From Zoom conference to Vampire sessions: looking back on the first DHBenelux #GoesOnline

According to annual custom, we attended the yearly DH Benelux conference from 3-5 June 2020. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 7th edition of this event that was supposed to take place at the University of Leiden as a physical event was rescheduled to June 2-4 2021. Luckily several stakeholders took the initiative to organize a virtual alternative (DHBenelux 2020 #GoesOnline) in order to allow the DH community to present and discuss some of their latest research findings and to demonstrate tools and projects.

Now that we are a few months further into the pandemic we have gotten more or less used to participating in online calls, meetings and workshops. In the beginning of June 2020 when the online DH Benelux Conference took place, however, it was quite a challenge for the organizers to find ways to make meaningful interactions possible without actually being in the same room. Nevertheless, the organizers succeeded in their plan, making clever use of Zoom (and its breakout rooms) and an interesting and varied 3-day program was prepared, with the conference welcoming more than 150 registered participants.

During the first day, in the Late-riser Session moderated by our own Sally Chambers, our DARIAH colleague Erzsébet Tóth-Czifra demonstrated the use of the OpenMethods as a metablog where a collaborative knowledge hub for Digital Humanities tools and methods is built. After the (virtual) lunch – and a nap for some – among others, we were presented with a demonstration of the Open Data Kit (ODK) for mobile linguistic metadata entry. The Graveyard Session, chaired by our colleague Mike Kestemont, highlighted some tools making use of lexica and dictionaries, for example in the research of historical Dutch.

On day 2 the lateriser session focused on the combination of Digital Humanities and pedagogy (for instance, in DH Master programmes or with aggregators such as DARIAH Campus). The second After Lunch Nap and Graveyard sessions provided more interesting talks, from advances in Digital Music Iconography to using signing (with pose estimation) as input for Sign Language Dictionary Search.

Day 3 offered a variety of topics: Mike Kestemont & Folgert Karsdorp kicked off with their amazing estimation of the loss of Medieval texts using methods from ecodiversity, after lunch many very interesting insights about OCR and HTR were shared with the Zoom audience. Also on this final day Sara Tonelli gave a very keynote lecture on the today more than ever relevant issue of Abusive language detection and more specific on where we are and what we still need to do. Finally, during the Graveyard session (chaired by another CLARIAH-VL colleague, Julie Birkholz, the participants enjoyed some state-of-the-art Linked Open Data tools and best practices and showed their interest once again by asking tons of questions – as throughout the whole conference, even in breakout rooms during the breaks – and helping the presenters with useful suggestions.

At a physical conference the golden rule is ‘no work without pleasure’ and normally we would conclude each day in a more informal way that may or may not be accompanied by something to drink or eat. Finding an alternative for this part of the conference was probably even harder than for the more formal part. Nevertheless the organizers tried and came up with the idea of so-called Vampire Sessions were intended as the ‘social event’ for the conference. Like true vampires we came together when the sun went down during ‘bar-like’ sessions with a DH Theme, each day organised by another country. The Netherlands ended day 1 with a very thoroughly enjoyed combination of work and pleasure: the ‘DHBenelux Drunkenness Ontology’ proved to be only 1 of the many ways to create a proper DH ‘Intoxication Ontology’. Badges and customized Zoom backgrounds were rewarded for all the participant’s efforts and well earned at the end of an interactive event. On the second day our colleagues from Luxemburg had created a lively and above all, very musical, quiz to test everyone’s knowledge. From metal songs to proper classics, all participant’s heads were buzzing after this late night session. The cherry to the cake was the final vampire session in which our Belgian team organized an actual DH quiz. From CLARIAH-VL – no, we didn’t ask about the acronym – to questions about long-forgotten DH heroes, in the end everyone was a winner (although we did hand out a few prizes to the best contestants).

If this DHBenelux 2020 #GoesOnline event demonstrated one thing, it’s that the DH community in our respective countries are more than capable of adapting to the challenging times we’re experiencing at the moment. Even a global pandemic cannot prevent us from effectively sharing our DH research, helping out each other and still finding ways to participate interactively in social events from behind a computer screen. Let’s hope that next year we will have the opportunity to meet up again in person (and in beautiful Leiden) for DHBenelux 2021, but if not, we will definitely learn from all the very good – and some a little less good – experiences of this first DHBenelux online event!

Tom Gheldof

Tom Gheldof is the day-to-day coordinator for DARIAH-BE/CLARIAH-VL at KU Leuven's Faculty of Arts...

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