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Collaboration and Transmedia Futures in Spatial Scholarship Projects

The academic publishing sector has been stretching the limits of its traditional business model for some time now, with its two greatest accomplishments involving:

  • Digitisation of entire books, available online through library access
  • Digitisation of academic journals

The possibilities of publishing, however, go so far beyond simple digitization. Though there exists pushback from the humanities sectors, the potential application of a truly digital approach towards publications outweighs all shortcomings.

Where humanities disciplines remain traditional on their publication model (even as their business model fails) scientific publications have excelled. These scientific publications have adopted a multimedia approach, and have expanded their audience beyond the science community, to be of interest to the general audience, as the scientific journal Nature has achieved.

“Foreshortening of a Library” by Carlo Galli Bibiena, 1728–78. Public Domain.

The academic publishing sectors that adhere to traditional models, however, still fair better overall than the new humanities hybrid projects that attempt to contextualise old information using technology, without the aid of web and application developers. These projects are typically open-source and for the benefit of any interested party, rather than strictly for researchers or academics alone.

The lack of success with these hybrid projects, however, is not an excuse to commit to a dying medium. The largest obstacle that is inhibiting many academic, open-source projects is not a lack of interest, but poor UX design. The golden rule of the internet holds as true in the academic sectors as it does for any commerce website: without a user-friendly platform, the data is inaccessible and doomed to fail.

Casual users are constantly being bombarded with content that demands their attention, which has vastly reduced the patience of consumers when it comes to seeking out the information they are looking for. Large, unruly data projects fail only because users are unable to extract the information they want quickly, and easily.

One such hybrid project, Hestia, offered incredible possibilities for learning. It’s difficult layout and unfriendly user experience, however, meant it failed to market itself to a wider audience. This problem extends to many disciplines. Historians, in particular, commonly write for academic audiences, rather than for the general public. This failure perpetuates an elitist notion of knowledge, despite the popularity of historic texts such as SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, or Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

The public wants to learn. They want to better themselves. Academics want easier access to data so that they may infer new analysis without extensive data projects holding them back. Projects like Hestia may offer their users tools to conduct their own analysis, but these tools are not well designed. To move forward and to make information more accessible, academics must collaborate with web and UX designers. Only with collaboration may humanities academics create publications that actively reach the general public.

Detangling Elitism from History Publications

Peter J. Beck highlights this issue in his book Presenting History: Past and Present. There, he claims that though history itself has “a lengthy track record in addressing a wider audience” historians commonly neglect to educate the common populace, preferring to instead “[educate] themselves”.

 This could be because even best-selling history books are often stigmatised, rather than lauded, amongst academic circles. This is despite the fact that, as even Beck admits, producing historical texts, or tools, that cater to both academic and general audiences is a difficult task. Projects like Hestia circumvented this issue by reproducing the original text over maps, to show the physical movement of Herodotus’s original Histories. What it does not do is translate the text, or provide insight. It is a tool through and through, and though this is certainly a method to reduce inherent bias, it also restricts the audience of such an academic tool to the few, not the many.

Understanding the Goals and Shortcomings of Hestia

Hestia is the “geospatial analysis of Herodotus’s Histories”. It stands for ‘Herodotus Encoded Space-Text Imaging Archive’ and was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the UK. It uses GIS, Google Earth, and Narrative TimeMap to “investigate the cultural geography of the ancient world through the eyes of one of its first witnesses”. Maps, in and of themselves, have increasingly been used to provide spatial understanding of the world, our place within it, as well as past events since the invention of geographic information systems (GIS) (Knowles, 2008). The publication’s goal is to provide a tool for researchers to use for their own spatial analysis of Histories. It has done this by using an extensive mark-up of the text, provided by the Perseus Digital Library, and associated places with their geographical location. The main aspect to this resource is its HestiaVis platform, which allows users to either see the places mentioned in the text on a map, use an interface for reading the text chronologically, as well as see its associated location on the map, or to investigate locations more closely. The last option, Place Detail provides network maps of the text or links to other relevant publications. Their aim is to provide a tool that would be used to generate new analyses of Histories, or to use Open University’s OpenLearn to “produce free and open educational resources that make use of [their] technologies”. Their choice of text is not only interesting, but it also provides a spatial understanding of a historical account from a historical perspective.

The paper the team behind Hesita published provides more insight on the aims, limitations, and processes of the project. In it, they state that “HESTIA has the twin aim of investigating the ways geography is represented in the Histories and of bringing Herodotus’ world into people’s homes”. This claim insinuates that the team did, indeed, wish to cater to users outside of the academic sector.

Creating an Enduring Academic Tool for Future Generations

Several reservations that they have about their project apply to many others like it: the issue of endurability.

Hestia was created at the cusp of a “revolution in approaches to the study of antiquity”. For researchers looking to use technology in conjunction with their work, the threat of evolving formats is a daunting one. How could one create a project and have it still be seen by future generations, much less users in five years from now? Their dedication at creating a robust tool – for instance, using satellite imaging from NASA to provide users a “readily accessible” view of Herodotus’ world – is one of the many aspects that other researchers should replicate in future publications. For them, their project captures “a sense of space as something lived, not abstractly conceived”. Naturally, their report on Hestia provides more insight onto the uses and benefits of Hestia than a glance could, however, as creators of the project, it is inherently biased.

An unaffiliated user does not have the benefit of having created the program nor being taught how to use it, and that is the true flaw in its design. For academic resources such as Hestia to truly be viable for future generations, it must be inherently simple to understand and use. Though at the time of its creation the team behind Hestia held workshops and tutorials, this is not a working, nor sustainable, solution.

To achieve its goal of being a useful tool, the project collaborated with The Iris Project, an educational charity aimed at enriching the curriculum at UK state schools. Together, they aimed to design and deliver workshops to introduce Hestia and its uses, and then use the feedback from these workshops to create resources for schools everywhere to use. They claim that students will “learn about the origins of historiography” and will be able to “move beyond the written page to explore the geography of the ancient world”. The last update claims they were in the process of trialling these workshops, though they did produce the series of blog posts Reading Herodotus spatially in the undergraduate classroom. In terms of academic success, Hestia has achieved many of its goals. It has been featured in at least fifteen different publications, and is associated with fourteen different projects, though many listed projects are associated only due to its similar topic. Beyond that, however, it has reached the end of its lifespan, and, seemingly, is incredibly difficult to use and understand without being taught in a classroom or workshop setting. Many pages have ‘404 error’ notices, and one of the main tools that utilize Google Earth has been broken and abandoned (Hestia, 2016b). The last blog post, from October 2015, is an automated example post, likely uploaded by accident, and the last real post was from 2014 (Hestia, 2016e). Beyond the concerns that can be associated with the end of the project’s budget, there are severe issues with the publication’s ease of use that make the tool inaccessible for users with a general interest.

Spatial Understanding in Historical Education: Providing Essential Context to All Ages

Hestia’s goal should be to provide a contextual understanding of a historical account of history; by connecting a narrative such as Herodotus’ Histories with place, there should be a correlation in benefits for the user’s education. In order to understand how people, or rather, adults, learn with maps, we must first look at how children interact with and benefit from using GIS. Katharyne Mitchell and Sarah Elwood conducted a study that analysed how digital mapping could lead to ‘greater interest in civic participation by early adolescent learners’ (2012). In this study, they sought out whether GIS could entice young people to learn about their neighbourhood, and subsequently spur them to actively participate in their environments. In their study, they highlight an excerpt from Geography Education Standards Project:

An understanding of geography can inform an understanding of history in two important ways. First, the events of history take place within geographic contexts. Second, those events are motivated by people’s perceptions, correct or otherwise, or geographic contexts. By exploring what the world was like and how it was perceived at a given place at a given time, the geographically informed person is able to interpret major historical issues. (1994, p.104)

This excerpt highlights several key factors as to why projects like Hestia are not only important within the academic sector, but also for a general understanding of history itself. As Beck laments, historians are incapable of relating a true depiction of the past, that ‘all history is contemporary’ (2012, p.16). He claims there are several reasons for this, including personal bias, historical skills, their geographic location, context, theoretical position (empirical, Marxist, etc.) and hindsight bias (Beck, 2012, p.16-17). By giving Herodotus’ Histories a new medium to be learned from, Hestia offers people a contextualised glimpse into a historical account from the past itself. Though Herodotus suffers from the same aspects as modern historians do, his accounts offer a worldview saved from his time. An example of how Hestia could be further developed would be to use the project as it was, now, and incorporate alternative accounts of the events Herodotus depicts. This will provide an evolving understanding of the world during that time, and how varying ideologies alter events and bias.

In Mitchell and Elwood’s study, they note that there is a ‘seeming lack of early adolescent interest in engaging the world’s problems.’ Similarly, history taught at the primary or secondary level are often deemed dry, or dull. This is very likely due to monetary issues amongst publishers in the education sector (Hall, 2013). This is due to budget constraints from public schools, and the textbooks designed to meet these constraints. Indeed, the textbooks produced include as much information as possible, as succinctly as possible. Without narrative, context, or any understanding of motive, history is reduced to a list of dates and facts. Mitchell and Elwood aim to introduce digital geography to their students in an effort to connect with the children, and, hopefully, inspire them to further action. They conclude that ‘geographic education prepares students to think about places and the people who occupy and give meaning to these places’ (Mitchel and Elwood, 2012, p.155). What interested these students, essentially, was the ability to connect history with their world, and further on to analyse how the spaces they live in interact and influence people around them.

Bringing Historical Education to Life with Contemporary Media

Hestia, and all projects like it, have an untapped audience based that they do not acknowledge: entertainment and media. Narratives are the easiest, and best, way to connect to a larger audience. If Hestia were redesigned to incorporate a more native flow and a better, simpler user experience, Hestia could very well be filtered through a content creator for mass audiences. There are several sectors where authors, creators, or otherwise would be interested, and these range from fiction, non-fiction, documentary, video games, television, movies, and more. With the rise of virtual reality (VR) this year, and a slew of other technologies that embrace digital environments, new markets will be opening up for a large population of users. Alongside this growing community of ‘indie’ producers, creators, and otherwise, is a population with the world’s knowledge at their fingertips. Entertainment industries are being pressured to depict accurate and true representations of their media.

Among this, if Hestia were to appeal itself to creators, offering not only a historical account of the past, but also a spatial understanding (which is particularly crucial with the video game and VR sectors), they might find that there are a significant community interested in their project. No study has been conducted on this, however, and is therefore completely conjecture. Richard Mayer has also written on the need for research into the matter (2016) though it is Inderjeet Mani’s Computational Modeling of Narrative that claims ‘the demands of interactive entertainment and interest in the creation of engaging narratives with life-like characters have provided a fresh impetus to this field’ (2013). Furthermore, his entire text is designed for practitioners ‘who are seeking to build better interactive systems and game environments’ (p.1).

All academics should be aware of and accept that these users are likely to be interested in their work, if only for the sake of authenticity. If anything, academics (particularly those who are interested in spatial analysis) should be aware of these sectors during their research, particularly if history continues, as it currently has, to be filtered to the mass public by these creators. By emphasizing spatial analysis alongside history, academics could see their work translated into a digital reality that could be touched and experienced in phenomenal ways.

Video Games and Historical Education: The Perfect Pairing

An example of mass audiences experiencing, learning, and exposing themselves to history is in the popular Assassin’s Creed series. Each game within the series depicts a different time period, and includes historical figures and events, albeit featuring a fictional character and fictional plots. This concept of gaming and historical scholarship has been explored further by Dawn Spring (2015). Not only does Spring’s article analyse how commercial video games are capable of being platforms for historical scholarship, Spring highlights how several have already succeeded in providing historical backdrops, characters, and events to mass audiences.

