Innovation: How digital research is illuminating societal issues

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Technology & social media

Ben Grosser studies the cultural, social and political effects of software and demonstrates through interactive experiences how it directs our behavior. His experiments with hiding the metrics on social media platforms reveal the negative effects they have on users, making them feel competitive or anxious and compulsive about checking the notifications on their accounts. His work has led Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to experiment with hiding some metrics themselves.

Grosser created a browser extension that randomly chooses a reaction when a user clicks Facebook’s “like” button, as a way to consider how Facebook uses our information, including recorded feelings. He’s also looked at how software design controls our interactions with technology.

Read more about his work:

Supercomputers & gerrymandering

Partisan redistricting (or gerrymandering) is a problem of politics, and political scientist Wendy K. Tam Cho is seeking solutions – with the aid of a supercomputer. Cho is working with research colleague Yan Liu at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at Illinois on a system for drawing partisan-free maps.

One goal of their research is to open the redistricting process beyond politicians and those with partisan interests, currently the only ones with the data and tools to draw electoral maps. Cho hopes to give good-government groups, minority advocacy groups and other interested citizens the same data and tools, and therefore the means to influence the process.

Read more about her work:

Algorithms & literary patterns

Ted Underwood “reads” hundreds of thousands of books by using an algorithm to search digital libraries and glean information about literary patterns. The data-mining tools help Underwood explore and understand the large arcs of literary trends over a broad timeline – something the sheer scale of which would be impossible without machine learning.

Much of Underwood’s work is based in the digital realm, but he says the strength of humanities research is its link to the past.

There is one thing the humanities do better than any other part of the university: reflecting on historical change and on the historical mutability of the human mind. … We own the dimension of time.”

Read more about her work:

Database technology & historic knowledge

Mara Wade leads an NEH-funded international digital humanities research project called Emblematica Online, which maintains a digital library of emblems – concise combinations of text and images used to spread cultural knowledge in the 16th-19th centuries. The project – which includes mathematics librarian Timothy Cole and the head of acquisitions and cataloging services for the University Library Myung-Ja Han – offers a searchable database includes emblem books from the most significant collections in the world, including the University of Illinois Library.

One of Wade’s current research projects looks at how emblems functioned as an open source code and networking strategy, with the text and images being continually reassembled and modified, producing a network of learning and functioning as a form of interpersonal communication.

Read more about her work:

Proust scholarship & digital archives

The Rare Book and Manuscript Library holds the world’s largest collection of letters written by Marcel Proust in its Kolb-Proust Archive. University of Illinois researchers and their international partners are digitizing Proust’s correspondence and making it available online.

François Proulx, a professor of French, and Caroline Szylowicz, the Kolb-Proust librarian and a curator of rare books and manuscripts, are overseeing the project to create a digital scholarly edition that will include the text of the letters as Proust wrote them, with his idiosyncratic markings; scholarly notes; and metadata.

The Corr-Proust website features letters written by Proust during World War I and upon being awarded the prestigious Goncourt Prize in 1919. The website continues the legacy of Proust scholarship at Illinois, Proulx and Szylowicz said.

Read more about the Corr-Proust project: