Digital Synergies Presents "Knowing Ourselves" at CSDH-SCHN 2020

On June 3rd 2020 Luciano Frizzera, Morgan Cselinacz, Mihaela Ilova, Astrid Ensslin, and Geoffrey Rockwell presented the paper Knowing Ourselves: Building an Interactive Researcher Map at the University of Alberta at the CSDH-SCHN 2020.

On June 3rd 2020 Luciano Frizzera, Morgan Cselinacz, Mihaela Ilova, Astrid Ensslin, and Geoffrey Rockwell presented the paper Knowing Ourselves: Building an Interactive Researcher Map at the University of Alberta at the CSDH-SCHN 2020 Building Community Online Conference, chaired by Kim Martin and hosted via Zoom by the University of Alberta’s Art Resource Centre. 


Despite claims to interdisciplinarity, universities typically organize knowledge along disciplinary lines in departments and faculties. Institutes like KIAS at the University of Alberta (UofA) have been set up to encourage the development of interdisciplinary research projects, but what do we really know about the research of our colleagues and the connections among them other than their departmental affiliation? How is an institute or interdisciplinary group to know what research directions are pursued by its constituency? Knowledge is vital, and yet Universities struggle to know their own research community This paper describes the development of a research network map of the interests of the humanists, social scientists, and artists at the UofA, which is part of KIAS’ project to understand where there were interdisciplinary strengths at the university and to help connect researchers. In particular, we will describe the challenges around gathering information at an institutional level, and demonstrate the Research Map. The Research Map is a web-based network visualization that shows the connections between faculty members, their research interests, and their departmental affiliation. The outcome is a visualization showing clusters of knowledge and webs of intersectionality, revealing not only the richness of the academic production but also the possibilities of future collaboration between scholars and departments. We are now in the process of adapting the Research Map to be used by other research groups like the Digital Synergies research group. It is a “signature area” for research and creative collaboration focused on digital society, digital methodology, and digital literacies. Adapting the Research Map to be embedded in a website streamlines the process of organizing and visualizing the connections between researchers. We are, in effect, using digital social network analysis methods to help people understand the interdisciplinary network itself.

Frizzera opened with a brief overview of the University of Alberta Researcher Cloud and the Digital Synergies Researcher Map. He also discussed the rationale behind the map, and showed a video of the map being used. As Rockwell describes in his notes on the conference, available here, “the Research Map was developed to allow people to explore interdisciplinary links between people and interests at the University of Alberta”. Some of the main challenges of the map he describes included getting reliable data for colleagues, maintaining data, developing an easy-to-use data format, and abstracting the project for others to use it. 


The floor was then opened up to discussion and questions about the map, which have been paraphrased below.

Q: What have been some of the challenges of these large collaborative projects? There are many issues navigating institutional infrastructures and negotiating the structures of knowing ourselves, and the obfuscation of information within these webbed structures. Research is also structured differently in different disciplines. Although this map brings attention to interdisciplinary research, how could the structure of these maps leave out information and how could this information be filled in through different means? 

Rockwell: In regards to the research map, there was precisely this problem because we didn’t know who was the driving force. The Kule Institute is supposed to be an interdisciplinary institute, but we didn’t know all the people spread across their various departments, and we didn’t know how to bring them together. Heads might know who is in their specific faculties or department, but not across faculties. The way to get this information was literally to go through department to department and scraping websites, and then send it back to the department or person - some people found it very inaccurate because they never updated their online information. What was uncovered was a vast inattention to the way the University presents itself on the web.

Ensslin: Additionally, one area of challenge for adapting it to a research area is thinking that you know yourself, but you don’t really because people use different tags [to describe their research interests] to describe the same things and you end up with lots of tags that are diverse, but you don’t end up linking people together that should be linked because there isn’t an agreement on the terms. We found it challenging and are trying to address this to honor diversity in conceptual thinking and nomenclature that are often discipline and even researcher-specific.

Q: In your data, has there been any changing of keywords? 

Cselinacz: We first built off of the words that Digital Synergies researchers used in the original researcher map and transferred them to our new map. We also had people interested in becoming a part of our map fill out a google form which was built off of the SSHRC ontology which was a good starting point for higher level connections, and of course we also asked the researcher for other keywords related specifically to their research. But it has also been very challenging to build those connections because, for example, someone may use consumerism and someone may use materialism - and although they are similar, there are also intricacies to them that make it hard to lump together. So that’s something we will have to figure out and are looking at moving forward with the map. 

