When I met Dave King, the creator of a data analysis and visualization platform called Exaptive, we quickly realized that the tools he was using with scientists could be applied to my humanities research in Islamic studies. With the support of the University of Oklahoma’s Kelvin Droegemeier (Vice President for Research), Rick Luce (Dean of Libraries), and Carl Grant (Libraries Associate Dean of Knowledge Services & CTO), the Exaptive team created a pilot application (a ‘Xap’) that searched for my research terms (hermeneutics, language, tafsir, etc.) in WorldCat, returned thousands of bibliographic records, and then mapped out visually the other significant words that appeared in those records, clustering the words that occurred most often together. It also mapped out the books whose bibliography entries contained those words, as well as their authors, grouping them visually based on which terms they had in common. Those visual maps were interactive: hover over one term and the related works are highlighted, etc. Each dot on the map served as a link to the WorldCat record and to my library’s book request form. It was a completely new way to discover not only books relevant to my project, but also unforeseen concepts that I had not realized might be important for my research. The discourse maps looked like this:
My role in the development process was to be the researcher guinea pig, testing each iteration of the software on a real research project and participating in weekly update and design meetings. Over the course of 2015-2016 we expanded and refined the Xap until it was quite powerful, but it was not yet stable and robust enough to be made publicly available. As of 2017 I am working with Exaptive to produce a next-generation version of the software that will be easily customizable for specific research projects and textual corpora.
I have made a number of presentations about the original vision and the developing software:
- “Visualizing your own research notes.” A session I proposed and led at THATCamp OU-OSU 2015, Norman, OK, June 13, 2015.
- A detailed and richly illustrated paper laying out the vision for the project: “Genealogies of Qur’anic Hermeneutics: Tracing Trajectories through Online Data.” Conference on “New Trends in Qur’anic Studies,” International Qur’anic Studies Association and State Islamic University Sunan Kalijaga, Yogyakarta, Indonesia, August 6, 2015.
- An informal presentation at a session on digital humanities at the International Association for the History of Religions, Erfurt, Germany, August 24, 2015.
- “The OU/Exaptive Xap: Exploring New Ways to Categorize, Visualize, and Create Knowledge.” Digital Humanities at OU Day, Norman, OK, September 15, 2015. The slides are available here.
- “A Customizable Exaptive ‘Xap’ for Charting Currents of Islamic Discourse across Multiple Bibliographic and Full Text Datasets.” Third Annual Islamic Digital Humanities Conference, “Distant Reading and the Islamic Archive,” Middle East Studies Program, Brown University, October 16, 2015.
- A final presentation to OU Library administrators on June 29, 2016. Slides available here.
The project and Exaptive were the subject of a May 27, 2016 article “Big data comes to OKC to study everything from quakes to Quran,” by Lucia Walinchus, in the Oklahoma City business and legislative newspaper The Journal Record.