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NULab Spring Conference 2024 Recap

An image of the room where the NULab 2024 Spring Conference was held

The NULab’s seventh annual spring conference, “Digital Technologies for Community Collaborations,” began with Co-Director Moira Zellner making a land acknowledgement. Afterwards, she revealed that she originally planned on having all of the conference attendees participate in an icebreaker, but the energy in the room was so vibrant, with conversations already flourishing before the conference even started, she decided it wasn’t needed. Kellee Tsai—Dean and Distinguished Professor, College of Social Sciences and Humanities—delivered the conference’s opening remarks, highlighting Northeastern as “ahead of the curve” in digital humanities and technologies, and citing the NULab as a “unique gem.” 

The first panel of the day, “Civic Tech: Computing For Communities” was moderated by Carlos Sandoval Olascoaga, and featured phenomenal projects by Sahar Abi-Hassan, Alex Cline, Nabeel Gillani, Christopher Le Dantec, and Moira Zellner. Each project, though distinct, was directly concerned with the intersections between technology, processes, and communities. Abi-Hassan discussed modeling amicus brief signature networks to investigate connections among lobbying organizations, finding high interconnectivity among interest group hubs. Cline presented on sustainable computing and cloud servers to support digital humanities education for students and community members. Gillani spoke about the use of algorithmic programming to redraw schooling boundaries in Georgia; this work identifies ways to improve racial diversity within school districts while reducing commute times for students. Le Dantec discussed smart cities and civic technologies for integrating data to help and support the ambitions of communities. And finally, Zellner discussed participatory modeling, including how we can convene scientists, citizens, and policymakers in an interactive and iterative workshop process to come to mutually agreeable solutions. All together, the panel provided a nuanced set of perspectives and expertise on the ways in which technology is being and can be used to serve communities. 

The conference’s keynote speaker was Karilyn Crockett, Assistant Professor of Urban History, Public Policy & Planning at MIT, who spoke about her project “Hacking the Archive: The Quest for More Just Urban Futures, 1969-2069.” As the activist generation of the 1960s is reaching advanced age, we are now seeing many of the same struggles they fought for playing out in the streets yet again. Hacking the Archive aims to seize upon this moment in order to ensure a future of collective liberation that is steeped in the history of movements. It does so by exploring novel ways of analyzing past and present instances of activism, through the archive, that can inform those of the future. The project brings together activists of the past and present to build solutions to age-old struggles and, in doing so, imagine a more just future.

The second panel, moderated by NULab Co-Director K.J. Rawson, included presentations on the topic of “Digital Platforms to Reflect Communities” by Lisa Arellano, Dipa Desai, Halima Haruna, Mario Hernandez, Josh Lown, and Joy Zanghi. Arellano presented work on the Quist and Queer Pasts projects, which seek to broaden the field of queer history while making it more accessible, and foster collaborative relationships and community building. Desai and Haruna discussed community collaboration with the Reckonings Project. As part of this collaboration, they train junior coaches at Freedom House in the use of digital tools to support community-led historical preservation. Hernandez and Lown shared their work with the Community Innovation Lab which aims to preserve and create community spaces in urban environments. Lastly, Zanghi described her work as the project archivist for the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project supporting the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive. This archive preserves the memory of fatal violence inflicted on African Americans in former confederate states and helps enable reparative justice work. 

Dan Cohen—Dean of the Library, Vice Provost for Information Collaboration, and Professor of History—was introduced by K.J. Rawson to deliver the closing remarks for the conference. Cohen shared the exciting news of a new third-floor space for digital scholarship coming soon in Snell Library and a new first-floor collaboration space open to students and faculty of Northeastern, as well as individuals from other universities and the neighborhoods of Boston. The announcement of this new space poignantly punctuated the conference’s focus on community engagement with an action-oriented example of using technology both as community support and to create community. 

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