Digital Humanities Seed Grants Grow to Fruition

By Keith Allison | March 14, 2022

Digital Humanities Seed Grants are a University-wide initiative funded by NYU IT and supported by the NYU Libraries and Faculty of Arts and Sciences leadership. Their aim is to support the development of "new research projects that analyze digital sources, apply algorithmic methods to humanities data, or create digital publications, exhibits, or websites." The grants help researchers further develop and expand projects in a way that can greatly improve a project's chance of receiving further funding.

Recently, three Seed Grant recipients were awarded major grants from the National Science Foundation, the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

computer generated map of the United States

From the Treasury of Weary Souls website

Insuring Slavery: Underwriting Risk in the 18th Century

Michael Ralph, a former associate professor in NYU's Department of Social and Cultural Analysis and now a professor and chair at Howard University's Department of Afro-American Studies, studies the role of capitalism in slavery. In particular, he has been researching life insurance and the slave trade. In the course of his research, Dr. Ralph built an extensive database of slaves who were insured during the antebellum period. He contacted the NYU Libraries’ Digital Scholarship Services (DSS) department seeking advice on building a website that could surface the information contained in the database. This consultation, with Zach Coble, head of DSS, led to Ralph working with Boston-based Resilient Coders, which trains at-risk young people for technology-related jobs, and eventually launching the Treasury of Weary Souls website.

In 2019, after reviewing his site with Marii Nyrop, Digital Humanities Technology Specialist, Ralph applied for and received a $20,000 Digital Humanities Seed Grant to fund the expansion of the site. From there, Ralph and his two collaborators on the project, Ben Wiggins from the University of Minnesota and John Clegg from the University of Chicago, applied for and won a 2021 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant of $533,000.

For more info, see With Major NSF Grant, NYU Professor Michael Ralph and Colleagues Are Breaking New Ground in Researching The Capitalist Roots of Slavery, NYU Libraries.

Holding Hiring Algorithms Accountable and Creating New Tools for Humanistic Research

This project, the recipient of a 2020-2021 Seed Grant, was led by NYU professor of journalism Hilke Schellmann and NYU senior research scientist and Tandon faculty member Mona Sloane. The purpose of the research was to develop a tool that could investigate the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in the hiring process. AI is used by an increasing number of companies that receive large numbers of employment applications to screen applicants. Much about these AI technologies remains opaque, and there is evidence that the decisions made by AI-powered systems may contain biases or even, at times, be arbitrary.

Based on the success of that project, Schellmann and Sloane have been able to expand their AI research and recently received a $200,000 grant from the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation "to bring an innovative AI tool to under-resourced newsrooms to significantly scale up their investigative capacity and democratize access to FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] records." FOIA requests can result in documents thousands of pages long. Using Gumshoe (a natural language processing tool developed at NYU by Schellmann, Sloane, and computer science professor Julia Stoyanovich), they plan to use the power of AI to analyze large documents for information that may be relevant to a related story.

A large store of documents is being provided by NYU partner MuckRock, an open-source journalism platform that assists reporters with requesting, analyzing, and publishing public documents. The Patrick J. McGovern Foundation grant enables Schellmann and Sloane to further develop their tool and make it available to newsrooms. They are also collaborating with NYU's High Performance Computing group to house this new AI tool in Google's Cloud. 

For more info, see Prof. Hilke Schellmann and NYU Researchers Secure $200,000 Grant to Bring Novel AI-Tool to Support Under-Resourced Newsrooms Across the U.S., NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute News posting.


Moss specimen from the New York Botnaical Garden's Mitten Collection

Inverting the Wunderkammer: Rethinking the Digital Humanities through Botanic Histories and Archives

The recipient of a 2021-2022 Seed Grant, Inverting the Wunderkammer is now also the recipient of a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The project team—Ahmed Ansari, Industry assistant professor, Integrated Design & Media program; Elaine Ayers, faculty fellow, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Museum Studies program; Tega Brain, Industry assistant professor, Technology, Culture and Society; and Laura Briscoe, Collections Manager at the New York Botanical Garden—is using the New York Botanical Garden's Mitten Collection "to explore how experimental digital imaging techniques and pluralistic storytelling might be applied to colonial botanical collections to open up ways to critically interrogate violent systems of classification and order."

The collection was amassed in the 19th century by British bryologist William Mitten. The project aims to analyze, using sources such as archival and manuscript materials and specimens, how certain biases and attitudes have resulted in the work of women, indigenous experts, and working-class collectors being erased from botanical history or attributed to others (such as William Mitten). The Botanical Garden's moss collection is a fertile resource for exploring how multiple perspectives can lead to "new knowledge production" across "colonial natural history, museum and archival studies, and de-colonial design practices."