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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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Development and Testing

We’ve made big strides developing the front end interface to launch a new DH Box, and the Welcome page/menu that acts as the DH Box ‘home base’. We received extremely helpful feedback from some generous volunteer user experience testers at City Tech, and valuable advice from Chris Stein, Director of User Experience for the CUNY Academic Commons.

The results of our first round of user experience testing gave our team some great insights, and a fresh perspective on the project. We learned that perhaps one of our biggest challenges is effectively conveying the concept of the project in a readily digestible way.

We discovered that users can easily get the impression that DH Box is essentially a website, when in fact it’s much more than that (it’s a computer!). It’s understandable that this virtual computer could be confused for a website since DH Box’s primary navigation happens through your web browser. A distinct IP address is assigned to each DH Box instance at the time of launch. DH Box users navigate to applications (Mallet, Omeka, etc.) through specific ports designated for each tool. The “port” is just a unique numeric identifier appended to the end of your DH Box IP address. This same protocol for assigning unique identifiers is the basis of the internet; there’s an IP address behind every website.

We as a team are now reexamining how to explain the system of navigation, along with all of the fantastic stuff a virtual computer can offer so that users will be ready to push DH Box to the limit.

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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User experience testing and documentation

DH Box is really taking shape! We have a bare bones version of our server image up and running thanks to all of Steve’s hard work over the last week. We have revised our project plan with new milestone dates and a clear cut set of tasks we need to accomplish. We are working hard on everything we need to do now and also looking forward to the next phase.

User experience testing and documentation will be very important over the next few weeks. We need to be sure that people who are not already familiar with the command line, cloud computing, and DH tool installation will find DH Box easy and convenient to use. Documentation (aka the “user manual”) will be the key to helping users make the most of DH Box. We have decided to use Read the Docs  to host our documentation. Read the Docs allows us to host documentation files on our website and update our documentation when pushing to the GitHub repository that hosts our website – this means updating our online documentation is as simple as updating text on our website! One great benefit of using a utility like Read the Docs is our documentation will be easily maintainable, will be forkable by contributors, will be available online, and will be searchable.

Making a place in the Cloud

The DH Box team has made exciting strides over the past week!

As some may know, DH Box will be available on a pre-installed, pre-configured Debian cloud server. To achieve this, we are using Amazon Web Services. For those who aren’t initiated, AWS is a vast cloud computing infrastructure (with internet servers throughout the world) that offers services very similar to what a physical computer would. But AWS brings unrivaled scale, flexibility, and economy (pay as you go pricing).

DH Box’s Intro to Cloud Computing

Dennis Tenen led the DH Box team through its first group workshop on setting up a virtual web server image, a.k.a. an “EC2 Instance.” The virtual web server contains an Amazon Machine Image (think of it as an identical copy) of an operating system. DH Box will be freely available for users to launch their own instance of ours. This solution saves users the trouble of downloading and installing tools to their own computers.

What do users need to access DH Box in the Cloud?

It will be pretty simple- users must sign up for a free AWS account. And we’re making use of AWS’ CloudFormation (templates that deploy services rapidly) utility to automate many of the steps required to launch a new AMI instance. We also have custom scripts to automate the launch of DH Box files and software once users copy our server image. We’re really excited about being introduced to this powerful service, and even more encouraged that our configuration templates will allow DH Box users to dive swiftly into DH inquiry.

This is just the beginning- we’re focusing heavily on providing thorough documentation so that DH Box users will have everything they need to get up and running. Stay tuned!

Special thanks to Prof. Dennis Tenen for his amazing Intro to Cloud Computing Workshop.