Author Archives: Stephen Zweibel

About Stephen Zweibel

Stephen Zweibel is Digital Scholarship Librarian at The Graduate Center.

Communicating Technical Process

With alpha work on DH Box wrapping up, it’s a good moment to reflect on some technical lessons learned, as well as some lessons about being on the technical side of a team. Up to this point, while I have been keeping my team apprised in general of DH Box’s technical situation as it progressed, most of the details of its implementation, as well as the specific tools I’ve used and their justifications, pros/cons, and possible alternatives, I have kept to myself.

This is, in part, due to the fact that I did not begin with a particular plan. Though we had a well-defined goal for DH Box, I knew that there were myriad ways to reach it. So I experimented with different methods of cloud deployment and server provisioning, that is, different ways of creating each new instance of DH Box and automatically installing all of the necessary software on it.

I started with a BASH script designed to run on the first boot of each new DH Box instance. This worked well enough, but didn’t offer much in the way of sophisticated automation or transparency for debugging. I then tried some of the more well-known server deployment/provisioning tools, like Puppet and Salt. Puppet I found less straightforward than I’d hoped, partially because it requires modules to be written in a homespun variety of Ruby, which I’m not super comfortable with. Salt did more of what I wanted, but I was still reading its documentation when I became distracted by yet another tool, Ansible.

Ansible turned out to be just what I needed: It is written in Python, a language I have more familiarity with, and it allows me to monitor each deployment of a new DH Box in real time. Using Ansible, I’ve been able to create a whole automation workflow in one language, and, even better, I can easily see if and at exactly which point a deployment fails. This is crucial to efficient problem solving and future updates for DH Box, as its installation process necessarily involves many separate moving parts.

With these details of DH Box’s technical framework determined, it’s possible to create a more concrete “blueprint”, and I’m now working with our project planner, Gioia, to incorporate much more specific technical milestones into our overall plan. Going forward, I hope to keep everyone up-to-date and communicate some of what I learn along the way, without getting us too bogged-down in technical minutiae.

Presenting… DH Box

In the interest of spreading the mission of DH Box far and wide, I’ve been working on a brief presentation that might also serve as an online introduction to the project. It’s available here. Take a look!

I’ll be using these slides to give a short talk about DH Box to faculty this Tuesday at Hunter College. It looks like we’ll be making quite a few presentations like this one, because as it turns out, building a community is one of the key factors determining success for DH Box. We will need the help of an invested community to:

  • Determine which tools should be included
  • Identify new platforms to target
  • Contribute to documentation
  • Spread awareness about DH Box

and it seems clear that in-person meetings and discussions are the best way for us to create interest in our work. That’s not to discount social media approaches at all; they allow for broad outreach we couldn’t manage otherwise. But in-person conversation allows us to demonstrate and discuss DH Box in greater depth, thus solidifying each potential user’s understanding and their relationship with us and our project.

Opening DH Box

This is it! The inaugural post of the DH Box blog (the DH stands for Digital Humanities). Here we intend to make the process of planning, creating, and publicizing the DH Box transparent for our readers. Hopefully this provides some inspiration, and even a blueprint, for future collaborative DH projects.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves! First, some questions and answers:

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.

What inspired the idea of DH Box?

Several ongoing humanities projects have begun to take advantage of the continuing miniaturization of computing technology. One in particular excited my imagination: Library Box, which repurposes a wireless router into a “portable digital file distribution tool…that enables delivery of educational, healthcare, and other vital information to individuals off the grid.” The possibilities for ’embedded’, specialized miniature computers are massive.

What is needed to run DH Box?

Our first major goal is to get DH Box running on the Raspberry Pi. Once that’s done, DH Box will also be runnable on nearly any Linux computer!

Who do you think will use DH Box?

Anyone and everyone who is interested in learning Digital Humanities inquiry techniques, but especially those who may not have any prior programming experience. We hope that instructors will use our tools to set up almost instant DH labs, and that students will use DH Box to get an edge in their research.

We see DH Box as an example of what is likely to be a robust and interesting future field, ‘humanities hardware’.

Who are we?

We are an interdisciplinary team of learners and do-ers, librarians and developers and digital humanists and more — with an interest in making DH work more accessible. Find us:

More to come as we continue to develop DH Box!