On Choosing a Mobile Platform in the Digital Humanities

On Choosing a Mobile Platform in the Digital Humanities

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More and more we engage the digital world through smartphones rather than desktop PCs.  But some applications are more easily adapted to mobile platforms than others.  Among Digital Humanities applications, the ones which have found the fastest adoption are apps related to pedagogy or which provide access to reference and source materials.  There are also many organizational or productivity apps which benefit the Digital Humanities.  Apps aimed at research, however, have had less success with one exception: those used for crowdsourcing.  

Mobile apps have relative strengths and weaknesses when compared to their PC counterparts.  Because of their small screen size and lack of a fullsize keyboard, mobile apps have adopted user-interface conventions which often have the fortuitous side effects of enhancing engagement and creating immersive environments.  As accustomed to computer keyboards and mice as we have become, when compared to taps and pinches on a touchscreen, they now feel like cumbersome barriers between the user and the app.  This quality can make mobile apps especially well suited for pedagogical applications where there are great advantages to stripping away barriers which might distract the user from the learning environment.  Meanwhile the portability of smartphones makes them a great vehicle for reference and source materials.  To be able to consult key reference works while on-the-go is convenient and can increase productivity.  

There are good reasons why research apps might be more limited on mobile platforms.  Research should be transparent and the details of operations should not be hidden behind a polished user-interface.  Research applications often require many settings and parameters to  be changed; this can be impractical on small screens.  A researcher often wants to have complete control over details of how research methods are being performed.  Research tools need the ability to adjust to different datasets, and different types of analyses as problems evolve and are refined.  The tools should be flexible and extensible.  This is where mobile apps lose out to the PC.  Typically, mobile apps must be programmed on a PC before being uploaded to Apple or Google for review before they can be distributed.  This process can be overly onerous when flexibility is desirable.  In research applications the results are what is most important.  Improvements in accuracy, presentation, and workflow take precedence over an engaging user-interface and portability.

One research-oriented app in the Apple app store is Textal.  Textal provides various text-analysis tools which the user can apply to texts.  A description of Textal can be found here.  Textal’s authors describe it as a “fun text-analysis-in-your-pocket product, which can raise the profile of this technique.”  Textal succeeds in these goals, but it is telling that the focus is on awareness and outreach rather than innovative text analysis techniques or stunning results.  Textal’s authors go on to highlight another aspect of the app:

“Given that we own the infrastructure, we will be able to view and analyze how, why and, when people are using text analysis: we will be tracking use and users, including geo-locating text analysis, to ascertain the potential audience for this type of service and to understand more about the kind of texts people want to analyze, allowing us to undertake a reception study into Textal’s uptake, which will be of great interest to the wider Digital Humanities audience.”

This highlights the mobile’s greatest strength as a research platform: crowdsourcing.  Textal collects information about its use and reports back to a central server.  The real research  explores how users interact with the app.  
In recognition of this great resource for data collection Apple has developed the ResearchKit API, designed specifically to aid researchers in crowdsource data via iOS devices.  Given the huge number of iOS users who can participate in these types of studies, studies conducted through these mobile apps could make profound contributions to research problems.  While the most obvious applications for ResearchKit apps are in the Sciences and Social Sciences, the Humanities should also take advantage of this important resource.

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