Government and citizens in the digital world

Daria, you just came back from the Internet, Policy and Politics conference in Oxford. Could you briefly tell us what it was about?

Internet, Policy and Politics (IPP) is a conference convened by the Oxford Internet Institute for the OII-edited academic journal Policy and Internet, in collaboration with the European Consortium of Political Research (ECPR) standing group on Internet and Politics. This year the topic was ‘Long Live Democracy?’, so it was about questioning the theses of democratic renewal – and democratic decay – in a digital world.  Over two days, around 80 research papers were presented by scholars from all over the world, showcasing rigorous and critical investigations on the role of digital technologies in democratic processes and showing many ways in which the internet has affected democracies, both positive and negative.

That is a timely and controversial topic! What did you present at the conference?

I presented the first results from our ongoing project on the uptake of civic technologies in the Russian regions. Together with Andrey Indukaev, last spring we started wondering why, how and to which consequences various civic technologies are being adopted across Russia. It is not very well known, but in Russia many cities and municipalities enter into dialogue with their citizens using online tools. For instance in Moscow there is a blockchain-based platform called Active Citizen, where citizens can cast their votes with regard to various municipal matters, such as local speed limits, bus route design, library services, parks and recreational zones, and where voting is rewarded in the form of points that can be exchanged for services, such as museum tickets. The geography of civic technology is very wide – in Yakutsk it enables online public hearings and participatory budgeting, in Belgorod and Rostov – interactive maps with city problems co-created by the citizens, and so on. In this sense, Russian cities are not so different from their counterparts in Germany and the UK, as we discovered in the IPP conference. It was very exciting to hear that very similar projects are now being realised in, say, Göttingen or Köln. This provoked a good discussion about the democratic potential of civic technology.

Q&A at the IPP2018: How platforms are deployed by the governments in Germany, Russia and China?

What are the main arguments of your research?

We are at the initial stage of this project, so it is too early to say what we will find. However, the IPP2018 was definitely a great place to test our hypothesis. We argue that there is no ‘democracy by design’ and that any civic technology is not deployed in a vacuum. We follow to socio-technical tradition of understanding the life of technology in society and we suggest that ideas surrounding technological development matter. The democratic potential of a civic technology instrument depends first and furthermost on the narratives  that accompany its design and deployment. ‘Democracy in – democracy out’, to make it very simple.

I’d like to know more! What are the next steps in this project?

I think the IPP2018 was a great platform to test our ideas and improve the analytical model. Now we are in the phase of extensive data collection. I am sure there will be many surprises and new questions coming from the data, but we are well-equipped in DRS to handle large databases, so looking forward to discovering the patterns of civic technology adoption in the Russian regions guided by our analytical framework.

Thoughts on Digital Humanities, part II

The workshop ‘(Politics of) Digital Humanities in Eastern European Studies’ was also attended by Felix Herrmann, a research associate IT (Research Centre for East-European Studies, Bremen) and Anastasiya Bonch-Osmolovskaya, an associate professor of School of Linguistics (HSE, Moscow).

Herrmann presented Discuss Data Project that aims to facilitate research data management in East-European Studies. In the project, an independent platform will be created for discussion and peer reviewing of datasets with links to literature and many more features. Bonch-Osmolovskaya, in turn, gave a talk on challenges and advantages of big data sources. She showed how to define context and discourse of a certain subject by combining computational linguistic methods, such as finding collocations, frequencies. Both scholars shared their thoughts on Digital Humanities with us.

Felix Herrmann presenting “Discuss Data Project”

What did you expect from the workshop?

Felix Herrmann: Organising these kind of events are necessary steps in forming Digital Humanities methods. In the field of digitalisation, there is still much to do and knowledge to share.

Anastasiya Bonch-Osmolovskaya: I am pleased to say that the workshop exceeded my expectations; as a result, we not only enjoyed a good organisation, but also got new contacts and effective results.

What are challenges of Digital Humanities?

Felix Herrmann: In Germany, computer literacy is less supported in school education compare to Finland, for example. Regardless of students’ digital nativity, they lack a deep understanding of things behind digitalisation. And again, talented graduates from Digital Humanities transfer into business life instead of remaining at university.

Another challenge in Digital Humanities is a need of transnational funding since most research projects are funded at national level. Yet, it would have been more efficient if funding were transnational with less bureaucracy occurring.

Anastasiya Bonch-Osmolovskaya: Digital Humanities is developing very quickly on a certain unprepared base. Projects are sometimes reminiscent of biology laboratories with experts with various backgrounds. Thus, these projects are very difficult to manage and they require certain organisational skills.

What are perspectives of Digital Humanities?

Felix Herrmann: For the future of Digital Humanities methods in compare to traditional ones, they will remain parallel. Choosing methodology indeed depends on research question.

Anastasiya Bonch-Osmolovskaya: In my opinion, the boundaries between different disciplines will be blurred. Science will be less descriptive and based on evidence. Thus, generalisation will occur through numbers.

What potential does Digital Humanities posses for students?

Felix Herrmann:  What I have observed among students is that the motivation for DH should come from inside. Digital Humanities courses should not be obligatory since it does not bring much. Generally, acquiring basic coding skills is yet an advantage in working life today.

Anastasiya Bonch-Osmolovskaya: We should promote Digital Humanities courses since students who will not attend them may lose some knowledge and important skills as future experts.

Anastasiya Bonch-Osmalovskaya presenting computational linguistic methods

Thoughts on Digital Humanities, part I

On 10-11 September, together with the Herder Institute for Historical Research on East Central Europe (Marburg, Germany) a joint workshop was organised at the Aleksanteri Institute. Digital humanities enthusiasts enjoyed two days of discussing Digital Humanities and networking with colleagues. A following workshop will be held in the future.

