As a scholar who has spent nearly a decade working on a variety of digital humanities projects, my contributions to the Digital Orientalist present an opportunity to reflect on what I’ve learned through working and teaching in the field. Largely self-taught, I have had plenty of experience of building things that don’t work, or which had a poorly defined scope, inadequate documentation or other fundamental flaws. But the good news is that these ‘failures’ always present an opportunity to re-evaluate, think about what went wrong, and to refine or reimagine the process for the next time. Against this backdrop, an important trait to cultivate is resilience, or the mindset that if (or rather, when) things don’t work out the first time, then adjustments are made and work resumes. There are parallels here with the process of ‘doing DH’ itself, which is also inherently iterative, reflective and flexible.
This post will cover a few basic practicalities to consider when planning and beginning digital humanities projects. My follow-up posts over the course of the academic year will continue in this vein, exploring how to develop project documentation, how to plan for the end of a project, and strategies for incorporating DH into the classroom curriculum, including framework syllabi, digital tools well-suited to teaching, and developing assignments, rubrics and learning objectives.
What is a Project?
Projects differ from regular work, in that they have a starting point (a ‘trigger’) and a defined end point. The latter is an important consideration, since it’s often the case in academic research that we don’t feel comfortable putting an end date on our research, or defining when something will be ‘done’ as an integral part of the planning process.
It’s worth identifying some of the main reasons projects fail, so that we can take steps to avoid the pitfalls which include:
- having unclear goals or poorly defined scope;
- not having ‘buy in’ from all team members;
- having loosely-defined requirements;
- having an unrealistic schedule;
- having a lack of consensus among team members about what the goals are, or who is responsible for doing what.
Planning and conversation before embarking on any work can help mitigate these risks, while working towards agreed-upon shared goals improves team morale.
We use two documents to establish initial framework defining how we will work with each other, and how we will map out our project.
1. The Project Agreement defines how the team will work together and is developed with input from all team members. Topics should include what methods will be used for communication? What are the expectations for response time to emails/Slack messages etc? How often, and how will the team meet? What has been successful and what has not when working collaboratively? And any other topics which could become problems if not specifically addressed prior to starting work.
2. The Project One-Pager is how we describe our project to the world, and includes the name of the project, and its objective statement – the elevator pitch, if you will. It defines what the project will do (the requirements), and what is specifically out of scope. Team members and their roles and responsibilities are listed, along with any other stakeholders. Also included is an outline of milestones with associated dates. This document could also be described as a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) or Project Charter.
Creating Balance While Moving Forward
Balancing the so-called ‘triple constraints‘ of time, scope and cost to create a quality end product are as applicable to work in DH as they are to projects in industry. A shift in one will affect on the other two – for instance, if you increase the amount of data you’re working with (i.e. the project scope), then you’ll need more time to process it, and it will be more costly. If you lose your funding source, then the scope and time allotted to work will contract accordingly. In developing an awareness of these symbiotic relationships, it will soon become apparent when adjustments are necessary to maintain balance as a project progresses. This is the role of the project manager, which may well be you if it is your research project. The good news is that there are a number of simple ways to keep track and rebalance as necessary, but the key is to check your plan regularly, and make small regular tweaks to keep the work moving forward.
Tools for Tracking and Managing
Creating a Gantt Chart to track work is certainly an option, but there are many no-cost and low-cost alternatives for brainstorming and planning. A simple starting point is to write project tasks on Post-it notes and use a wall as an organizational board. It’s important to be as granular as you can be as you go through the steps of identifying tasks. In doing so, you’ll begin the process of identifying milestones and their dependencies. What needs to be completed before you can move on to another task? Ordering your work in this way is the first step towards assigning deadlines to each milestone. I usually track backwards from the due date and allocate time for each task. It often becomes quite clear at this point if the scope is too broad for the time allowed. For team projects, there will be multiple streams of work taking place concurrently, and the Post-It notes can be divided according to tasks and team members. Using a different color for each team member can help identify if work has been poorly apportioned. Take a photo of the board once you’ve mapped out your plan.
Other tools I’ve used and which work well for planning, tracking and communication include:
These online options work particularly well for dispersed teams, and have the added advantage of being easy to tweak as you progress through the project. Due dates can be added, and responsibilities assigned to the designated team member. Trello and Airtable have the option of switching between a list view and seeing tasks on a calendar, while Basecamp provides a suite of features including scheduling, document sharing, and communication.
These planning strategies are basic building blocks to consider alongside specific research questions and the appropriate digital tools for analysis, visualization and display. A work plan and risk mitigation strategies are integral to any funding application, so developing these strategies before starting work will save a lot of headaches later on.