In Praise of Small Projects

Phrases like “disruptive technology” and “game changer” have become common if uncomfortable parts of my professional vocabulary in the past couple of years. In my role as digital scholarship coordinator, I am constantly trying to look down the road and imagine what both the technological and the academic landscapes will look like in 5, 10, 20 years. As a result, I am well aware of the necessity of visionary thinking to insure that all the moving parts work together to encourage truly revolutionary work and support the scholarly mission of the University.

At the same time, I am also all too familiar with the paralysis that can set in if you wait to make sure everything is lined up or second guess every little piece of the puzzle because so much is at stake. Is a project sustainable? Is it strategic? These are important questions but they can be difficult (or impossible) to answer in a constantly changing and unstable academic environment.

Focusing on the long-game is important but it can be really unsatisfying. If everything you are doing is going to take years to pay-off, maintaining motivation will be a real challenge. In the past year – which has definitely been full of long-range, strategic planning for me – I have been consistently re-inspired by small-scale projects that come into the world with little-to-no funding and minimal scheduling. They are a reminder that so much of this disruptive technology is actually relatively easy to use and that changing the game does not always require a grant, a task-force and a Service Level Agreement.

For example, DiSC started fall semester off with the Tweeting #OWS project. In October of 2011, our sorely missed manager of software development, Scott Turnbull (@streamweaver), wrote a script to harvest tweets related to the Occupy Wall Street movement. Because he knew what he was doing, this was not a huge investment in time for him and he had something up and running in a day or two. About a year later, I challenged the DiSC graduate Fellows (Sarita Alami, Moya Bailey and Katie Rawson) to work with Jay Varner, Digital Scholarship Solutions Analyst, “do something” with the harvest in time for the one year anniversary of the beginning of the movement. They had no money, a little server space and about two weeks to make something happen. They did, and it was amazing. Using free tools and their own savvy, they produced some really impressive maps and charts. Furthermore, we all had a really valuable experience working as a team.

Another example of a small project from last semester is the Atlanta Map website. DiSC is currently working on a very ambitious project to build a geocoder for an historic map of Atlanta. Eventually, this tool will allow us to create something like a Google Map of historic Atlanta and will let us visually represent the demographic and social information both spatially and temporally. This is an ongoing project that will take years. In the meantime, we were able to place the maps online to let people start playing with them. Even without the geocoder’s functionality we are working on, the images are already generating interest in what we are doing.

In the coming year, I am really looking forward to seeing some major projects and initiatives come into being. I am also genuinely excited by the scale and ambition of the strategic planning Emory is undertaking and am honored to be a part of those conversations. Amidst these dramatic and complex maneuvers, I am also committed to making room for small projects. They get people excited, spark their imaginations and let us balance the planing with a little building too.

Do you have a favorite small project? Tell me about it in the comments.

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