$200,000 awarded to next-generation media data analysis

Concordia’s new Media History Research Centre wins international support
January 15, 2014
By Tom Peacock

Project Arclight will allow researchers to paint a new portrait of media history with data mined from newspapers and magazines.

A team from Concordia’s newly minted Media History Research Centre (MHRC) has partnered with the University of Wisconsin-Madison in a bid to transform the study of film and media history. Today, their project was awarded more than $200,000 in an international grant competition.

Project Arclight’s goal is to turn digitized historical documents into useable data sets. In an era when our publications and libraries are moving to an electronic model, the backlog of pre-digital documents waiting to be transferred from paper to pixel is staggering. As archivists make that conversion, researchers are left with vast amounts of raw material.

Arclight is developing a new web-based tool that will allow users to analyze millions of pages of digitally scanned magazines and newspapers for trends related to a chosen media history subject.

The proposal has been selected as a successful entry in the Digging into Data Challenge, administered by the Office of Digital Humanities at the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities. The winners were announced on January 15: the Canada/U.S. Project Arclight team will receive approximately $214,750 to develop the software tool, which it aims to launch in 2015.

Arclight will allow film and media historians to apply a big-data analysis approach to their research.

“Today you hear of corporations that use social media as a way to gauge different kinds of developing interests with geographical precision,” says project leader Charles Acland, professor and Concordia University Research Chair in Communication Studies. “What we want to do is develop an online, web-based tool that will help media historians do something comparable using historical materials.”

Initially, the project will draw on more than two million pages of documents from two repositories: the Media History Digital Library and the National Digital Newspaper Program at the Library of Congress. It will grow to include other digitized holdings.

The wealth of newly digitized trade magazines, fan magazines and newspapers holds a lot of potential for researchers, Acland says. “It really opens up the possibility of constructing a new kind of portrait of the history of the development of contemporary media in Canada and the United States.”

One of the main goals of the developers is to make the software tool easy to navigate, in hopes of attracting as many users as possible. “The design of the homepage is a very intuitive user interface that basically lets you immediately start asking the questions you want to know,” says Professor Eric Hoyt, principal investigator from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in a video about the project.

The Digging into Data Challenge is supported by 10 international research funding bodies, including the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI).

The grant is a major coup for Acland and his team at the Media History Research Centre. Acland is excited to see the impact Arclight will have on film and media studies.

“If our ambitions for this are approximated, it will be one of the major starting points for media historical research here and internationally.”

A second Concordia collaboration landed one of the 14 Digging Into Data Challenge grants. Alan Bale, assistant professor in the Department of Classics, Modern Languages and Linguistics, is working with Harvard University Professor Maria Polinsky and McGill University Assistant Professor Jessica Coon on the COULD Project (Cleaning, Organizing and Uniting Linguistic Databases). COULD seeks to create a universal format for existing linguistic databases and automate the detection of errors and inconsistencies. In doing so, the project hopes to make these databases more reliable and accessible to both researchers and the general public.

Learn more about the Digging into Data Challenge.

The first MHRC event is already planned. The afternoon event consists of two panels of scholars commenting on the merits and status of Media Archeology. Featured commentators include Bill Buxton (Communication Studies), Elena Razlogova (History), Haidee Wasson (Cinema), Sandra Gabriale (Communication Studies), Jason Camelot (English), Charles Acland (Communication Studies), and Darren Wershler (English).

What: What is media archaeology?
When:  Tuesday, February 11, 2014, from 2 to 5 p.m.
Where:  Room AD-308, Administration Building, Loyola Campus (7141 Sherbrooke Street West)
Contact: Charles Acland

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