The role of Digital Humanities in a natural disaster

As part of the New Directions in the Digital Humanities series this week we had a very inspiring presentation from Dr Paul Millar, Associate Professor and Head of the Department of English, Cinema and Digital Humanities, the University of Canterbury (NZ). The talk focused on the CEISMIC project, with which Millar and his team intended to 'crowdsource' a digital resource to preserve the record of the earthquakes’ impacts, document the long-term process of recovery, and discover virtual solutions to issues of profound heritage loss. (p.s.: this entry was cross posted on the DhWip blog)

Screen Shot 2012 05 24 at 15 11 40

In the months since a 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit New Zealand’s Canterbury province in September 2010, the region has experience over ten thousand aftershocks, 430 above magnitude 4.0. The most devastating aftershock, a 6.2 earthquake under the centre of Christchurch on 22 February 2011, had one of the highest peak ground acceleration rates ever recorded. This event claimed 185 lives, damaged 80% of the central city beyond repair, and forced the abandonment of 6,000 homes. It was the third costliest insurance event in history.

As part of the project, a number of inspiring community-oriented digital resources have been made available, including:

  • Quakestories it allows anyone to share stories and photos of the Canterbury earthquakes.. e.g. "Shelves were crashing to the ground and books spewing everywhere. Everyone was bent over and.. "
  • Quakestudies a digital archive, built to store all types of content related to the Canterbury earthquakes. It has been developed with companies, government organisations, websites and individuals, to help them to preserve their content. The resource will be made available in the coming weeks..
  • Whenmyhomehook a website dedicated to helping Canterbury School children overcome the recent earthquake by providing a plaform where they can openly share their personal earthquake stories.

In particular, Quakestudies is going to become a massive federated archive, containing content sourced from the research community and peak agencies involved with the earthquakes. All of this information will be "looked after in perpetuity and be available to approved researchers either now or in future years". As it is being indexed using a number of approaches (including semantic web technologies too, says Millard) it'll make available a number of exploratory pathways into these materials - many of them it is not possible to foresee.

This is certainly an inspiring example of the employment of digital technologies to support a large number of people; in particular, it is remarkable how the entire initiative was promoted and coordinated by a team of dedicated people at the University of Canterbury that has managed to become a key reference point for the community in such a difficult time.

From DDH, we certainly want to send our best wishes to the project, and we're looking forward to using Quakestudies!

Related resources

Cite this blog post:

Michele Pasin. The role of Digital Humanities in a natural disaster. Blog post on Published on May 24, 2012.

Comments via Github:

See also:


paper  Moving EMLoT towards the web of data: an approach to the representation of humanities citations based on role theory and formal ontology

New Technologies in Medieval and Renaissance Studies, (forthcoming). (part of the 'Envisioning REED in the Digital Age' collection)

paper  Structuring that which cannot be structured: A role for formal models in representing aspects of Medieval Scotland

New Perspectives on Medieval Scotland: 1093-1286, Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell and Brewer, Studies in Celtic History Series, Aug 2013.


paper  Annotation and Ontology in most Humanities research: accommodating a more informal interpretation context

NeDiMaH workshop on ontology based annotation, held in conjunction with Digital Humanities 2012, Hamburg, Germany, Jul 2012.


paper  Laying the Conceptual Foundations for Data Integration in the Humanities

Proc. of the Digital Humanities Conference (DH09), Maryland, USA, Jun 2009. pp. 211-215


paper  Paving the way towards the e-humanities: a Semantic Web approach to support the learning of philosophy

Poster paper presented at the 3rd European Semantic Web Conference (ESWC-06), Budva, Montenegro, Jun 2006.