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A report on the first HPS Informatics workshop

As more and more texts, images, and archival sources become available in digital form, the history and philosophy of science (HPS), and the humanities more generally, are now experiencing a transformation similar to the life sciences during the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century.

While these trends are inevitable, researchers in these areas are ill prepared to take advantage of the new opportunities or to shape the future development of relevant parts of the emerging new cyber-infrastructure.

So, how and where do historians and philosophers of science, long trained in the solitary scholasticism of their disciplines, even begin to tap into the rich, yet ostensibly impenetrable array of tools and techniques of the bioinformatician, computer scientist, and librarian?

As a starting point to address this problem, the first HPS Informatics Workshop was held at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, from May 23-26, 2011. The workshop was modeled after the highly successful and long-lived NLM Biomedical Informatics Course, and was co-sponsored by Arizona State University and the MBL.

The workshop served as a primer on informatics techniques, tools, and best practices for the diverse group of historians, sociologists, and philosophers who specialize in areas such as quantum physics, chronobiology, embryology, cytology, and analytical philosophy.

The common interest among these groups was the desire to be more digital, where "being digital\ conveyed a wide range of end points such as having a website devoted to showcasing digital media, mining existing digital documents to analyze long-scale historical trends, or understanding how to develop and utilize triple store technologies to leverage the semantic web.

Faculty, from the MBL, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), ASU, the Encyclopedia ofLife, Indiana University, and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, taught the workshop. Topics included metadata and controlled vocabularies, image workflows, ontologies, semantic web, text mining, natural language processing, machine learning, APIs, IT infrastructure, repositories and databases, and planning for funding, sustainability, and data management.

In addition, various tools to annotate texts and manipulate large data sets were introduced.

One of the goals of the workshop was to help project PIs, faculty, graduate students, and other scholars working on digital projects gain familiarity with the terminology and concepts of the informatics world.

For example, what is an ontology in the context of informatics, and why ought a project be interested (or not interested) in developing one? What are the benefits of distributed cloud storage? How can controlled vocabularies and standardized metadata aid in searching and sharing of digital objects?

By the end of the workshop, most had the language and the broad knowledge required to begin the dialogue with IT personnel, web developers, and computer scientists in home institutions.

The goal of the workshop was not for participants to leave feeling as though they knew everything about developing a working digital project. Rather, the workshop's goal was to create change agents who are better equipped to understand the unique challenges facing digital projects in HPS. Digital projects are hard and require expertise in many areas to be done well.

We were pleased with the feedback from the participants and we believe the workshop was an unabashed success. Because it was the first in what we hope will be an annual course, however, it was not without the problems and the snafus that often accompany first-time events. Namely, it was difficult to teach to a wide range of expertise levels; perhaps future courses will be targeted to a certain level of experience/ knowledge. Most of these issues should be easily fixed in future courses.

We invite input from the larger HPS community as we begin preparing for the second HPS Informatics course in 2012. 

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