Dr Kevin Page, Senior Researcher, talks about simulated Martian bases in Utah, designing digital systems that can cope with imperfection and working backstage at the Birmingham Hippodrome
When did you start at the Centre and what was your first role here?
I joined the Centre in 2010 from the University of Southampton as a researcher on the fantastically- acronymized SALAMI project (Structural Analysis of Large Amounts of Music Information).
What is your background?
I have a degree in Computer Engineering and PhD in Computer Science, so I've studied computing from silicon through to software and now, with my work in the Centre on the application of technology to academic research, through to scholars! I come from a hypertext and semantic web background, working on web architecture and the annotation of distributed data, and have applied this to domains including sensor networks, music information retrieval, clinical healthcare, and remote collaboration for space exploration (having once worked with NASA scientists from a simulated Martian base... in Utah).
Summarise the research you are doing / your research interests in a few sentences.
More recently my research has focussed on the application of computational and knowledge technologies to research in the Digital Humanities, particularly in musicology and early English print. We are exploring how we can bring advanced computing methods to scholarship in these fields, alongside the systems to record and exchange the resulting insights.
While working with digital materials brings tremendous benefits, such as access to 5 billion book pages in the HathiTrust digital library, we then have to find ways of making resources on such a scale of practical benefit. In the Centre we are working to achieve this through Linked Data. I'm also involved in projects studying social machines and collective adaptive systems, which consider the properties and effects of large-scale socio-technical networks.
Why is this important (to the scientific community / the world at large)?
It might be easy to think of these investigations as niceties or academic curiosities, but as the world and society becomes increasing reliant upon, and inseparable from, digital technologies, I believe it's imperative we gain a greater understanding of our interactions with these networks, and build the means to study and interpret them.
My work broadly sits at the intersection of research into the Web – from the protocols and standards upon which it's built, through to the social machines atop – and the forms of scalable knowledge representation we use through the Web. So in addition to introducing technology as a powerful assistant for the Digital Humanities, I also believe the experience of humanists exercising this technology highlights important questions about how we implement, interact with, and interpret these systems beyond the technical perspective from which they arise.
What would you like to do next, funding permitting?
I think we've made a significant contribution to the emerging field of digital musicology in our Transforming Musicology project, and through founding a week long workshop on the subject at the Digital Humanities at Oxford Summer School. So I'm very keen to see this work continue to grow, both in research and teaching (and as an amateur musician confess I have an additional motivation!).
I'd also like to use this experience to investigate how digital systems can be designed to deal with 'imperfection', by which I mean the variability and interpretation of knowledge that we, as people, effortlessly deal with all the time, but which is still problematic to machines; and rather than view these as bugs in the data to be corrected, design systems that are resilient and perhaps even strengthened in the way they convey this crucial context to users.
Are you involved in any wider collaborations? Why are these important?
It's hard to think of activities within the Centre which aren't collaborations! Through the projects I work on we collaborate with the Faculty of Music, Bodleian Libraries, and Computer Science within Oxford; and University partners at Queen Mary (London), Goldsmiths (London), Nottingham, and Illinois (US). We also work with institutions such as the HathiTrust Digital Library, the Internet Archive, and the BBC. These are important because when working with information of such scale and variety it's almost inevitable that relevant data and expertise will reside in other institutions – be they in Oxford, the UK, Europe, or internationally.
Could you tell us about a paper you are proud of and why?
In late 2014 the nationwide Being Human event presented us with the opportunity to study a complete interpretation of Wagner's Ring cycle at the Birmingham Hippodrome, performed by the Mariinsky theatre under Valery Gergiev. So off we went with tablets, annotation servers, digital pens, and one very understanding and patient musicologist! There's no software deadline quite like the curtain call for a live performance. After quite an experience backstage amidst a working Russian ballet company we returned with a rich collection of digitally captured material about the performance.
So it was rewarding to publish a paper on this work through the International Society for Music Information Retrieval (ISMIR), especially as this was reporting a very practical piece of work motivated by the study of opera performance at a conference that is often quite technology driven.
Our work on Wagner and semantics has also been accepted to the International Musicology Society conference next year, realising our aim to bridge across disciplines.
K.R. Page, T. Nurmikko-Fuller, C. Rindfleisch, D.M. Weigl, R. Lewis, L. Dreyfus, D De Roure. A Toolkit for Live Annotation of Opera Performance: Experiences Capturing Wagner's Ring Cycle. ISMIR 2015 pp211-217.
What do you think the most important issues/challenges in your field will be in the next decade and how is the Centre placed to address them?
While we have worked to make digital methods a part of musicological investigation, and more broadly in the Digital Humanities, we are relatively early in this journey and there are many challenges remaining to truly integrate software, methods, and practice. On the computing front, as we gather data with ever greater precision to enable semantic and assistive technologies, I believe there will be a real challenge in both capturing this complex web of provenance and discourse, but also in how we visualise and reduce this information so it is usable and comprehensible by people and scholars – but without losing crucial contextual perspectives. We learn from experimentation and experience, and the Centre is at the forefront of these efforts – and of course in training the people who ultimately make this possible and move our understanding forward.
What do you think the Centre does best?
The Centre is incredibly supportive of collaboration across and within different disciplines and institutions. There are few places where one can assemble a team with such a variety of backgrounds and expertise to tackle the challenges above – the Centre is one of those places and this makes it a pleasure to work here with those people!