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Digital Humanities at NTU

Constellations Issue 2


Nov 30, 2018 | Articles

The question is often asked: what is Digital Humanities (DH)? Is it the study of humanistic questions with the aid of digital tools? Is it the study of how digitization and algorithms are changing human relations and human culture? Is it the study of machine-human interactions, such as how humans and artificial intelligence (AI) respond to one another? Is it experimentation in new forms of visualization, art and sound? Rather than delimiting the question, DH researchers at NTU have adopted an inclusive attitude to form a space where researchers coming from any of these approaches and more can come together to share ideas and approaches.

2018 has seen three new developments that will significantly increase the profile and potential of Digital Humanities research at NTU, within Singapore and Southeast Asia. First, the new NTU Institute of Science and Technology for Humanity (NISTH) identified Digital Humanities as a fundamental component of the institute and a key methodological interest. As part of this initiative, a Digital Humanities lab has been allocated and will be unveiled later this year as part of the NISTH offices. This will include space and equipment for visiting researchers to come and work as well as a bank of computers and large screens for training workshops and informal sharing sessions. The newly appointed DH Project Manager will support and coordinate existing and new DH projects at NTU.

Second, the College of Humanities formed a DH research cluster, coordinated by Associate Professor Francis Bond and Assistant Professor Michael Stanley-Baker. Researchers from across the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences have come together to share their research questions, methodological approaches and technical tools. Gathering together these researchers and their interests will result in a new website portal to showcase DH research and new workshops and conferences. A new book chapter titled “Digital Humanities in Singapore” by Miguel Escobar Varela, Andrea Nanetti, and Michael Stanley-Baker will be published in the forthcoming volume, Digital Humanities and Scholarly Research Trends in the Asia-Pacific.

Third, the DH Cluster coordinators, together with Tan Choon Keng, Assistant Director (Research Affairs) in CoHASS, successfully bid to host the Pacific Neighbourhood Consortium (PaNC) conference in 2019 ( Winning this bid puts NISTH, NTU and Singapore on the world map as a center for cutting-edge DH research. One of three major DH conferences in the Pacific Rim, PNC has been previously hosted at such prestigious sites such as the Getty Centre, the University of Macau, the National Palace Museum Taipei, and Kyoto University. Originally founded at Berkeley, and now based in Academia Sinica, Taipei, PNC encourages scholars, academic institutions, and universities to collaborate and exchange their academic resources and research expertise.

Graham Matthews and Hallam Stevens are working with colleagues at the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, based at the University of Cambridge, to host a workshop on AI Narratives in Singapore. As AI and robotics begin to fulfil their promise, they arrive with a host of meanings and cultural associations that significantly influence their development, regulation and place in public opinion. This workshop brings international experts into dialogue with researchers from a wide range of subject areas across the university as well as representatives from heritage, industry, and the arts in order to explore the evolving relationship between AI, culture, and society in Singapore.

What follows is a selection of innovative Digital Humanities projects currently underway in the School of Humanities. There are many more bold and exciting DH projects across NTU encompassing subfields such as machine-human interactions and digital arts. For a more complete list, please see our online portal:

The study of humanistic questions with digital tools

The most well-heeled form of approach in Digital Humanities, these projects span the disciplines of history, linguistics, literature, heritage and anthropology.


Engineering Historical Memory (EHM), started by Andrea Nanetti in 2007, focuses on how to engineer the treasure of human experiences to serve decision making, knowledge transmission, and visionarios. Research derived from this project develops and applies computationally intensive techniques (e.g. pattern recognition, data mining, machine learning algorithms derived from other disciplines, interactive and visualization solutions), tools that can be readily adopted by users to visualize high volumes of data through maps, timelines, tag clouds, and/or interconnected graphs on different scales.

