its data management and source gathering, methodology and analysis, teaching, public interaction and dissemination.

The developed portal contains access to the research data, the repository, an atlas, a web app, and access to the Moodle and MOOC learning environments (see details below). 

Data management and source gathering

To share documents for collaboration, UNIBO decided to develop a specific document repository for the project, instead of using the usual tools offered by big brand ICT platforms. This approach allowed for a better integration in the web portal and the possibility of specific indexing. As a bonus, this allowed us to comply with EU GDPR regulations without having to make contracts with outside parties about data storage. To structure the research data and repository an ontology was developed to map the different relevant aspects and their interconnections.

DETECt Repository

But probably the most innovative part of it all is that the University of Bologna (UNIBO)  developed an underlying repository and indexing system to assist in the gathering of sources. This was an important part of the evidence-based approach of this research: we wanted to do research into crime novel and TV series creation, distribution and reception based on a large repository of data. These activities in the “Infrastructures” part of the project support the research done in the specific work packages on creative industries, creative audiences, and transcultural representations.

Data was gathered according to legal use conditions from a diversity of open sources and merged into consolidated tables by means of tools such as OpenRefine. A workshop was organized for the project partners to share expertise on these digital humanities tools.

Methodology and analysis

The availability of a portal based on a proper internal database in a web environment allowed us to easily integrate data from a variety of sources, and describe them with relevant research metadata. It allows for the implementation of algorithmic Human-machine analysis as a tool to study creative industries, creative audiences and European transcultural identity. The DETECt researchers involved have a longstanding pedigree in data-informed approaches. 

On top of this database, data visualizations were developed, first off-line with tools such as Gephi and Tableau, and then specifically programmed onto our core database infrastructure for live online consultation. This means researchers can now find on our portal integrated visualizations build directly on the database, in mashups with maps. This allows for a refined analysis e.g. of trends in distribution and circulation.

As a result, a collaborative analytical atlas of European transcultural identity is available on the portal. 

Teaching and Learning

From the earliest conception of the project, it was decided to include a MOOC. KU Leuven is a member of the world-leading edX consortium, and has a wide range of MOOCs on offer. The Cultural Studies KU Leuven DETECt team also had ample experience with MOOCs, having been instrumental in the development of an institutional MOOC strategy. Our latest MOOC, “Creating a Digital Cultural Heritage Community”, attracted over 2000 learners. KU Leuven has several recording studios and a large support team including ICt support, pedagogical expertise, scenario writers and video artists. The university support service LIMEL also offers training of staff members into MOOC development. The MOOC will target a mixed audience of both professionals and a wider audience, as there is a very strong general public interest in crime novels and TV series.

To prepare for the MOOC, a workflow was designed by UNIBO and KU Leuven, for which a Moodle instance, integrated with the DETECt platform, would be used as a temporary online tryout and content development platform. It also allowed for test student interactions. The materials gathered according to project standards for the Moodle constitute the pool of resources from which the MOOC is built, on the internal Edge server of KU Leuven, before it is published on the KULeuvenX edX platform. This way, we have a managed production process to which all involved partners could contribute. Of course, the MOOC will not only provide recorded lectures and study materials but will tap on the potential of the portal and database for interactive student activities.

Public interaction and dissemination: Web App

A Web App has been developed by the University of Aarhus, VisitAarhus and the start-up Motes, giving a guided tour to the “crime scenery” of Aarhus. The DETECtAarhus web-app (www.detectaarhus.eu) is a locative screen tourism experience, which consists of three walking tours through the city. Through GPS navigation It leads people to sites where contemporary films and TV series such as Dicte or Undtagelsen/The Exception were filmed, places which have inspired literary authors and it lets them discover the city’s silent film history. The app navigates the users to a total of 22 different spots where they can unlock audio, video, text and images or get recommendations for cafés and restaurants in Denmark’s second biggest city. 

This app demonstrates how this research can lead to innovative reuses in the tourism and entertainment sector. But the development of the screen tourism web-app for Aarhus was also a perfect opportunity for intertwining research and teaching. The app is suitable for teaching film students about silent film and film tourism as well as for presenting a new perspective on the city to international students. As one of the international students testing the app remarked: “I think it made me see the city in a different way, because I guess the mainstream tourist doesn’t go through film spots, so yeah, you get to see a different side of the city that to be honest, I didn’t know before.” (Spanish exchange student, Nov 2019)

But beyond this literal use as an educational tool, the app is also suited for demonstrating to students practical processes and challenges of product development. This experience prepares them for work environments in the creative industries. By becoming an active part of the research process around the app, students can also be trained methods of qualitative user research, which not only helps their development as academic researchers but also prepares them for research & development scenarios in the workplace. BA-students in media studies, for example, performed user-research around the app as part of their training in media reception analyses. They developed independent research projects, conducting and analysing 18 single or group interviews. Their findings contributed to the evaluation and further development of the app. Together with the web portal, the app is one of the vectors of our wider dissemination strategy. Following the pilot experience of DETECt Aarhus App, UNIBO is now working on DETECt Bologna that will feature multimedia material from six crime transmedia series set in the city. 

But of course this infrastructure and these tools are mainly conceived to support the research in the project, and the educational activities around it. You can find the main research outputs on the website, including journal articles and book publications.  

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are the sole responsibility of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Commission.

The research reported in this blogpost has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under Grant Agreement No 770151, DETECt – Detecting Transcultural Identity in European Popular Crime Narratives

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