How did participants find the workshop? What are challenges and possibilities of Digital Humanities when applying them in Eastern European Studies? What potential does Digital Humanities posses for students? What is the future of Digital Humanities? We interviewed workshop’s presenters Dr. Mila Oiva, a postdoctoral researcher of cultural history (University of Turku) and Misha Melnichenko, a historian and the founder of Prozhito Project. Oiva gave a talk on economic and advertising discourse in the Polish newspaper “Žycie Gospodarcze” between 1950 and 1980. By organising data, using topic modelling and studying collocations, she tracked presence of export strategies in the newspaper. Melnichenko, in turn, coordinates Prozhito Project that goals to digitalise diaries and publish them in the Internet.

Dr. Mila Oiva: The initiative to organise the workshop was prominent and warmly welcomed. I got into applying Digital Humanities methods a few years ago and ever since there has been a demand on academic events with focus on Eastern Europe and Digital Humanities.

The challenges I have faced is that availability of digital resources is still limited and memory politics selective. Moreover, Digital Humanities methods seem to be too quick and easy way to conduct research.  Machine does everything on the behalf of human. Meanwhile, there is a need of deep understanding. How is data actually processed and how does that affect research? There is sometimes a lack of digital skills and knowledge of Digital Humanities methods among scholars. In addition, DH projects need continuity and that should be a part of decision-making strategy when funding them. We still need philosophy of research and research methods should be developed to have best practices. Yet, Digital Humanities methods provide great advantages over traditional methods when big data in question.

What will happen in the future? DH will be more linked with society, with no division between traditional and digital methods. Transnational and interdisciplinary cooperation should increase including cooperation between institutes, such as universities, archives. I highly recommend students to attend courses in Digital Humanities because digital literacy, digital source criticism and understanding of data are vital skills in our society. Knowledge of processing and analysing masses of data will be certainly needed in working life. Moreover, it is an exciting field of research for those interested in academic career.

Mila Oiva presenting her research

Misha Melnichenko: I found the workshop great because of opportunity to meet, network and make cooperation agreements with colleagues. Discussion on best practices of digitalisation was also very fruitful. From my point of view, approaches of Prozhito Project are slightly different from traditional research. We position ourselves as opposite to traditional archives. Most archives have certain conditions under which they take materials for storage. Hence, some material will never be stored and disappear by time. I indeed support data’s availability and information’s free distribution. In our project, content’s accuracy and relevance is less important. Our target audience is generally media but also scholars who might get interested in diaries.

To proceed in our aims, we have used advantages of digitalisation. Starting was the hardest part since the amount of work was huge in the beginning. Luckily, we have many volunteers who are eager to support us; most of them with no academic background. They get instructions for their tasks and we proof their job, from time to time. In addition, students from HSE (Moscow) do their traineeships at our project. For them, contributing to the project has been a source of inspiration. They start to see history from a different point of view; thorough glasses of individual stories instead of general facts. In addition, students acquire essential working life skills in editing texts and processing source materials.

We are interested in widening our map and hope to increase cooperation since we have technical solutions for other languages too. Today we cooperate with the Herder Institute in order to support them with digitalisation.

Round table: Digital Archives in Russia with Marianna Muravyeva (University of Helsinki), Sofia Gavrilova (HSE, Moscow) and Misha Melnichenko (Prozhito Project, Moscow)

Continue reading interview with two other participants Felix Herrmann and Dr. Anastasiya Bonch-Osmolovskayain part II!

Organisers’ view on Digital Humanities: read also interview with Dr. Markku Kangaspuro (Aleksanteri Institute) and Prof. Dr. Peter Haslinger (Herder Institute) in the Russian Media Lab blog.

100 years of ICT

On Friday, 7.9.19, we opened the second season of DRS seminars with two talks that span over 100 years of ICT development in their attempt to answer one question – how can we capture the contingencies of new technologies?

Dr. Brendan Humphreys, a political historian from the University of Helsinki, started his talk by reminding the audience of the fact that as a “boring historian” one has to admit that “nothing is new” – or at least not as new as one may think. “Lenin’s Tweets: the Telegram Seen from the Age of Social Media” is a provocative exploration of the telegram vs the social media, in particular, Twitter. Lenin’s telegrams were short,  quite often aggressive in tone, and they were reported in the mainstream media (newspapers) as a source – not unlike tweets of some politicians today. At the same time, the ‘like and repost’ features enables by the modern technology were not present 100 years ago. Nevertheless, it is useful to think that the politics of short public statements is not peculiar to our digital age. Rather, it has been re-shaped through social media.

The Visiting Fellow at the Aleksanteri Institute and a senior researcher at the Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography Dr. Wladimir Sgib­nev is interested in production of space, peripheral urban regions, and mobility in the post-Soviet area. His current research focuses on the marshrutkas, private urban mini-buses, as a major and highly contested mobility phenomenon throughout the former Soviet Union, which has barely received any academic attention so far. His talk titled “The Dark Side of Digitalisation. Spatial Justice and Informal Transport in the Age of Uber” investigated the impact of digitalisation on marshrutka drivers’ working environments and passenger travel conditions. Building on ethnographic fieldwork in Central Asia, Dr. Sgibnev demonstrated that while digitalisation may be seen as a positive trend that allows to formalise and order the messiness of marshrutkas – in terms of routes, finances, and governance – it may have unexpected consequences for mobility justice.

Bus stop in Turkmenistan (Wikipedia)