Interview Series: In Conversation with BiblioTech Hackathon Participants

The following is an interview between Alisa Grishin, Artes Research intern 2022-2023, and Tom Gheldof, BiblioTech Hackathon group leader. The hackathon took place in March 2023. It was a 10-day event and included a pre-hackathon orientation moment called “Meet the Data, Meet the People.” Tom’s group, called the ChaoTech Warriors, worked on the wartime posters dataset, featuring proclamations issued by the German General Government in Belgium during World War I. You can learn more about the ChaoTech Warrior’s project by having a look at their project poster in the BiblioTech Zenodo community. To read more about the hackathon and the results, you can visit the BiblioTech website.

the image is a two-picture collage. The left image shows three people, a woman, a man, and another woman. They are standing in a boxing stance with their hands in fists by their shoulders. They are smiling.

The ChaoTech Warriors team show their warrior stances during the closing event of the hackathon. On the right, Tom animatedly delivers the presentation of his team’s project at the closing event.

What first interested you in the hackathon? Have you done one before? What is your background?

I am an ancient historian by training and have a degree in journalism and cultural studies, after which I followed a training in what is now called digital humanities. When I started working as a researcher, I realized I could use my programming and digital skills more than my scientific skills. So when a position opened up with DARIAH (a European consortium for Digital Research Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities), they were looking for someone with a balanced profile. I’ve always liked to balance digital tools and methods, even 10 years ago, so it’s a personal and professional interest. Now I am the day-to-day coordinator for CLARIAH-VL – the collaboration of DARIAH and CLARIN in Flanders. I’m mainly involved in helping researchers working in digital humanities where possible by using my main interests: historical databases and linked open data.

I can’t remember how I first got included in the hackathon [laughs]. The organizers had already planned that I would be participating, but through more casual meetings, the question came up whether I would be interested to take part as an expert or as a team leader. I had already participated in a hackathon at a conference before, but it was a lot more condensed. I enjoyed that hackathon in a way that I hadn’t expected. Mainly there were a lot of researchers, and it was the first time I worked in a small group with [people from] such different backgrounds. We worked with our own materials, which made it more ambitious, yet a lot more straightforward. With two days, you get right into it and have to keep to a timeline, making it a great experience.

What was your primary concern when beginning the project? Interface? Usability? What kind of audience did you have in mind?

My primary concern was whether everyone would show up [laughs]. I also had to prepare myself beforehand, because even though I am used to being a coordinator, I didn’t know what the background or level of enthusiasm of the group would be like. Also, the wartime posters corpus was beyond my familiarity and comfort zone as a researcher, so I wanted to familiarize myself. I began by exploring the corpus on the digital platform and had a look at the metadata.  I looked at it as if I were a contestant to see what it would be like, then I decided to let the team give their ideas first.

How did you establish your methodology and approach to the data set? Were you inspired by any other platforms or projects?

The first thing I noticed was the quality of the digitization was not 100%. While most of the automatic translations were okay to read, we encountered problems with the metadata. I reflected on my past experiences with some other digitization projects, services, and tools that might have the potential to improve the translations. I asked my group members which ones they were familiar with and how they would approach such a challenging corpus. In their answers, it became clear that the members brought valuable backgrounds to the table, particularly from fields like linguistics, Natural Language Processing (NLP), and philosophy. The first gathering during the “Meet the Data, Meet the People” event was very exploratory. During that meeting, we just brainstormed about potential tools and methods.

How did the workflow and work distribution change once some group members could no longer participate?

I should disclaim that our group was struck with a bit of misfortune. Two of the eight group members cancelled their participation, and they were the ones who knew the most about the ManGO platform and the High Performance Computing infrastructure (HPC). Additionally, one of the more technically skilled members—who followed the explanation of the platform—also cancelled further on. So out of the 8, only 4 participated over the full 10 days. But even with a small group, we were motivated. I took encouragement from their motivation and expertise. I tried to encourage them to go beyond their comfort zones to explore the other tools that they might not have considered at first. This was very positive, but also a lot more work for each of us. In the end, we overcame the challenges, but we did have to downsize our ambitions because of the workflow. All in all, I think the members were pleased with the outcomes and with being able to build up their skills by using tools they hadn’t used before.

In the poster it says there were advantages and disadvantages to having a small corpus. What were those?

Our corpus was composed of 171 posters, but we were able to familiarize ourselves with it very quickly. We noted that it was mostly multilingual, and asked ourselves if we could do anything with that. And regarding the metadata: can we scrape it for a multilingual use? One of the disadvantages was that we couldn’t use some of the more ambitious tools. So, for example, exploring the use of the HPC infrastructure wouldn’t be of much help because of the feasibility, and our laptops weren’t able to do those computing tasks.

Was there any main motivator/goal that encouraged the team when things didn’t go as expected?

I must give credit to my team members for pursuing their personal interests. A lot of the members entered the hackathon not knowing if they wanted to do a research position or do the Advanced Masters of Digital Humanities. For them, it was great to experience if they would want to pursue this further. Speaking for my group as whole, the more you delve into the research corpus, the more you can see what can come out of it. Despite not having a lot of experience in the subject area, I was impressed by the language, content, formation, and layout of the posters as we explored a wide variety of research questions.

What kind of tips would you give to a team leader participating in their first hackathon?

I would again give the group as much responsibility as possible. You don’t need to worry, as a team leader, if they have the skills or digital competence, they will delve into it out of their own interest. By giving them responsibility, they might start exploring tools which they would have easily given to someone else. Don’t underestimate the creativity of the team members. At our brainstorming session, we ended with a variety of approaches after talking for only one hour. Out of their creativity came the most interesting research questions. I also benefited from how the main organizers said to not be afraid to reach out to the experts. We waited too long to do that. We had a great pool of experts from the library, Faculty of Arts, ICT department, PhD researchers, etc., and I was surprised to learn how wide their support reached. I think we might have benefitted more if we had reached out to them at the beginning. I will admit, I did want the team members to have full responsibility first so that they wouldn’t immediately reach out to the experts, but it’s a double-edged sword. Still, an expert could have made up for a missing team member. And according to feedback from my team, they really enjoyed the collective motivation to continue and the learning of new tools and methods that they applied.

Final Remarks

Thank you to the organizers for the flawless organization. It was a great balance of personal and online meetings, and, as a DH event, it worked really well. I really enjoyed the final event and was pleased with the quality of the posters, including our own. So for myself, it was a very pleasant experience, and I would not hesitate to be a candidate again as a team leader or even as a team member, just to see how fun that can be.

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