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HIgh-powered Computing: It’s Not Just for Astrophysics Anymore

Spotlight On:

Susan Brown
University of Alberta
Department of English and Film Studies

Researchers in the humanities and social sciences are using digital infrastructure to help advance their research, and a Canadian-made tool called Voyant is allowing those who work with texts to do it with ease.

Susan Brown remembers seeing her students’ faces light up when she showed them a new digital research tool and how it could help them with their research.

“It was amazing to see their faces as they saw the potential for this tool in their work,” says Brown, who is the Canada Research Chair in Collaborative Digital Scholarship and a visiting professor at the universities of Guelph and Alberta.

The tool is called Voyant and it’s a digital humanities application made for investigating texts. It’s web-based, so there’s no need to install the tool and it’s simple to use. Once you access the URL (voyant-tools.org), you find a window in which to paste your text — say a Shakespeare play or the complete works of Jane Austen. Immediately, you can ask it to analyze the text in several ways. For example, you could compare the roles of gender and race within the play.

“It’s meant to reveal features of a text or relationships between texts,” says John Simpson, humanities and social sciences specialist at Compute Canada. “In some cases, it will do most of the work for you and in other cases, it suggests directions for further investigation.”

Voyant is also free, which is another obvious benefit and if that’s not enough, it will produce a graphic image known as a word cloud from the words most often used in the text in question. “The combination of it being free and the power of the interface is what’s driving the number of unique visitors,” said Geoffrey Rockwell, a professor of philosophy and humanities computing at the University of Alberta and the co-creator of Voyant. “It’s getting more than 200,000 unique visitors a year.”

John Simpson said this makes it the most widely used tool running on the Compute Canada platform.

Co-creator Stefan Sinclair, an associate professor in the department of languages, literature, and cultures at McGill University, said he “gets a kick out of it” being widely used. In the world of coding — one of his passions — there’s not a lot of feedback beyond usage statistics.

“There’s a lot of silence, so there’s something great about being able to say ‘We built that and the community is using it,’” he said. “It is very satisfying to see the traction and that amount of use.”

Sinclair said they get weblogs that give them “cold stats” about the way the tool is being used, but they also know, from Twitter and interactions at conferences, that professors use it in classrooms.

“It’s being used in just about any class where digital humanities is introduced,” he said. He said it’s a little more rare to hear from peers — fellow academic researchers — telling them that they’ve used it in their research for one reason or another. But he knows they are using it.

“Researchers use it to start exploring and start asking questions,” Sinclair said. “That doesn’t mean it gets written up as an end product. As powerful as Google is, no one is going to cite it; it’s the same sort of thing here.”

He said he occasionally hears about people using it outside of academia and that provides a whole different thrill.

“Voyant has been on Compute Canada’s server for nearly 10 years, so it’s almost like it normalizes high-powered computing in ways that people don’t realize,” he said. “It’s part of infrastructure that’s operating on a advance computing cloud.”

High-powered computing tends to be thought of as a tool used by more by astrophysicists, chemists and geneticists. It’s more surprising to think of it being used by those who analyse literature produced centuries ago, and yet, that’s happening all over the world.

Brown continually uses it in her research. For example, she put an eight-million-word corpus on the digital history of women’s writing into the tool and it has helped her figure out whether female writers with several children were more or less prolific. “There was a correlation between women with very large numbers of children and prolificness,” she said. “It didn’t line up with the feminist theory that mothering impeded writing. There weren’t that many women who had large families and were writers, but the ones who did were writing furiously to support their families. That’s an example where we used the visualizations of Voyant to mine the text.”

Diane Jakacki, digital scholarship coordinator and associated faculty in comparative humanities at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, also uses the tool in her research. She has been editing the Shakespeare play Henry VIII for the Internet Shakespeare Editions, which centres around divorce proceedings between Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn. She was using Voyant to look at the word choices, themes and characters in the play and, in tracking the idea of “queenhood,” discovered there was a shift in the way the characters were described and described themselves.

“Anne Boleyn is only ever referred to as a commodity – as a breeding vessel and I was wondering how that would play out,” she said. “The study involves my doing a lot more work on relative pronouns – references to ‘she’ or ‘her.’ It’s that kind of roll-up-your-sleeves work that helps you begin to understand the language/nuance.

“Katherine calls herself ‘Queen’; Anne says she would not be queen for anything,” Jakacki discovered. “ I’ve read this play I can’t tell you how many times, but using Voyant, I found this distinction in identity.” She’s since written and published on this research.

Brown and Jakacki are a couple of researchers using high-powered computing in their humanities work. But there are thousands more. Ultimately, everyone is interacting with computers to make sense of the world and the humanities and social sciences are in that business, too.

“That’s now all bound up with computational technologies,” Susan Brown said. “We need to think critically about the possibilities for using computer in our work.”

This profile of WestGrid user Susan Brown is courtesy of Compute Canada.