The AIRLab at the Five College Digital Humanities Kick-Off Event

Check us—and our fellow projects—out!

On September 26th, 2014 in the Frost Library at Amherst College, Five College Digital Humanities hosted a Kick-Off Event for its funded projects and educational programs. Jon Caris, one of our PIs, gave a lightning talk that kicked off the event with aplomb. Check it out above!

Privacy and Surveillance & The Politics of the Skies, Pt. 2: 29 July, 2014

Part two of a series of meetings on Privacy, Surveillance, and the Sociopolitics of Drones and the Skies.

This Month in Drones

From Jon Caris and the working group:

  • The largest item was a prominent letter to the FAA written by Paul Voss, member of the working group and engineering professor at Smith College, cosigned by a number of faculty members from colleges and universities across the nation. The letter argued against the FAA’s current rulings on drones as unnecessarily restrictive towards academic institutions. More information is available about Voss’s letter here, and the working group took time to consider the implications for their own work and the AIRLab. The thrust of Voss’s letter, which the working group emphatically supports, was arguing for “attaching the person to the drone,” and making it clear that drones have utility to on-campus research. In particular, we want to extend this to include humanistic and creative practices as well as traditional STEM applications.
  • Drone news is coming fast and frequently these days, and many of the pieces are collected over on our Corpus page. In particular, we wanted to highlight an instance of a drone being flown around the Space Needle in Seattle by an Amazon employee. It was initially reported that the drone crashed into the Space Needle, but was later found not to be true.

Meeting notes

  • Fraser Stables, assistant professor of art at Smith College, talked about the role of regulation and institutional review in artistic practice, and how we need to be mindful of these practices when thinking through making art with drones. How do institutional review boards sometimes misunderstand how art practice functions, and how can we imagine using art practice as a framework for teaching with and about drones?
  • Would the AIRLab be interested in sponsoring a small microgrant for Five College artists interested in doing work with or about drones?
  • The question of permits and licensing emerged again, this time with regards to the projects themselves, rather than operators. The group agreed it could be more useful to license a project to use drones in a particular way, rather than individual operators—just as there are regulations about how to take photographs at archaeological sites, for instance.
  • Jeffrey Moro and Stables spoke briefly about the aesthetics of drone-captured footage. Stables argued that at this stage in the game, any art made with drones is more interesting or provocative because of the means of production, and that we don’t yet have an aesthetic framework through which to discuss the footage as reading anything other than questions of privacy, surveillance, borders, or transgression.
  • Talked about what kinds of sensors we’d like to experiment with—and how those sensors extend our abilities to sense and perceive in different ways, and how those sense extensions potentially infringe on others’ privacy. In particular, we mentioned LIDAR, audio capture, olfactory sensors, and also using drones to project information outwards as well as capturing information (projector drones indoors, for instance).
  • Andy Anderson and Jon Caris brought up built-in geofencing as a way for institutions to police and restrict drone use to proper locations. We also imagined a system by which property owners could opt in to allowing drones on their properties, and then submitting those GIS coordinates to a database.
  • Eric Poehler taught us the fun phrase “exoschematic adaptation”—thinking of drones as a real-time avatar than can access space we’re physically incapable of accessing, and in that way, imagining drones from an almost evolutionary or anthropological standpoint.
  • We also touched on the necessity of a data management plan: where might all of the raw data captured, specifically from AIRLab drones, go? What kinds of protocols are we going to need to have in place about the long-term storage, management, and possible deletion of the data? Poehler suggested that we need an automated system in which any data that could not be public is flagged for automatic deletion—we won’t keep anything on our servers that we couldn’t make public.
  • We then started to think about these questions in relationship to the AIRLab as a resource. If we imagine the AIRLab as the drone equivalent of, say, a writing center, then we can more effectively imagine the Lab as an in-house consultancy rather than running the projects themselves. In that way, we can put the onus of having a concrete data management plan on individual projects that use the AIRLab—which providing ample regulation and coaching.


Readings for this meeting were the same as the last.

Privacy and Surveillance & The Politics of the Skies, Pt. 1: 8 July, 2014

Attentive readers will remember that these two topics, “Privacy and Surveillance,” and “The Politics of Aviation” were originally scheduled to be two separate meetings. However, as we progressed in our discussion, we realized that the two topics are inextricably bound together, and as we thought through how to answer our questions responsible, we decided that it was impractical—or even irresponsible—to delineate between the two. So: the next two posts will be dedicated to both topics in equal measure. They’ll also be a bit more bullet-point-y!

