Author Archives: Harlan Kellaway

DH Box Takes Off

This is it: DH Box is officially launching. The Digital GC is presenting an evening of short talks from various CUNY Graduate Center digital initiatives today, May 12 — starting off with DH Box.

I wanted to take a moment to reflect on where DH Box started and how far we’ve come. We introduced our project in early February:

What is DH Box?

Not much, so far. But we intend it to be a portable, customized linux environment for Digital Humanities learners that can rely on incredibly inexpensive technology. All you really need is a computer that runs Linux (and a monitor and keyboard, of course!) — but the platform that excites us most is the Raspberry Pi, a tiny computer that sells for just $35. Imagine a collection of DH tools, pre-installed and configured, and a set of texts for users to interrogate — all on a portable and inexpensive device.

That’s a quote from our first blog post — and it illustrates the most drastic change to our project. DH Box’s founder, Stephen Zweibel, had originally envisioned DH Box as being scripts that, when run, installed common DH applications (think Omeka, MALLET, NLTK) onto the user’s system; additionally, DH Box could be shipped as its suite of tools pre-installed on the light and portable Raspberry Pi computer.

As DH Box developed, it took a shift in platform, moving away from the issue of dealing with the idiosyncrasies of each individual’s system, to hosting instances of a virtual computer that any user could launch.

This was a vast and visible shift. But, despite not being as drastic, many other project elements developed in the journey from DH Box’s inception to its official launch.

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DH Box considers deployment options

Once DH Box knew the platform it would adopt, it was simply a matter of figuring out the best way to utilize that platform. But was it so simple?

What the DH Box Team has been tackling this week is striking a balance between providing a robust tool that is useful for the intended audience and whose maintenance is not insurmountable for its administrators.

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New Friend, New Platform for DH Box

This week the DH Box team reconsidered their choice of platform, with the help of Dennis Tenen, a professor at Columbia University in the Digital Humanities and New Media Studies program (and former developer with Microsoft).

A couple weeks ago we were surprised and delighted to find that another team had come up with the idea for a portable tool that could help users quickly get going with DH applications. And this week we found that Professor Tenen and colleagues had also discussed how to tackle such a project and had come up with yet a different solution! In discussing that solution, we found it matched our aim of providing an ease of quickly setting up an environment for new users and made us change our focus for both implementation and outreach.

We’ll keep a description of Professor Tenen’s proposed approach for a later post, but say that using his method circumvents big issues we would have encountered with our original proposal — what if users don’t have one of the operating systems that a DH Box install script was written for? Moreover, what if an addition works for one operating system but not others (a painful lesson Steve learned this week!)? What if unaccustomed users have issues with the install scripts? Or with the command line? This will save us a lot of user issues in the long run. We were happy to hear we wouldn’t have to give up our Raspberry Pi pursuits — Professor Tenen was also excited about the potential of the hyper portable/affordable Raspberry PI platform, suggesting a DH Box ‘lite’ version to be later produced.

So, we will be abandoning the install script approach and with it the need for a robust way to deal with different operating system issues. Our main issues will now be:

  1. Creating meticulous documentation to get unaccustomed users up-and-running
  2. Maintenance of new releases of the DH tools in DH Box
  3. Building of a community invested in suggesting improvements for DH Box and helping with maintenance

Professor Tenen suggested starting with GitHub for organizing pending tasks (as GitHub “Issues”) into Milestones, recording documentation on a GitHub Wiki, and inviting users to enter requests through new Issues.

Not only did Professor Tenen’s suggestions prove invaluable, but forming a relationship with him did as well — he offered to continue meeting with the DH Box team weekly, to present a workshop at CUNY on the technologies he suggested for us, and to help start our documentation based off his own.

The DH Box team is very excited to dive into our new implementation strategy and to work through how maintenance and community building will be executed.

A huge shoutout and special thank you to Professor Dennis Tenen!