Q: How do we make sure these representations and the way researchers want to be seen or not want to be seen does not reproduce this issue of competition? For example, putting more down keywords because they want to seem that they are doing more, and the aspect of performativity. Additionally, junior researchers might not want to be involved because they don’t “fit”? 

Rockwell: There have been no signs of competition, but there are signs of certain departments being very savvy about their web presence while others are not, and this can cause tension. For example, I talked to a certain department and they said that they don’t want to use the institutional repository that we were providing them and they preferred to use  In this way, they see themselves more as independent contractors and are looking for the best way to promote themselves. So, the answer in some ways is to make this a service. The institutional repository is working with departments on a yearly basis to make sure connections are updated and improved.

Ensslin: Also, coming from outside of Canada, research excellence is often assessed externally by the government. In this way, researchers are often required if not forced to deposit information for governmental review, and there is a lot of fear and anxiety about doing this correctly, and making your research visible enough to merit promotion or even to keep your job. It becomes an element of stress and so people are often reluctant to do this voluntarily exactly for this reason. Complacency also could play a role. Universities are becoming quite neoliberal, especially in Alberta, and so this could go in a similar direction in different parts of the world. 

Q: The goal of the researcher map is to get new knowledge or insight about folks/connections, what are some things that have become visible that you didn’t know about before? 

Rockwell: We worked with the VP Research Office for the initial researcher map, and created word clouds based off of the information we found about each department. And the departments themselves were surprised by the results of their word clouds. It made them work to make their pages more representative of their current research and interests, especially for new students coming in. Additionally, the Kule Institute is a interdisciplinary hub for the University - so, when people come to the Kule Institute looking for collaborative opportunities, we point them towards the researcher map which has helped a lot.

Q: Is there a sense of new emerging areas of expertise? Are there people working on the same thing in parallel that did not realize it? 
Ensslin: Digital Synergies is a good example of this. When we first began to think about if it was worth it to make a signature area based around digital synergies, we contacted many people around campus. We then realized that there were many more people in the field than we realized. [The map] brings people together in our signature area, where people are savvy and use these tools. So, some of the big prerequisites for the map include making it look nice and making it user friendly. Additionally, we want to make it editable so that researchers can go in and add in their own terms as they want, but this is also a challenge and there are risks that it could become unmanageable. 

Q: Because there are people who do not maintain their website but they may update on a third party resource such as, is there a possibility to scrape the data from there? 

Frizzera: It’s a very good idea. We currently only have a certain amount of metadata - we don’t even have the researcher emails, we just have the department and research interests. Moving forward, we should enrich our data source with outside information, so we could use an API or scrape these websites and gather data in a way that is not manually put out by people. In addition to that, we could add timestamps to the each entity we add to the dataset. In a long run, this can reveals trends and patterns in university research.


There were also a variety of other papers presented by Digital Synergies researchers during CSDH-SCHN. The papers, as well as where to read them, are listed below: 

Archiving Database Driven Websites for Future Digital Archaeologists by Bennett Kuwan Tchoh and Geoffrey Rockwell
Available at: 

Visual Matters: Experiments in the Public Visualization of Text by Geoffrey Rockwell, Stéfan Sinclair, Chaolan Wu, Jingwei Wang, Bennett Tchoh, and Ali Azarpanah
Available at: 

Knowing Ourselves: Building an Interactive Researcher Map at the University of Alberta by Luciano Frizzera, Morgan Cselinacz, Mihaela Ilovan, Astrid Ensslin, and Geoffrey Rockwell
Available at: 

Towards a Linked Infrastructure for Networked Cultural Scholarship by Susan Brown and Kim Martin
Available at: 

Big Data Literary Style by Harvey Quamen and Joel Blechinger
Available at: 

Replicating Fortier's THEME System for Digital Text Analysis by Kaylin Land, Stéfan Sinclair, and Geoffrey Rockwell
Available at: 

On the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence by Ali Azerpanah, Jared Bielby, Katrina Ingram, Emad Mousavi, Howard Nye, Geoffrey Rockwell, Jingwei Wang, and Tugba Yoldas
Available at: 

From Feminist Participatory Co-Design to Research-Creation: Developing a Digital Fiction for Body Image Bibliotherapy by Astrid Ensslin, Megan Perram, and Christine Wilks
Available at: