Sense of Humerus

Emily Streetman: Anthropology Doctoral Student

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Value-added skills

Over the past twelve months, I participated in the Cultural Heritage Informatics (CHI) Graduate Fellowship through MATRIX at Michigan State University. The goal of the program in to increase scholarship in the digital humanities and for each fellow to create a product or project by the end.  There were five fellows: three wanted to create digital repositories for their dissertation materials and the other a tool using Twitter’s API. I fell closer in with the former, wanting to digitize methods commonly applied in my discipline.

Among the scholars in this group (a historian, a medical anthropologist, an archaeologist, a digital rhetorician, and me, a forensic anthropologist), forensic anthropology is the “hardest” or most “applied” science, though it is still housed in the College of Social Sciences at MSU. The idea behind the methods of biological profiling is to eliminate most of the interpretation that is the foundation of some other social sciences. Biological profiling is the estimation of age, sex, ancestry, and stature from human skeletal remains, usually in an effort to narrow down the search for a match to unidentified remains.

My colleagues are a very pad-and-pencil group. Some particularly well-funded labs have begun to explore the scientific potential of 3-dimensional scanners and other high-tech tools. For those of us who use the algebraic calculations or morphoscopic (visible to the naked eye) traits developed 40+ years ago, there’s no reason not to go digital, too. The older methods have been tested and shown to be reliable and often revised to increase or quantify their accuracy. They are solid, accurate, federally-admissible-as-evidence methods, and I don’t want to leave them behind just because I think a smartphone can help guide data collection.

East Fee Hall, Michigan State University, photo courtesy of Flickr user John M. Quick

With this in mind, I wanted to make a product that brought together the meat of the articles and books favored by top-notch labs like the MSU Forensic Anthropology Lab and the Joint POW/MIA Command Central Identification Lab (JPAC/CIL). In addition to this exercise, which forced me to become more familiar with the body of literature referenced most often in my field, I had to learn how to fashion it into a public face. This meant learning the basics of html, CSS, and tools like JQuery mobile (a free JavaScript library) to string the pieces together and make this body of material navigable (see my post on new tools). It meant banging my head against the wall when I couldn’t understand the most basic concepts (“What is to FTP?!?”) and a real sense of accomplishment when I was finally able to make anything work.

For the first time, I was surrounded by people who were hooked in to podcasts, blogs, Twitter and who had personal websites. The immediate benefits of learning about programming and the interwebs are obvious to me. I feel more capable of learning new digital things, including Photoshop and R Statistical Package, which were both thrown at me this summer. I’m holding out hope for long-term (read: getting a job) benefits as well. Special thanks and shout-outs to @adventuresnarch, @zenparty, @galarzaalex, @fayanar, and @captain_primate for being comrades in arms through this enterprise.