Doing DH: Learning on the Fly - Presentation by Brian Norberg (NCSU)


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Brian Norberg (NCSU Libraries) talked about "learning on the fly" in the context of the Watch Your Waste project at NCSU. His presentation was part of a series of events on doing digital humanities, hosted by Duke Libraries, with this particular event focused on the the critical skill of "learning on the fly" -- how to do it, what it involves, why it's important to DH, and ways of building up your skills in this area.

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  • Watch your waste is a perfect project to talk about because it represents rule 1 of learning on the fly: follow through
    This project was about physical follow through –
    Started with David Silver (USF, Associate Professor Media Studies and Environmental Studies) visit
    I help organized visit to NCSU Agroecology Education Farm and meeting with representatives from Sustainability Office
    6 months later Sustainability Office organized staff work day at Agroecology Education Farm, where I spend hours picking weeds and was introduced the upcoming watch your waste event
  • Rule 2: There has to be a set goal for learning on the fly project.
    The year before, University Dining did a one day event where they threw all waste in a garbage can on an upright weight scale. They were only able to get one data point—the average waste per plate was 3.73. An average really doesn’t change participant behavior.
    Our goal for the project was to affect the participants behavior
  • Rule 3: Start light and use what’s already been done when you can
    We knew the first step to changing participant behavior was starting to record each individual’s behavior.
    I had developed a mobile app for monitoring Libraries’ public-facing technologies and was able to use that code to complete over 90% of the waste watching app
    We replaced the upright scale with a digital scale with a zeroed out plate on which to dump the waste. A person with an ipad stood next to the scale and recorded the waste amount in the app, as well as the time the participant took to eat.
  • Rule 4: Break the project into part and be ready to change direction in your plans
    The initial plan was to record all weights and visualize the results to find patterns. The waste watcher app exported the individual wastes and iused Tableau Public to visualize the results.
    Time = When weighing was recorded
    Color = weighings at the same time
    Size = amount of waste in the weighing
    We saw a pattern of participants coming up in groups which was affecting the amount of waste produced. It appears when one member of the group was finished the others stopped eating even if they were done.
  • We thought we can use this group dynamic to retrain participant behavior. Moreover, during the event participants were leaning over to see their waste amount.
    Visualizing results kills 2 birds with one stone: lets them see results more clearly and ‘shame’ them in front of their friends by letting them waste amounts compared
    Doing project in pieces allowed us to change how we would affect participant behavior
  • Rule 5: Make the project iterative and learn to deal with it
    Once we saw the need for a real time visual component. It was time to go back to the drawing board. We decided to use Pusher and D3 to create dynamic visualizations. Both tools had to be learned on the fly.
    Coming to terms with the iterative process, does not only mean being able to change direction of the project. Sometimes it means giving up the project altogether. In the case of the waste watcher app, it requires human labor to enter data. Not really scalable. Can a microprocessor be used to automate the entry of data or will project be scrapped?
    The link is to a video that show the app in action. The visualizations will be displayed on TVs around the dining hall.
  • Rule 6: During building, be proud of small victories
    Before there were visualizations there was illegible json coming being sent from the window where the data was entered to the window that would display the visuals.
  • Rule 7: When learning on the fly hack...and whening hacking make Google your best friend
    Don’t reinvent the wheel. Search web for code and examples
    Oftentimes, you don’t know the correct words for finding results on what you need. Use your Google search results to help you understand the jargon. This could mean a lot of Googling, so start getting friendly with Google… and be nice to it. When you are tired of hanging out with Google, ask a coworker or a tech forum like
  • Here is the results of one of those marathon Google sessions and the essence of a hack.
    To make the bar charts, I used the code on the left from a site called “D3 for Mere Mortals”. The blue arrows on code to the right indicate the few changes that I had to make to the original code. The changes were all style and data selection related.
  • Doing DH: Learning on the Fly - Presentation by Brian Norberg (NCSU)

    1. 1. The Watch Your Waste Project
    2. 2. The Lonely Data Problem
    3. 3. Waste Watching On Rails & Mobile
    4. 4. Taking It One Weighing At A Time
    5. 5. /v/RxX0sOHDeqg Learning To Swim In The Iterative Process
    6. 6. { "message": "{"average":5.19,"count":1,"created_at":"2013-1202T21:59:24Z","duration":20,"duration_average":15.53,"id":1047,"session_ average":3.3,"session_duration_average":20.0,"session_id":91,"t_weight":3. 3,"updated_at":"2013-12-02T21:59:24Z","weight":3.3}" } Short Message Steps with Pusher
    7. 7. Google ‘til You Just Can’t Google No More
    8. 8. D3 for Mere Mortals
    9. 9. Resources for Web Programming: Resources for Ruby & Rails: Resources for D3: