Big Data, Big Questions

This week’s readings centered on practicing history with big data- new data sets, data mining, and these tools’ applications to historical research. Beside learning more acronyms and technical terms than I can count (API, H-BOT, Normalized compression distance), one of the readings really focused on an important question. Lev Manovich asked in his article, “Trending: The Promises and Challenges of Big Social Data,” what can these computer-generated analyses of massive data sets, especially social media, discover and allow historians to understand that we cannot without them? The answer is exactly the same for spatial history and GIS mapping- new patterns arise and new relationships are revealed to us. This is yet another concrete example of how digital humanities enables historians to conduct research and produce scholarship that they otherwise could not have using analog forms.

Manovich brought up another very important point- because mining large data sets holds great research potential, how do historians and other humanities researchers access the necessary knowledge and tools in order to use it on a regular basis? I see this question as a bigger picture question: should all universities institute digital humanities classes as a requirement for graduate students? This class and the readings have increasingly shown me the importance and value of using digital tools to facilitate and even build original arguments. Every future historian should be able to utilize these methods to some degree in his or her own research.


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