Workbook for Introduction to Digital Humanities: A-State

Aimie Michelle's Tool Review

HEURIST (officially known as the Heurist Academic Knowledge Management System Vsn 4) is a free database management program specifically developed for the Humanities by the University of Sydney under the direction of Dr. Ian Johnson from 2005-2013 [1].  Its website, operated at, describes the tool as an "Open Source collaborative web database software for recording and publishing richly interlinked research data integrated with web bookmarking, bibliographic functions, flexible data import, XML and archive output, reporting and XSL transforms, network visualisation, mapping and timelines" [2].  For the novice digital humanities developer, much of that statement may be confusing or entirely opaque, but Heurist provides an a easy "five minute database" option that registers an account, names and creates a new database, and automatically loads an easy to use and richly informative tutorial [3]. The website features a showcase of existing digital humanities projects demonstrating the versatility and beauty of the Heurist program, helping new users imagine how Heurist can serve - and even improve - their project designs.

I am currently starting a project that requires compiling a database of the Arkansas communities which had local chapters of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and creating an interactive map that will serve as the structure for gathering and sharing oral histories about union members. I need a platform which organize and present data, and easily allow it to grow and expand over time.  I will be using text, audio, and video components to not only gather information about the locals, but help people to visualize and understand the complicated relationships locals had with their home communities and the national STFU organization.  I also want a database that can be accessed via the internet as I add information onsite while working at STFU-related archives, or invite and train community museums and other researchers to add to the data as they uncover new information. Having experienced problems in previous projects with databases becoming difficult to access due to being housed on one main computer (or worse, becoming duplicated on several computers with inconsistent management), I knew it would be important to have an interface which allowed easy data entry and integration into the ongoing collection.

Initially, I examined the crowd-sourced data enrichment and analysis tool Ushahidi Platform, which I found appealing as an open source tool allowing easy information collection and mapping using smartphones.  The platform was originally developed as a grant-funded humanitarian crisis response digital tool by the nonprofit tech company Ushahidi Inc., designed to rely on crowd-sourcing as individuals using their personal devices to report incidences or information that would be quickly added to a map and published [4].  While I appreciated Ushahidi’s activist orientation, such as naming new projects “deployments,”  I found the website’s language and setup process too confusing, especially since much of the digital terminology used is itself new to me.

Though it was clear that the Ushahidi Platform had several strengths and a wide range of potential applications beyond its original focus - which could include the restoration of suppressed local histories in an interesting way! - I was also concerned about the stability and long range development of the tool.  As Ushahidi developer Patrick Philippe Meier explains, “Ushahidi the platform” is a product in development by “Ushahidi the organization,” which is a company supporting humanitarian projects, but not a humanitarian organization in itself - thus, partnerships are a matter of fulfilling grant requirements to "diversify the company", which could easily move on to new projects if the grant ends [5]. In the end, I chose Heurist based on the involvement of Digital Humanities practitioners in its development and its extensive institutional support, which suggested that there would be a larger user community working with projects similar to my own, such as the featured project Digital Harlem.   Heurist is at a stable point of development, well-funded, and promises ongoing support for the many institutional partners who have built significant projects using the platform.

The website provides a “one-stop shop for everything Heurist,” organized by pages featuring introductory videos from Digital Humanities practitioners, examples of projects, and learning resources including as a detailed tutorial, online workshops, and a FAQ section [6].   There are also individual pages for communicating with the Heurist community, a recently updated blog explaining new features and changes, and a page for developers encouraging open source collaboration, which includes information about the Heurist code and tips for its modification.  Despite the sophistication of the tool, I was able to create my new database in a matter of minutes, and was directed by the tutorial to search through the list of templates for the interface that would best fit my work. I was immediately able to start adding data with the tools guiding me through the process.  While I am still learning where the data goes from there and how to export and publish it, I am confident that the Heurist network will provide the knowledge and guidance necessary for my project to become far more than a mere map of places and names. If there are any limitations of the tool, I do not yet have the necessary expertise to find and explain them; however, the encouragement Heurist offers for troubleshooting problems assures me that I will have a dedicated community of experts willing to help me add my project to their collection of outstanding digital humanities research.

Sources used:
[1] "History and Background",, accessed January 29,
[2] "Heurist Academic Knowledge Management System Vsn 4",, accessed January 27,
[3] "Create five-minute database (free service)",, accessed January 28,
[4] Patrick Philippe Meier, "Think You Know What Ushahidi Is? Think Again" iRevolutions (blog), June 16, 2010,
[5] Ibid.
[6] "Heurist Academic Knowledge Management System Vsn 4",

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