This Month in Drones

We began this meeting with a news update on drones (we’re calling it This Month in Drones) from PI Jon Caris. Important news included:

Meeting Notes

  • What makes drones terrifying, annoying, or both? Setting aside the surveillance question, Marisa Parham suggested that there are a set of aesthetic arguments against drones—they’re too loud, they’re disruptive, they’re ugly to look at—that might eventually diminish as the technology evolves. Jon Caris pointed out a study that suggests that when drones are dressed up to look like fairies, people find them less intimidating. The group was intrigued, but observed that diminishing these aesthetic concerns do little to assuage the visceral repulsion one might have towards being surveilled.
  • How, then, to regulate drones? Eric Poehler observed that licensing initially seems appealing, but the group agreed that in the long run, it essentially would pit one set of individual rights against another.
  • One of the goals the group identified: producing a useful narrative for the public on how to define personal and private space when dealing with drones, and how to be mindful, as an operator, of those boundaries.
  • On the question of surveillance, Marisa Parham pointed out that, when considering the horrifying effect surveillance has on populations, that the ability to observe or the condition of being observed is not technologically determined—for instance, Parham spoke of growing up in poor, predominantly black communities with the knowledge that everyone was able to see, hear, and know each other’s business, and the horror that produces. In that regard, we need to perhaps have a broad view of what constitutes “technology,” while being aware of how drones operate as a focal point for broader issues (always sociopolitically determined and demarcated) around what populations are subject to surveillance, and what populations have the capacity to more easily surveil.
  • In this way, drones have the capacity to instrumentalize angst: their emotional impact can exist even without their formal instantiation.
  • Is democratizing a technology inherently a good thing? Do we have a responsibility to make drones available to the widest possible audience? An unresolved question.
  • Mariel Nyröp observed that drones operate far differently in urban and rural spaces, and that we need to be aware of how questions of property rights and visibility play out differently in both. The archetypal idea of a farmer using drones to monitor crops bears little resemblance to how drones could get operated in dense cities. Moreover, people in cities are less likely to own their own property, or to have their property stacked on top of other properties. How do we think through the legal questions of airspace when multiple properties share the same verticality?
  • The group proposed making safety and privacy cards to share with AIRLab participants, to make it easy to see basic do’s and don’ts of drone operation.
  • The meeting closed with a short presentation from Paul Voss, who discussed some of the dominant economic and political forces working in the drone industry right now, and current timelines for FAA rulings related to commercial drone operation.


Introduction to the AIRLab: 17 June, 2014

Welcome to the AIRLab Process Blog! I’m Jeffrey Moro, 5CollDH Post-Bac and one of three intrepid PIs for the AIRLab. In this blog, you’ll find write-ups of each of our working group meetings, as well as other reflective output as we develop the AIRLab. Given that our meetings are necessarily discursive, and our working group represents a wide variety of viewpoints, I will try to keep notes as objective and reported as possible—while making sure they’re not just bullet-pointed lists! If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to drop us a line over at the People page.

Meeting Notes

We met in Bass 105, future site of the AIRLab. There’s a lot of work to do to transform this space, but we’re excited to help it along once the fall semester starts up. We’ll be clearing most of the tables and work spaces out and off to the sides of the room so that we can set up long work tables through the center of the space. We’re particularly excited about the large, bright windows that line the far wall, and which provide an impressive view of one of Smith College’s quads.

We spent most of this first meeting getting ourselves oriented for the summer to come. We’re meeting four times over the next three months, and each of our meetings has a particular theme:

  • Introduction to the AIRLab (June 17th, 2014): An introduction to the project, to the current landscape of drones, and imagining future possibilities and projects that could emerge from the AIRLab.
  • Privacy and Surveillance (July 8th, 2014): Why do drones exacerbate concerns over privacy? How do current practitioners, from hobbyists to corporations to governments, use drones to reconfigure our spatial boundaries and relationships? How can we develop responsible practices for drone use?
  • The Politics of Aviation and Public Space (July 29th, 2014): Who owns the sky? What is a person’s right to airspace, and how is the sky public or private in equal measure? How are these issues complicated by larger socioeconomic conditions restricting or augmenting certain populations’ rights to air ownership? And what are the responsibilities and stakes of academic within these frameworks?
  • Engaging the AIRLab (August 26th, 2014): How might professors and staff members use the AIRLab in their research and pedagogy? How can we use drones to teach other aspects of creative engineering? How would we want to stock the AIRLab and run its programming?

We closed our meeting with a general discussion of some of the aspirations and concerns we had for the program as a whole, as well as outlining the technological systems (like this very website!) that we will use to collocate our research and make it public.


Each AIRLab meeting has associated readings that frame our discussion. For our first meeting, we looked at:

How we use Rebelmouse

This is a cross-post from Sandbox, the Five College Digital Humanities blog. Over there, the 5CollDH post-bacs write on a number of DH topics, including interesting tools they come across. I wrote about Rebelmouse over there, and used AIRLab as a key example.

