Digital humanist who cooperates with coders

Open science forerunner, digital humanism researcher Mikko Tolonen sees that openness is a huge opportunity for research

“Why don’t we leave our Speedos at home.“

Mikko Tolonen (@mikko_tolonen) gracefully declines the suggestion. The researcher is not enthused about doing the interview in Helsinki’s new Allas Sea Pool.

He fears the mockery of his colleagues.

However, he wouldn’t mind throwing something into the sea. For example, outdated stereotypes about humanities researchers.

 “Smart city projects are extremely interesting, but traditionally they have been exclusively driven by engineers and marketers. Then when the project is almost finished, they bring in someone from the humanities. Look, we had an arts major in here!"

Tolonen admits that humanities researchers themselves are also to blame for this phenomenon. Few know how to market themselves, as the focus in the field has traditionally been on independent work. Researchers like to keep their work in their own pigeonhole.

Tolonen wants to question this tendency.

 “We can move our field forward through cooperation. Too often we’re all in our own corners reinventing the wheel, when we could be working for open science through multidisciplinary cooperation.”

Open science moves the en­tire aca­de­mic com­mu­nity for­ward

Tolonen approaches multidisciplinary work through digital humanities. Years of cooperation with computer scientist Leo Lahti (@antagomir) have opened his eyes to the range of methods that can be applied to humanities research.

 “The idea is not that a computer scientist just makes an application for a humanist researcher. Cooperation means that the issue is studied together from the beginning.”

Together with Leo Lahti and a number of other colleagues, Tolonen is currently working on a research project studying the development of public discourse and early modern information production in Europe. The project is set apart by the fact that all of its research material and the related code have been made openly available.

 “Ever since we’ve gotten the raw data and started processing them, we've let other researchers check out every single step we've taken."

This means that another researcher interested in the same topic can freely use the work done by Tolonen and his colleagues for his or her own purposes.

Opening the data is a point of pride for the group, and a deliberate, important part of their research.

 “It’s a really valuable thing that somebody’s using your stuff. Open science moves the entire academic community forward.”

One re­searcher de­vel­ops, every­one be­ne­fits

The open data from Tolonen’s project are stored and shared in GitHub, a service favoured by coders. Meanwhile, the development of MILDRED, the University of Helsinki’s project to generate a research infrastructure for data storage, analysis and sharing, is moving ahead at a rapid pace. Tolonen is the chair of the project's steering group.

 “MILDRED will help researchers find and use the University’s research data.”

And when one researcher is working on the data, others will benefit. The R programming language used in the coding is open source, meaning that it is based on its users developing it further. As the research progresses, its digital environment develops.

 “Nobody has to do the same thing twice.”

Open in­ter­na­tional eco­sys­tem

Opening research data to others fundamentally changes the way international research cooperation is conducted.

A researcher in Oxford who is interested in the same topic can use Tolonen’s open data just as easily as a colleague in Helsinki – without a formal cooperation agreement.

 “We will continue to cooperate formally, but at the same time, our entire project is based on a fully open international ecosystem where no cooperation agreements are necessary. Anyone who is interested is welcome to join in.”

And there has been a great deal of interest in the data and the project itself. At the moment, the same material is being studied in Oxford and Cambridge. Meanwhile, the Consortium of European Research Libraries has donated a significant amount of raw data to Tolonen after hearing about his vision.

 “Internationally, open science is just getting started. That’s why there’s so much interest in our project. Our work is unique in many ways.”

Tolonen is one of the primary organisers of the international Philosophy and History of Open Science conference, which will gather open data researchers to Helsinki in late November.

Life with big data

Openness is a huge opportunity for research. For Tolonen, his working with computers and cooperation with computer scientist Leo Lahti have been invaluable for his digital humanities research.

 “It’s actually possible to study material spanning a millennium.”

Of course, processing data is not completely without its inconveniences. For example, data clean-up is still a time sink. Using digital tools doesn’t mean freedom from all of the manual labour of research.

Even still, every challenge is worth it. The impact of the work can be more far-reaching than anyone can imagine.

When asked whether all humanities specialists should learn to code, Tolonen laughs.

He doesn’t want to turn humanists into coders, but he does recommend cooperating with them.

 “It’s important to maintain your own research identity, but it’s also important to keep working on your methods. Expanding my range of methods and cooperating across disciplines has led me to completely new kinds of questions."

Read more:

Learn about other uses of open data and open science on the University of Helsinki Open science website

Who Mikko To­lonen?


Mikko Tolonen (@mikko_tolonen), PhD, University of Helsinki.

Does what?

●    Professor of research on digital resources

●    Chair of the steering group of MILDRED

●    A main organiser of the #PHOS16 conference

●    Works for the National Library's Centre for Preservation and Digitisation in Mikkeli

●    Participates in the Helsinki Center for Digital Humanities (HELDIG) #helsinkiDH

Follow digital humanities #helsinkiDH social media activities from the University of Helsinki's some media wall ThinkWall.

On­go­ing open science pro­ject

Computational History and the Transformation of public discourse in Finland, 1640–1910.