National University of Singapore awards a grant for Cultural Analytics research

February 20, 2009: National University of Singapore (NUS), the leading research university in Singapore, has awarded a grant for 175,000 SGD to a group of NUS faculty and Lev Manovich for a project enititled "Mapping Asian Cultures: From Data to Knowledge."
The grant will allow the group to develop a large-scale cultural analytics project dealing with the analysis and visualization of cultural patterns in Asian countries in the 20th and early 21st century: from traditional art to online social media.

The group consists from the following researchers:

Visiting Researcher:
Lev Manovich
Professor, Visual Arts Department, UCSD
Director, Software Studies Initiative, Calit2 / UCSD

Kay O’Halloran
Associate Professor, Department of English Language & Literature, Faculty of Arts & Social Science; Director, Multimodal Analysis Lab, Interactive & Digital Media Institute (IDMI).

Robbie Goh
Head of Department, Department of English Language & Literature, Faculty of Arts & Social Science
Deputy Director, Asian Research Institute (ARI).

Giorgos Cheliotis
Assistant Professor, Communication and New Media (CNM)

Lonce Wyse
Associate Professor, Communication and New Media (CNM)
Director, Arts & Creativity Lab, Interactive & Digital Media Institute (IDMI)

Roger Zimmermann
Associate Professor, School of Computing

From the proposal abstract:

"The members of our group have already accumulated substantial experience in quantitatively analyzing and visualizing large sets of cultural data. Using online community music site ccMixter, Giorgos Cheliotis analyzed the patterns of music creation, sampling and remixing between 1,850 active users who at the time of data collection (2007) have collectively produced 7,484 tracks. The projects currently underway in Manovich’s lab include analysis and visualization of patterns in 200,000 art history images drawn from, interactions between tens of thousands of MySpace users, biographies of Korean diaspora artists, and public perceptions of architectural developments in Asian countries. Kay O’Halloran’s Multimodal Analysis Lab is currently working on a large project which involves developing linguistic, image and sound processing techniques for analyzing complex multimodal documents, videos and interactive events on the web. The automated analytical techniques developed in the Multimodal Analysis Lab are applicable to the large cultural data sets that we want to use in the project proposed here.

Equally importantly, Manovich and Cheliotis have independently developed theoretical frameworks for working with large cultural data sets. Since 2005 Manovich has been developing a broad framework for this research that he called “Cultural Analytics.” The framework calls for the use of interactive visualization, Geographical Information Systems (GIS), data mining, and statistical data analysis for research, teaching and presentation of cultural artifacts, processes, and flows. Manovich’s lab is focusing on analysis and visualization of large sets of visual and spatial media: art, photography, video, cinema, computer games, space design, architecture, graphic and web design, product design. Another focus is on using the wealth of cultural information available on the web to construct detailed interactive spatio-temporal maps of contemporary global cultural patterns. Cheliotis refers to his research using the term “Online Cultural Dynamics.” His focus is on the examination of the structure, dynamics and output of online communities. According to Cheliotis, they are largely based on the same processes of creative reuse, synthesis and production that have characterized most of our cultural production throughout human history, but are now accentuated with the new paradigm of collaborative, commons-based peer production which critically depends on the sharing and licensing behaviour of creators.

We propose to extend this research in new directions by taking advantage of the unique combination of resources and expertise available at NUS. Drawing on the broad expertise of our team will allow us to do work in the analysis and visualization of cultural patterns on the scale beyond what has been done so far. The humanities scholars who have already started to analyze, graph, and map cultural data so far focused on relatively narrow areas of humanities – for instance, 19th century novels or archaeology of particular ancient sites. No attempt has been made so far to apply this approach to a much larger set of cultural activities related by a common geography or a time period. Additionally, humanities scholars tend to use visualizations as static illustrations of their findings – rather as a research tools for data exploration and knowledge discovery, as it is common in the sciences.

Our project is designed to address both of these limitations. Firstly, we propose to carry out a number of case studies that will together begin to visualize some of the patterns in the cultural development of a whole continent over a 100-year period. What is this continent? We decided to choose the subject for our study in such a way as to make the project particularly meaningful in the location where the project will be created and first shown. Consequently, we chose to work on Asian cultures from the early twentieth century until today. Using a number of both historical and contemporary data sets and sources of information, we will map vectors of influence between different Asian traditions and the West, the struggles to establish the unique modern Asian cultural identities throughout the twentieth century, and the extraordinary rise of Asia in today’s globalization era to become new leaders in cultural innovation and experimentation (as demonstrated, for instance, by the opening ceremony of 2008 Olympics.) We will visualize the dynamics of contemporary vernacular digital culture in Asia using data from social networking and social media sites popular in Asia such as Cyworld, Friendster, Sina, etc. We will also compare online cultural dynamics in Asia and other geographical regions. This will allow us to create models of cultural development that will assist in the detection of new and potentially important cultural currents, as well as in understanding the position of Asian media creators in the globalized context of the web.

We will present our findings in articles, conference presentations and also in a large-scale high-resolution interactive installation. The interfaces and visualization techniques developed for this installation will represent the second major innovation of our project. Going beyond the static visualizations or the already familiar media interfaces deployed in museums, we will create fundamentally new types of interfaces to cultural content. The installation will present innovative ways of interacting with and experiencing cultural assets and cultural information based on the analysis of large cultural data sets. The interfaces will use the concepts and technologies from the fields of science visualization, information visualization, and Geographical Information Systems (GIS). They will also bring together the visualization techniques normally used in science with the best techniques developed in digital art ad design. The users will be able to interact with visually rich maps and visualizations of cultural flows, patterns, and dynamics at a variety of scales, going from a “bird’s eye” of a very large database as a whole to a view of an individual cultural artifact."