Drugs Across Asia, by Michael Stanley-Baker, develops tools to examine the distribution of drug knowledge (and by extension, any other similar knowledge set) across the entire Buddhist and Daoist canons, as well as pre-modern Chinese medical texts. The project provides tools to philologically identify the distribution of large-volume term searches, using Post-Search-Classification (PSC) to filter them according to meta-data such as time, genre, author and geographic site of production. National Taiwan University and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science worked with Michael to develop the engine called Docusky, part of a close ecology of tools and datasets being developed within the Sinological community. Michael is developing the project to work in other corpuses, in order to extend the study across multiple historical regions, periods and languages.

Heritage and Linguistics

Aung Soe Illustrations is an open-access online database of periodical and book illustrations by Bagyi Aung Soe (1923–1990), Myanmar’s trailblazer of modern art and most prolific illustrator of the twentieth-century. It seeks to conserve the memory of this artistic, cultural and intellectual heritage, uncover and reinterpret the (hi)story of a country’s modern art through digitisation, visual analysis, ontology creation, data curation, database design and data visualisation of 6,000 illustrations and 60 texts sourced from private and public libraries.

The Open Multilingual Wordnet based at NTU is a project by Francis Bond of the Linguistics and Multilingual Studies Programme in NTU’s School of Humanities. The project provides access to open wordnets in a variety of languages, all linked to the Princeton Wordnet of English. WordNet® is a large lexical database of a given language. The resulting network of meaningfully related words and concepts can be navigated with a browser, and its components are open: they can be freely used, modified, and shared by anyone for any purpose.

The Archaeological Linguistics and the Prehistory of Northeast India project currently being developed by Alexander Coupe digitizes a corpus of language materials collected in Nagaland. This includes annotated texts that are time-aligned to transcriptions, plus electronic dictionaries from a number of minority language communities. The kind of textual data that the project will make publicly available can be sampled through the Pangloss platform.

The Digital Intangible Heritage of Asia (DIHA) portal incorporates archival projects which record tradition and transformation in language use and textiles. Among these, Exploring the Crossroads of Linguistic Diversity: Language Contact in Southeast Asia addresses gaps in our knowledge of endemic multi-lingualism by documenting four endangered languages while simultaneously exploring four language contact situations in Southeast Asia. Also associated with DHIA, AILCA 2.0 – The Archive of Indigenous Languages and Cultures of Asia is the first digital archive for endangered languages to be set up in Asia. Emphasis is placed on the maintenance or even revitalization of languages through the creation of educational material and by supporting local/regional language centers.

The Armenian Church Project, headed by Michael Walsh, applies cutting edge visualization technologies to the historic city of Famagusta in the non-UN recognized country of Northern Cyprus, and is setting a model for cultural heritage preservation in post-conflict zones. The project aims to study and protect the fragile cultural heritage of Famagusta with the full understanding that the applied VR, AR, immersive, interactive and 4D story-telling technologies are serious academic tools that contain immense, largely unharnessed, pedagogical potential. Michael Walsh is now turning his attention to Singapore and its heritage sites, in particular Waterloo Street.


Richard Barlow is creating an online research platform to gather links to the available digitized scholarship on Finnegans Wake (1939) and to connect this scholarship to a digitized version of the text itself. This will show readers what analysis is available on specific passages. The project will also create a research ‘map’ of the Wake showing which sections have been covered extensively and which areas have received less attention. Work will be carried out in collaboration with Dr Ronan Crowley from the Centre for Manuscript Genetics, University of Antwerp and will involve input from postgraduate students.

Katherine Hindley is exploring the medieval belief that spoken and written words — in the form of charms and textual amulets — could physically change the world. She has collected over a thousand examples of charms copied in England between the eighth and the fifteenth centuries and intends to create an illustrated database to make these charm texts publicly searchable. It will be possible to search both by full text and by categories including date, purpose, manuscript call number, the languages of the instructions and incantations, and whether the efficacious words should be spoken or written.

