Representing Culture via Agile Collaboration

Representing Culture via Agile Collaboration

Craig Dietrich (University of Southern California, USA) and John Bell (University of Maine, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-044-0.ch010
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Creating software that supports cultural knowledge management brings developers face to face with issues they may not encounter when dealing with more general-purpose applications. Many times cultural specialists will have a unique understanding of the data, relationships, and special sensitivities that should be reflected in the interface and structure of software intended for use in a specific field. When general-purpose software is not able to accurately capture these subtleties of culture, experts and developers can work together to create small, focused solutions. This chapter discusses the special issues presented when developing software for cultural or creative organizations, the development philosophy behind targeted applications, and methods to design ecosystems of small applications that can be combined to meet a wide variety of needs.
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Issues Of Representing Culture

Ready-to-use content management systems such as WordPress feature user-friendly sets of administration pages and publishing templates for quickly deploying blogs. While WordPress includes widgets and plug-ins to extend its functionality, collectively they serve to annotate blog posts, not cultural paradigms. A blog is a serialization of linear thought: today I have an idea, tomorrow another. The structure imposed by the software turns life into a sequence of events: drove to work, met some deadlines, saw something interesting, and came home. If this oversimplification of daily routine does not sit well (certainly, life is more complicated than a series of events) then publishing tools might need to push their paradigms further to capture the breadth of human experience.

Many developers of large-scale software do not interact sufficiently with the groups that use their products and therefore misjudge the needs of culturally-sensitive projects. When users have needs that require new functionality, they send feature requests to the off-site development team. Some teams see this separation as an advantageous business concept, allowing conformity and parallel development of features within the same project. For this reason, it is a model used by many industries, including retail where large chain stores stock standardized inventories of products manufactured in industrial centers. Bottlenecking goods and profits is great for efficiency but marginalizes those that might be seeking to use systems for purposes outside the mainstream. When representing culture, it’s a society’s practices–not profits–that risk being bottlenecked.

Though business analysts might appreciate the efficiency of bottlenecks, for creators of culturally-sensitive software bottlenecks threaten to squeeze out the same nuances they are hoping to represent. Many Indigenous communities, for example, see gender, sacred status, and family affiliation as important protocols to be included in digital archives. (Christen, 2008) Unfortunately, there are few existing archive systems that include these protocols in their sorting and access algorithms.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Open Source: A movement to allow access to the source code of computer applications to facilitate the enrichment of software by encouraging collaboration.

Extensible Markup Language (XML): A specification for the formatting of data in plain text files using tag blocks, descriptors, and attributes.

Digital Humanities: Broad term describing a field that combines the analytical and critical methods of humanities disciplines with computational analysis, design, and multimedia.

Distributed: For digital systems, placing data, components, and processes across a geography or network to limit dependency on a single, large system.

Ecology: Relationship of systems to their environments and each other. Network ecologies often mimic nature in their complexity of interaction.

Semantic Web: Model for the World Wide Web where the meaning of data is stored and transferred. In this model, computer systems can understand data and infer action without human intervention.

Bottleneck: Scenario where many processes depend on the operations or results of an individual or few.

Variable Media: New forms of cultural production where traditional views of authorship are difficult to define.

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