Big Data: Collaboration, Opportunity, and Outcomes

Brett Bobley will speak at 2 PM ET on September 20th at the National Library of Medicine on “International Big Data Research in the Humanities & Social Sciences: Collaboration, Opportunity, and Outcomes.” Mr. Bobley is the Chief Information Officer for the National Endowment for the Humanities. He also serves as the Director of the Office of Digital Humanities. Circulating Now interviewed him about his work.

Circulating Now: Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do? How did you become interested in the work you do?

Formal Portrait of Brett BobleyBrett Bobley: I work for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), which is the primary federal agency that funds research in the humanities and interpretive social sciences. For example, history, literature, archaeology, languages, and philosophy. I am the director of the Office of Digital Humanities, which is a grant-making office at the NEH that focuses both on developing new technology-based methods and infrastructure for the humanities as well as humanistic approaches to studying technology and its impact on our culture.

My undergraduate degree is in philosophy, but I’ve always been interested in technology and went on to get my masters in computer science. When I first joined the NEH, back in 1997, I was running our IT shop. If you think back to 1997, that was a critical time when the web really started to catch on to a general audience and scholars and librarians were experimenting with the first web-based digital libraries. NEH was involved in the DLI (Digital Library Initiative) program that ran from 1994–2003. This was a multi-agency initiative, led by the National Science Foundation, which supported research and development of some of the first web-based digital libraries, many designed to be research portals for scholars and scientists. Today, of course, the idea of consulting a web-based library for your research seems perfectly normal, but it was a very new idea when I arrived at the NEH. Over time, I began to focus more and more on the grant-making side of NEH and how to ensure that scholars in the humanities played a substantive role in the development of this new computational infrastructure for humanities research and teaching. Eventually, I helped form a new office, the Office of Digital Humanities, which focuses on this kind of work.

CN: You’ll be speaking at NLM on September 20th on the topic of “International Big Data Research in the Humanities & Social Sciences: Collaboration, Opportunity, and Outcomes.” Would you share a highlight or two from your lecture?

BB: In the humanities and many of the social sciences, we study things like books, music, newspapers, journals, and survey data. These are the very objects that are furiously being digitized (or are born digital) and made available in huge digital libraries. This raises a very fundamental question: Now that researchers have computational access to far, far more objects of study than ever before, how does that change their methods of research? For example, now that an historian of medicine has access to such a vast amount of literature, how does that change how she researches her next article or book? How might computational methods play a role here?

National Endowment for the HumanitiesDigging Into Data Challenge LogoIn my talk, I’ll be discussing an international big data research competition that I started back in 2009 called the Digging into Data Challenge. This program, which currently involves research agencies from 11 nations, funds big data projects in the humanities and social sciences that are exploring these new computational methods for large-scale research. With the NIH’s recent Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K) initiative, I think our program may be of great interest.

CN: Tell us more about “collaboration.” It is not always associated with the humanities, given the individual character of most humanities scholarship, but it is associated in the context of your program. Why?

BB: It is certainly true that people often think of the humanities as a domain where single scholars write books, and that stereotype is true, to an extent. But I’m seeing an increasing interest in collaborative projects, often across the disciplines. In my talk, I’ll provide some examples of projects we’ve funded involving large teams of scholars from the humanities, medicine, computer science, and social sciences working toward common research goals.

CN: We hear a lot about “big data” these days. What does this term mean to you?

BB: My favorite definition of big data comes from Sayeed Choudhury, the Associate Dean for Research Data Management at the Johns Hopkins University. Choudhury says that data becomes “big” when a research community finds it must create new methods to use and analyze it. The size of the dataset, therefore, may vary quite a bit depending on the community collecting and using it. The Digging into Data Challenge is interested in exploring research that is done at this large scale—at the point where new, computational methods must be employed.

Four people stand in front of a presentation screen Reading Images & Texts in Medical History and displays the logos of involved institutions.

The April 2016 NEH-funded workshop Images and Texts in Medical History brought together at the NIH Natcher Conference Center seventy-five participants and observers to explore innovative methods and data sources useful for analyzing large quantities of images and texts in the field of medical history. Pictured here after the workshop keynote address by Jeremy Greene, Professor of Medicine and the History of Medicine, and Elizabeth Treide and A. McGehee Harvey Chair in the History of Medicine, The Johns Hopkins University, are (left to right) Jeffrey S. Reznick, Chief, NLM History of Medicine Division; Professor Greene; Betsy Humphreys, NLM Deputy Director; and Margaret (Peggy) Plympton, NEH Deputy Chair
Courtesy Ernie Branson, NIH Division of Medical Arts

CN: What role does the history of medicine play in all of this?

BB: As the largest biomedical library in the world, NLM is used every day by historians around the world. And, of course, the NLM has been a leader in building vast digital libraries that have the potential to revolutionize how historians of medicine do their work. I’m pleased to say that in our Digging into Data program, we’ve been able to fund projects in the history of medicine that leverage large-scale digital data to gain new insights about health. Just this past year, based on the formal cooperation between our agencies, the NLM and the NEH worked together, in collaboration with Virginia Tech and the Wellcome Trust, to host a workshop at the NIH Natcher Conference Center—Images and Texts in Medical History: An Introduction to Methods, Tools, and Data from the Digital Humanities—which was aimed at teaching historians of medicines the latest cutting-edge techniques for using large-scale data for their research.  I hope to see more collaborations like this between NIH and the NEH in the future.

Brett Bobley’s presentation is part of our ongoing history of medicine lecture series, which promotes awareness and use of the National Library of Medicine and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities. All lectures are live-streamed globally, and subsequently archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Stay informed about the lecture series on Twitter at #NLMHistTalk.