Occasionally, my fellow post-bacs and I will write blog posts highlighting different tools that we use in our work with Five College Digital Humanities. There’s no want for sites all over the Internet that offer similar information, many of which are able to go far more in depth than we have space for here in the Sandbox. Rather than offering yet another full-throated defense (or condemnation, as the preferences may be) of Zotero, Omeka, or any of the more common academic digital tools, we’d like to do something a little different.

In these posts, collected under the Tools tag, you’ll find small, free, easy to use tools that surprise, interest, or challenge us. You’ll also get a personal perspective from the author on what it’s like to use the tool in real work, not just in copy-pasted press releases. Of course, take every recommendation with a grain of salt, and try out the tool to see if it’s right for you!

What’s Rebelmouse?

I’m a digital pack rat. Between Twitter (ughhhhhh, Twitter), RSS feeds, newsletters, word of mouth, and (god forbid) actual book, I have too much to read, too much to make sense of—in short, what I’m trying to tell you is that I’m just like everyone else working in academia. So let’s cut the pity-party short and skip to the good stuff—a tool called Rebelmouse that we use in 5CollDH to help us curate links, articles, and images for research programs and public outreach.

Okay, before I get in too deep, I want to get some first impressions out of the way. Go take a look at Rebelmouse’s main page. Have you taken a look? Did you look at icons? Their testimonials? Was it more than a little inscrutable? Did it look a little like a marketing fever dream? Let’s get this out of the way: Rebelmouse isn’t selling itself to academia. It’s too flashy and slick: it’s the kind of site that corners you at a party and can’t wait to tell you how it’s been Leveraging Its Content To Convert Clicks Into Mindshare. Why do I want to be a Rebel? Where, you ask, are the Mice? In not too many words, it looks like the enemy.

But this is one of those cases in which the whiz-bang exterior actually does mask something interesting and flexible underneath. Rebelmouse is essentially a content aggregator. You can direct social media accounts to it, add RSS feeds, post individual links, and then go back and rearrange and re-edit the cards to say what you what you want them to say. There a handful of design options and layouts and ample support for whatever kind of media you’d like to throw its way. In short, it’s a simple way to turn that aforementioned folder of links into something visually engaging and easy to digest—a portal, if you will, through which visitors to your site can see, really quickly, what you’ve been reading, viewing, and thinking about across the Internet.

For example! I run a 5CollDH program called AIRLab (Aerial Innovation and Robotics Lab), which has a web site right over here. The elevator pitch is: we’re going to build a lab at Smith College dedicated to critically engaging with drones in the academy— how to use them in our research, how to do research on them, and how academia can advise and influence the policies on drones that are shaping our political and economic futures. Over the summer, we have a working group that’s meeting and thinking through these critical issues, and we’re collecting interesting articles, images, and art pieces that we find on the Internet.

Over on our Corpus page, you can see an embedded Rebelmouse page with all of these aforementioned articles and pages. This is how we’re making our research process transparent and public—by sharing our raw materials.

AIRLab Rebelmouse

Want to take a look at the backend? Let’s take a look at the backend:

Rebelmouse Content Backend

This is where I can add feeds of things. Rebelmouse handles most social media services natively, and anything else can go in as an RSS feed. The social media support is Rebelmouse’s bread and butter, but for anything else—like, say, that collection of links in your Bookmark folder, or, more likely, a cascade of open tabs—you can use an easy-to-install bookmarket to add individual pages on the fly. It’s exactly the same as browser buttons that save articles to Pinterest, Pocket, or Evernote. It admittedly takes time, but it forces me to consider each article separately, and gives me more power and intention over the curation of my Rebelmouse itself.

AIRLab Design Backend

Over on the design side, I can choose from a selection of layouts and fonts. If you’re handy with CSS, there’s also support for custom themes, though I’ve generally found that the options provided get most of the job done, especially given that most of your page’s design sensibility will come from the photos and videos you attach to each card.

Okay, so I can curate stuff. Is there anything else I can do?

But of course!

On this very site, we use Rebelmouse to power our Explore page. It collects our social media feeds and presents them in a more visually engaging (and embeddable!) way.

You can also use Rebelmouse to track particular tags on Twitter, which makes it great for highlighting conference chatter. Below is a Rebelmouse page built out of tweets from a NERCOMP conference at which I spoke last April. In this way, Rebelmouse can function a lot like Storify, but with a bit more of an emphasis on images and non-linearity.

emerginDH Rebelmouse

That non-linearity is admittedly where Rebelmouse struggles. It can be difficult to pick individual thoughts of the crowd, and the pages often end up giving more of a general impression than emphasizing specifics. Still! It’s an interesting start, and couldn’t be easier to use.

Creative design from the South

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