What makes a digital project digital?

Research Brief 3


eResearch Australasia 2014 has just been held in Melbourne. This is the conference that brings together people involved in doing and supporting digital research. The use of digital technology of course is now so much a part of research work that a plenary on the first day considered whether the ‘e’ was now needed – is the issue just simply how research should be best supported and developed? Probably not just yet.

The Prosecution Project team was one of the presentations on offer (abstract). This was a chance to review what we are doing, consider how we have got to the place we are at the moment, and show this to the wider world. The conference presentation coincides with the recent public launch of the project website and a call to volunteers to come on board to help build our databases (become involved). What makes a project digital? Listening to researchers and IT developers and support staff helped to highlight what the Prosecution Project is doing, what it shares with others and why it may make some claim to be regarded as an exemplary digital project. And in spite of a common perception that digital is somehow tech and science more than humanities and arts, it’s also increasingly clear that digital humanities projects share the same kind of challenges and opportunities, as a whole lot of other projects in areas like clinical medical research or climate science.


Our project aims and the context of our research are explained on our website. So let’s explain briefly how the project is digital. One way we did this in our paper was to highlight the difference between the way our kind of research was done three decades ago.

In the 1980s I embarked on a process of ‘computerising’ (as we called it then) the Queensland police watch-house books. This required going to the Queensland State Archives, getting out the original records, drawing up on sheets of paper a grid to take down the information line by line (name, offence, age, religion, birthplace, outcome, sentence, magistrate’s name etc), taking the sheets back to university, finding a keyboard and terminal linked to the university’s mainframe computer, entering the data into a text database, and then running the data through a statistical program, collecting the output off a dot matrix printer and perhaps re-entering some of it into something like ‘Harvard Graphics’ to produce some graphs as well as presentable tables.

A number of things have happened in the interim to change the way we do this kind of research. One was the personal computer, a second was the development of software to enable photographic images to be seen on high resolution on such computers, a third was the development of the web, with its immense possibilities of shifting information around very quickly, and its creation of new communities of users.

How did these developments make a difference? You can get a sense of what has changed by considering the phases of our current research collection.

1. We obtain digital copies of the criminal registers we want to access. In some case this means extracting frames from old microfilm copies and converting them to ‘jpeg’ or ‘tiff’ formats, in others it will mean taking new photographs with a digital camera – in either case we end up with an image we can see on a computer screen – and we can zoom in to see fine detail, important with many manuscript records of the kind we are dealing with.
2. We transcribe digitally (ie using the computer keyboard) the information from the archive image into forms on the computer screen.
3. We ‘save’ these forms as individual records, which are then added to a specially designed database (in our case an SQL database) that preserves the data in ways (digital) that can be extracted by other users.
4. We link these records to other kinds of ‘digital’ records. In our case a major resource is the Trove (National Library of Australia) database of digitised newspapers – using a piece of software designed by the Trove team and adapted to our use we can find newspaper reports of the trial of a person whose data we have extracted from the archive register.
5. We are able to conduct digital queries of our database (‘search’ it) to extract all the cases that meet our particular research question, eg all the homicides prosecuted in a particular state between 1880 and 1940, or all the cases where a person with a particular surname was prosecuted in a higher court (useful most obviously for family and community historians who may be seeking information about particular individuals).
6. Through the digital web, the Internet, we can do all this work either in our offices, or at remote locations – anywhere connected to the web. This also means that we can readily extend the group of people helping build the database from these digital images – involving not just our research team and research assistants in other cities, but potentially the many volunteers interested in building a richer picture of our past through mining the archives.

What enables this to happen?

The presentation at eResearch Australasia 2014 was also a time to reflect on what makes this kind of research possible today? There was no shortage of stories about institutional and technological blockages to doing the job well, and the challenge of training and re-training to keep pace with the possibilities enabled by new technologies and infrastructure. The availability of digital technologies opens up enormous possibilities. But making it work is another thing. Two things have been crucial in getting the Prosecution Project off the ground.

One is funding – the project is well supported financially through the Australian Research Council (Laureate Fellowship Program) and Griffith University where the research team is employed and accommodated. Especially important in getting us off the ground was the University’s ‘Research Infrastructure Program’ – a successful application brought the researchers into collaboration with the eResearch development team which has designed the database and web portals to support the project.

The second is collaboration. Digital technologies are above all networked – and making the best use of them requires teamwork. In our case we have found some of the software collaboration tools helpful (‘Pivotal Tracker’ increasingly so). But nothing has worked better than regular face-to-face meetings – generally fortnightly, around a large TV monitor to test our database and problems in real time – that enables the tech experts and the research experts to learn each other’s languages and understand our respective needs, and constraints. It’s been a great learning experience, going digital!


Author: Mark Finnane, ARC Laureate Fellow

To cite this research brief: Mark Finnane, ‘What makes a digital project digtal?’, The Prosecution Project, Research Brief 3, https://prosecutionproject.griffith.edu.au/what-makes-a-digital-project-digital (30 October 2014, viewed 19 July 2016).