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Ethan Watrall Invited to Speak at Microsoft Faculty Summit

17 July on Conferences, Cultural Informatics  

MATRIX’s Assistant Director Ethan Watrall has been invited to give a talk at the prestigious Microsoft Faculty Summit. He traveled to Redmond, Washington on Monday, July 16th to participate in the two day conference and exhibition.

Watrall is speaking in a session organized by Donald Brinkman, manager of external programs in digital humanities, digital heritage, and games for learning at Microsoft Research. The session is entitled “Big Heritage, Big Quilts, and Big Canvasses” and also features Anne Balsamo— director of the AIDS Memorial Quilt— and Andries van Dam— a leader in pen-and-touch computing research from Brown University.

Watrall’s talk is entitled “Big Data, Small Stories: Community, Collaboration, and User Experience in the Age of Digital Cultural Heritage.” He frames his talk in the context of two MATRIX projects: the Quilt Index and Slave Biographies. The Quilt Index collects metadata about quilts and quilt ephemera from all around the world and the Slave Biographies project organizes information on individual slaves that were bought and sold in the Atlantic region.

In his lecture, Watrall plans to show how big datasets can, and should, be used to tell personal stories. He argues that, more often than not, large databases are used solely for the purposes of seeing large trends and patterns. This leaves out the equally important task of telling individual narratives and biographies. This dual purpose has been exemplified by both the Quilt Index in their attempt to preserve quilt stories and the Slave Biographies database in its attempt to create individual slave profiles.

His talk will also explore how large databases can be a source of community building and collaboration. Both the Quilt Index and the Slave Biographies projects exist because of high levels of collaboration and data sharing between various scholars, museums, public institutions, and individuals. Watrall will demonstrate how these shared repositories can create a sense of community and belonging between previously disparate people and organizations.

Finally, Watrall will demonstrate how large databases can be translated into multi-modal, user-centered interfaces. In particular, he will talk about the Quilt Index’s development of an iPhone application that serves selected quilt data to an individual’s mobile device.

The Microsoft Faculty Summit attempts to serve as a bridge between Microsoft’s technology experts and the academy with the purpose of exploring new opportunities and challenges in computer science research. In addition to Ethan Watrall, MATRIX director Dean Rehbergerhas also been asked to attend as an invited observer. To view a live stream of the conference, visit the Microsoft Faculty Summit website.