For over a year metaLAB and Zeega have been two of many partners in and outside of Japan working with Harvard’s Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies (RIJS) to build the Digital Archive of Japan’s 2011 Disasters. Other partners in this effort, each with their own complementary projects centered on the unprecedented cascade of disasters of March 2011, include the National Diet Library, Yahoo! Japan, Internet Archive, Harvard’s Center for Geographic Analysis (CGA), Tohuku University, Sendai Mediatheque, saveMLAK, All311, and several others. From the beginning a core mission of the project has been to index, preserve and make widely accessible the digital records of the events and their aftermath. Just as importantly the project has aimed to break new ground in crisis archiving by building what we think of as a networked, participatory archive: in addition to items added by RIJS, the content of the archive consists of items drawn from the online repositories of content partners (several of them listed above) through public APIs, and these items are accessible through a Zeega-powered platform that gives users the means to engage the archive as an active public space of collaboration and shared memory.
On July 2nd, at the National Diet Library in Tokyo, two of our friends at Zeega, James Burns and Luís Filipe Brandão, joined several members of the Reischauer Institute to unveil the public beta release of the archive. Now, through the power of this custom implementation of the Zeega Engine, anyone can browse, annotate and visualize the 884,669 items (current) indexed by the archive; they can also use these items to build and share collections. Throughout the rest of 2012 and into 2013, the partners will work to increase the content of the archive, and Zeega and metaLAB will work with RIJS and CGA to further expand its capabilities, particularly in the areas of mapping and collection building.
Over the past week, in addition to reflecting on the level of effort of so many dedicated people over the past year, I have been marveling that now the platform can speak for itself. And yet, fittingly, I’ve found that the last week has also re-routed my attention right back to the complexity and enduring impact of the disasters themselves. On Thursday the Japanese parliament released an extremely critical report on the nuclear accident at Fukushima in which the chairman of the investigatory committee calls the accident “a profoundly man-made disaster.” The very same day two rather different stories also made the news: the first reactor was restarted the since the earthquake and, remarkably, a group of high school students from Fukushima and Kabul took time to hold a web conference (via Google Hangout) on everything from bravery and solidarity to foods they like.
I find myself trying to get a grip on how the propositions and questions woven into this beta version of the archive can intersect with news and events like these. How can user-authored collections—like Fukushima and the Food Supply by Reischauer’s Eric Dinmore—afford perspectives otherwise not available through conventional information outlets? How can digital archives meaningfully, even counter-intuitively, return us to the actual lived reality of these events? How can the integration of different types of data and media contribute to re-wiring our thinking on research and teaching connected to events with unprecedented digital records? How will users surprise us with how they use these new opportunities for immersive storytelling and multimedia argumentation? If an event of similar proportions unfolded today, how could the framework and vision of this archive be taken up and to what new ends?
In the coming year as the archive grows some answers and far more questions will emerge. We are fortunate that we will have the opportunity to engage them directly and from the perspective of experimental pedagogy; through the support of a grant from the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching we will develop research and teaching tools centered on the collections feature and more than likely co-host an archive-centered seminar with the Reischauer Institute. Meanwhile RIJS will continue to coordinate workshops and seminars through the support of a grant from the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership. Together we will continue to ask what is at stake in digitally-driven engagement with these events and our efforts to remember and learn from them.