Thursday, December 27, 2007

Open access to federally funded research

Linked from Slashdot today: tucked into the appropriations act just signed by President Bush, a requirement that the NIH must provide online access to research it has funded. This is a tremendous precedent, the first time that the US federal government has made open online access a condition of receiving federal funding for research.

The NIH is the focus, not the NEH, in part because people understand that medical research matters (as the respective budgets of the NIH and NEH also show). But the NIH was also in the Congressional spotlight because of the sustained advocacy of leading scientists, such as the open letter to Congress signed by 25 Nobel laureates in 2004 and by 26 Nobel winners in 2007.

Meanwhile, the American Philological Association, the professional organization that purports to represent classical studies, has inaugurated a multimillion dollar fundraising campaign to establish a "Digital Portal" centered on subscription-based access to a bibliography of print publications.

fuimus Troes, fuit Ilium


In the Ur-web of the early 1990s, images came in fixed sizes. You might get a thumbnail-sized image, a smaller version or a larger version, but generally what appeared in your browser was a full, one-to-one view of a distinct image as it was delivered to you from a Web server.

Today, it's increasingly common for server- and client-side applications to manipulate what is, at least notionally, a single image that a user can navigate through. Google defined the current state of the art in browser-based image navigation when it introduced Google Maps in 2005. Its clever use of AJAX to load adjacent tiles at appropriate scales creates the illusion of continuous navigation of the whole earth.

The same technology can be applied to any image. At University College, London, the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis has developed "The Google Maps Image Cutter," an application to generate from any digital image the image tiles required by a Google maps-style web application.

A couple of projects I'm working on apply this technique to browse images that cannot be displayed in full detail in a single view because of their high resolution or awkward shape. The Center for Hellenic Studies' Homer Multitext Project has Google-mapped high-resolution photographs of Iliadic manuscripts. I've recently Google-mapped drawings and photographs of several dozen inscriptions in the Lycian language.

This is an easily implemented and effective way to let users explore an image. It comes at the cost of one tiny little white lie: we have to pretend to Google that the coordinate space of our rectangular image works like a Mercator projection of a spheroid (the earth).

This is innocent enough, if we recognize what we're doing, but it should provoke more serious reflection about how we use images and cite them in scholarly work. We need to define recognizable ways of referring to parts of an image independently of the state of a user's panning and zooming. I'll post more on that topic before long. For now, enjoy the pictures.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Vingt ans après

Tonight, several of the Perseus project's original musketeers are gathering to observe the twentieth anniversary of the grant proposal to the Annenberg Foundation that jump-started the project. I'm sure that gray hair, sagging waist lines and altered career paths will prompt private reflections, but here's the fact that grabs me now: the Perseus project is older than three quarters of the undergraduates I teach.

My current students were still toddlers when the first public version of Perseus was released on CD. I doubt any of them have heard of, much less remember, Apple's HyperCard; it will be hard for them to imagine how exciting it was when a hypertext system first became available on personal computers.

They were learning to read or just beginning elementary school when Perseus made its astonishingly rapid transition to a Web delivery system. They probably are unaware that the internet was not always open to commercial use, and have little experience that would help them appreciate the importance of design decisions early in the history of Perseus. Can they grasp how the choice of SGML for markup of texts made it possible to generate both HyperCard stacks and Web pages from a single source?

Now they are in college, and the Perseus project has open-sourced both its code and key data including all its ancient texts (as I observed on Thanksgiving). Will they understand how this opens up to them unprecedented opportunities to build on the work of their predecessors, or have we conditioned them to see themselves only as passive consumers?

Are we raising up a new generation to join in the hard work ahead of us? All for one, and one for all!