Koh Tai Ann’s compilation, the comprehensive Singapore Literature in English: An Annotated Bibliography, attempts to be a complete archive of English-language Singapore literature, identifying, classifying and describing books, periodicals and other materials. Based at NTU and created in collaboration with the NTU library, it is Singapore’s first digital bibliography of national literature in one of the official languages, and may be the first of its kind in Southeast Asia.

As of 1 August 2018, the site has received 36,236 user-visits. The numbers per year have been growing annually since its launch in October, 2013 with an average of 750 visits per month. 65% of user sessions are from Singapore and a significant percentage, 35%, is global: in the top 10 in order of number of visits are USA, Philippines, Malaysia, India, United Kingdom, Australia, China, Japan, Indonesia, and Canada.

Digital Mapping the Literary Epigraph by Graham Matthews and Francis Bond investigates the intellectual genealogies of English-language literary works as ascribed by their authors in epigraphs — the short quotations (sometimes misquotations) of other authors in the initial pages of a published work. By tracking the epigraphs’ appearance through recording the meta-data in thousands of books, the project seeks to trace networks of influence and their geographic distribution over time.


In her forthcoming Spatial Ethnography project, Kristy Kang investigates how ethnic communities are changing in cities. Building on insights from her previous project, Seoul of Los Angeles, this project focusses on Singapore, asking how migration and movement are changing our experience of cities, their peoples and our own sense of identity. Examining the history of Singapore’s multi-ethnic communities, this project aims to tell the story of how overlapping stories of migration transform the way we understand urban ethnic communities.

How digitization and algorithms are changing human relations and human culture

These projects do not necessarily use digital tools to conduct their analysis, but they all engage critically with the ways the digital is changing human culture, relations and ethics.

Melvin Chen is coordinating a research group on AI from the perspective of analytical philosophy and ethics. Examples of the questions his group is pursuing include: should ethical decision-making in AI systems be modelled on human beings? Should ethical decision-making in AI be fully autonomous or should there always be an element of human oversight? Conversely, might AI systems be developed to help detect and reduce human biases and prejudices? This group is planning symposia, white papers and journal articles on various aspects of the ethics of AI, which will also inform policymakers about the key ethical issues and challenges surrounding AI.

Michelle Chiang of the English Department at NTU examines how VR breaks down the fourth wall. By analyzing the way virtual reality environments like Unity Engine and Oculus reposition the viewer within the field of dramatic action, she reevaluates Beckett’s use of the absurd and Deleuze’s multiplicity of differential processes. Describing the subject position of the viewer within the virtual environment as a position akin to that of a ghost, she has developed the framework of “hauntology” for analyzing VR performance and audience interactivity.

Alton Chua is investigating the spread of “fake news” and how rumors spread in different languages across different platforms such as Twitter and other web platforms. His research asks how “fake news” spreads through word of mouth, how quickly rumors spread through digital media compared to word of mouth, and how clickbait functions to anticipate cognitive, affective and pragmatic responses.

Hallam Stevens and Shirley Sun are studying to investigate the Singapore government’s intentions and vehicles to become a leader in data science and analytics. In 2011, the government created the website to make large quantities of data available to the public in various formats, currently including demographics, traffic, crime, economics, geographic/GIS data, health data and a wide variety of other kinds of data. This project asks what steps Singapore can take to ensure not only that everyone in Singapore has equal access to data, but also that the benefits of data use are distributed as equally as possible and that everyone is represented as equally as possible within data sets. This project aims to explore the ways government data are collected, stored, and analyzed in Singapore so as to develop strategies for socially responsible and just data use.

Concluding Remarks

These diverse interests and approaches at NTU promise to inspire new research and new approaches in the coming years. As the conversation around DH grows, through support from NISTH, in the new DH lab, and in forthcoming workshops and conferences, no doubt more patterns will emerge as well as thicker continuities across these existing projects. These developments are just the beginning of greater things to come. n