Anything goes at THATCamp UWO

Anabel Quan-Hasse and Kim Martin have the daunting task of trying to organize the unorganizable.

Quan-Hasse, an associate professor joint appointed in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies and Sociology, and Martin, a PhD student in Library and Information Science, are two of the organizers of THATCamp UWO (The Humanities and Technology Camp), an ‘un-conference’ held May 21-22 at The University of Western Ontario.

“It is an ‘un-conference’ because it is not organized in the sense there are no speakers,” Martin says. “It’s just people get together and the participants vote on different topics and then they break into small breakout groups. … The direction can take any road that people are interested in.”

For two well-organized people, trying to hold back the reins on ‘organizing’ an un-conference has been admittedly difficult. But the nature of the event is for it to be unstructured and spontaneous.

Participants are encouraged to be active and dictate the nature of the discussions. While at a traditional conference it would seem rude to walk out on a talk, the rules are bent at THATCamp where anyone can leave one talk to join another at any time.

“It’s the coming together of developers and users and starting a conversation around what are the digital humanities bringing to our understanding of society and of humanity,” Quan-Hasse says.

The goal of the conference is to bring interested parties together from the academic world with programmers and developers to discuss the digital humanities. This field of study includes anyone in the arts and humanities, and aspects of social sciences with a humanistic content or method, who uses technology to enhance their research.

THATCamp was first held by the Centre for History and New Media at George Mason University in 2008. This is the second THATCamp in southwestern Ontario; the University of Toronto held a similar event in May 2010.

Western’s conference will also include bootcamps offering an introductory session on research into new technology related to the humanities, such as 3-D printing, the collaborative tool Yutzu, and open publication distribution systems.

“By just putting out this call for participation, it’s really opened up our eyes to all these other amazing projects that are going on,” says Quan-Hasse, noting many bootcamp presenters are showcasing tools developed at Western.

The conference will provide an opportunity for academics to speak with developers about existing tools as well as new tools they would like to be created.

“The first thing is to create awareness both within Western and beyond as to what is going on in this region in terms of the digital humanities,” Quan-Hasse says. “Secondly, it is meant to spark new ideas in terms of where are these tools leading us, what are the new questions we need to be asking.

“The more input we get from users, so where the tools could be heading, the better the development will be,” she adds.

Participants often post comments on blogs or Twitter about possible topics for discussion and during the conference those attending the talks will continue to update these social media forums.

Digital humanities is a relatively new field of study – only starting about five or six years ago – but one Western has cultivated some expertise.

“If we do want to become a centre of innovation and this be part of our expertise and training, then it’s good to bring all these groups together to share that,” Quan-Hasse says.

For more information on THATCamp UWO, visit 2011.thatcampuwo.org.