The engine that started Project Bamboo

In the mid-2000s, the idea of cyberinfrastructure was starting to take hold in the sciences and a number of people, myself included, started asking how we might be able to apply the concepts behind shared infrastructure for scholarship, research, and teaching to domains such as the humanities.

My interest in this particular area stemmed from experience with a number of humanities projects over the years (including several at the University of Chicago as well as the University of Manchester and the British Library), as well as a personal interest in grid and utility computing for educational applications (which now more aligns with the concepts behind cloud computing) that flowed back to a prospectus I drafted for the CIC back in 1999 entitled, “Scalable Distributed Simulation Framework for Instruction.” Drawing from those experiences, I started to piece together a few things that would inspire me to drive ahead with Bamboo:

  1. at least 2/3 of the time spent on typical humanities technology projects was spent on developing the technology rather than focusing on the scholarship,
  2. many of the projects centered on either “yet another database” or “yet another website,” and
  3. all too often the technologies that were ultimately created for the projects in question were developed before, but for different contexts, thus “reinventing the wheel.”

As a person whose campus role had been to bridge academic needs with what was possible using scalable and adaptable technologies, I could only respond with one question, “there’s got to be a better way.”

A chance encounter at the 2006 Seminars on Academic Computing ignited the engine that was to become Project Bamboo. I happened to attend a birds-of-a-feather session led by Chris Mackie, former Associate Program Officer at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and we started talking about the question of shared technology in scholarship. We kicked around a number of ideas, shared some thoughts, and started the engine turning.

Later that year, I received a request from the University of California, Berkeley, to analyze data it had gathered regarding the intersection of scholarly collaboration with Web 2.0 technology. The results were presented within the Collaborative Tools Workshop at the January 2007 Common Solutions Group (CSG) meeting hosted by USC. That effort — in fact, that workshop — connected me with Berkeley, and pulled together the players that would ultimately drive Bamboo’s efforts forward.

Jumping past the details, what we learned at the 50,000 foot level those years ago was that researchers, educators, and students were adopting more shared, cloud-based tools and components than we had ever witnessed before. We were, as technologists, in the midst of a paradigm shift where scholars were becoming less desirous of centrally-provided technologies and services, and more open to adopting (and dependent on) tools they could individually find, remix, and mash together from across the Web. For more common needs around say, social networking and media, this was fine, but for focused research needs the remix model didn’t really exist in 2006. Scholarly tools and data were still largely locked up in proprietary systems and closed databases.

Months passed and after presenting at Internet2’s 2007 Advanced CAMP on secure collaboration, Chris Mackie pulled me aside and encouraged me to get in touch with Berkeley as they were thinking along similar lines with regard to collaboration and shared technology in scholarship. A few emails and a couple of months later, Kaylea Champion, who headed up Chicago’s scholarly technology efforts, and I flew to Berkeley for a two-day meeting to explore the possibility of creating a shared technology project for the humanities. On the flight back from San Francisco, I came up with what has coalesced into the conceptual vision behind the project:

In the natural world, bamboo is a highly flexible organic material that serves multiple purposes: it can live as a single stalk on a desk or grow quickly into renewable forests; be used for constructing buildings or decorating them; become as strong as hardwood or as flexible as cloth; and can be lashed together to keep water out as in a boat or transport water as in a pipe. We envision our approach for arts and humanities digital services to be similar: configurable, flexible, sustainable, and reliable.

hence the name, Bamboo.

By the end of September Chicago and Berkeley had drafted a proposal for a technology development project. At that point, the Foundation asked us to step back and rather than dive into a full “build it and they will come” effort, rethink our work and turn it into a community-driven technology planning project. We did, submitted the proposal in January 2008, and received funding for the Bamboo Planning Project in March of that year.