Richard Mayers has further written on this subject of incorporating education into games, and outlines four leading articles on the issue in his work (2010). His critique on the articles he reflects on is, essentially, that since this topic is rather new, it requires more empirical evidence. At the moment, research into this field, as he states, requires ‘less advocacy and a better linking between claims and evidence’ (2010, p. 350). Regardless of this field’s infancy, however, projects like Hestia should be mindful of how their work could be translated into different mediums. Fictional plots aside, the gaming industry will very likely extend into the academic sector, and projects that produce tools like Hestia will be invaluable for developers. Of all creative mediums, games rely most on the concept of space and mapping. As research is undertaken into incorporating typically entertainment-based mediums into academia, Hestia should act as a resource for further creations. To do this, it would have to investigate further into the features that Hestia has that could translate over for different industries. With this potential in mind, if creators are tasked with the job of introducing the mass public to history academic topics, and it is academics that are responsible for later providing the true account, both industries pose to benefit.

Transmedia and Collaborative Possibilities for the Future of Education

This concept of transmedia is just one of the collaborative possibilities that Frania Hall posits in her article Digital Convergence and Collaborative Cultures (2014). In it, she highlights a rise in two trends for the creative sectors – transmedia storytelling and participatory culture.

For a educational tool to be successful, it must engage in participatory culture, and more to the point must operate like a business to endure and survive as a tool in the digital era. All academic, digital tools like Hestia and beyond must have a strategic and consolidated management and marketing strategy to ensure it endures. Without a working business model, all academic tools are bound to break and become inoperable in the near future. To quote Frania Hall, ‘Change is not going to stop, so a continuously adaptive business is going to be required’ (2014, p. 22).

Academic projects like Hestia need to continually redesign themselves with their sights set on the future. They should look for ways to collaborate with other academic projects, as well as how it could outreach into different sectors by positioning itself as a useful tool for ‘prosumers’ and ‘producers’ (Hall, 2014). Though it does not, and perhaps does not want, a revenue stream, academic tools would benefit greatly by adopting a formal business plan that aims to succeed in the future, and be open to new developments and partnerships that would help it succeed.

Bettering Tomorrow's Academic Narrative Tools

Future publications like Hestia would do well to collaborate with other institutions or projects. By collaborating with a project or institute that aims to become a tool for many other projects, it has a higher chance of remaining sustainable.

Likewise, future projects could aim to become a tool for others to use and collaborate with, by inviting other researchers to incorporate their research onto a single, dynamic map that can switch between projects. The more projects conglomerated into a single place, the more emphasis on sustainability. All projects should, moreover, adopt a business strategy and marketing plan in order to gain as many users as possible, both for academic recognition as well as to introduce itself to the wider public.

According to The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship, GIS has received a renewed interest in recent years (Bodenhamer, 2010). This interest, as he claims, stems ‘from the ubiquity of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in contemporary society (2010, p.vii). By this he is, of course, referring to the rise in mapping technologies such as Google Maps, CityMapper, and more generally maps and infographics commonly used in news and cultural articles. As this trend continues, so too will the developments into relevant technologies, and will likely solve Bodenhamer’s concern that ‘spatio-temporal’ GIS remains ‘unresolved’ (2010).

Currently, there is no way to guarantee projects like Hestia will stay up to date, however that very fact should be the driving point in developing innovative projects, and push the boundaries of what previous researchers have tried to do. If the work itself is ephemeral, at the very least the strides they make in the spatial humanities will not be. Acknowledging that few projects wish to invest time and effort into knowingly building a project that will become inaccessible in a few short years, projects should instead invest in their projects like a business, and look for ways to improve their own processes and how they can market their project to others. With this mind-set, they should also aim to incorporate a more organic, simple design for the benefit of everyone. Collaboration is a must, for both sustainability reasons, but also to further the project’s reach and capabilities. Collaboration, however, does not have to begin and end with other academic projects. There are developments in the entertainment industry that would be interested in the spatio-temporal look into the past that Hestia offers – particularly in the video game sector, where, between historically-rich open-world video games for mass market and the future possibility of academic games, spatial history is needed. As it is, Hestia, is an only abandoned project with broken pages, a difficult design, and a lot of potential.

academic publishing

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