Institute News

Using Stories as Data and Data to Tell Stories

By Steve Kay

We open newspapers every day and read about atrocities being committed all over the world. We see graphic images, read the stories—and, for many of us, go back to our busy lives.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  

How humans can so brutally terrorize other humans is, thankfully, unfathomable to most people.  Yet it happens.  It has always happened, and—without sweeping societal changes—it will continue to happen.

But imagine if we could anticipate where the next major genocide was going to occur and stop it before even one person died?  What tools would we need to be so predictive and, quite frankly, clairvoyant? 

I firmly believe that the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive holds many keys to unlocking the enigmatic conditions that have led to genocides throughout history. Here at USC, we have a database of people’s experiences and emotions under the worst possible circumstances throughout the last hundred years. 

While the field of digital humanities is often overlooked in discussions of big data, the Visual History Archive is a beautiful example of how we can use an extremely large database to learn, teach, and heal.

With nearly 52,000 testimonies from genocide survivors—ranging from the Holocaust and World War II Europe and Cambodia to Armenia and Rwanda—the Visual History Archive shows how digital technology can meld with humanitarian inquiry to address some of society’s most complicated issues. The Visual History Archive is both user-friendly—all 1.2 million names are easily searchable—and societally relevant. It is a stellar model of how big data can serve both fifth graders—who have the opportunity to learn about the Holocaust by hearing firsthand accounts—and neuroscientists, who can use it as a database to help unlock enigmatic brain function.

For me, one of the most profoundly inspirational uses of the Visual History Archive is that of Glenn Fox. As a doctoral student, Fox forged a partnership between USC Dornsife’s Brain and Creativity Institute and the USC Shoah Foundation to conduct the first study on gratitude by using both functional brain imaging and recorded testimonies of Holocaust survivors.

After watching hours of footage, Fox and his team collected a number of scenarios that would elicit feelings of gratitude, and read them to subjects who were connected to brain scanners. Using these findings, Fox is making breakthroughs in our understanding of human behavior and emotion—a concept that spans almost every field and aspect of human experience.

Going forward, I believe that all researchers will need to be similarly well rounded. I envision the availability of large databases pushing scholars to think creatively about how they both gather and use data—and that includes students studying English, philosophy, history, physics, and all other concentrations.  Nobody is exempt from learning to collect and harness data if he or she wants to make lasting societal changes.

In 2013, the University of Southern California launched a 10-year Initiative in Informatics and Digital Knowledge, with USC Dornsife at the forefront of the effort, which emphasizes such areas of inquiry as the quantitative social sciences. In 2014, USC Dornsife has taken center stage in organizing a five-year Digital Humanities Program supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The program will focus on training graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in digital technology, expanding publicly available digital archives, and implementing public programs designed to explore aspects of art and literature in the digital humanities.

When I reflect upon the importance of this work, the USC Shoah Foundation is always the first example that comes to mind. Why? Because I can describe powerful images of young students learning about the Holocaust by hearing firsthand accounts. I can recount the brilliant discussions I’ve heard taking place among these students—hearing dialogues that could never be sparked simply by reading facts in a textbook or viewing figures on a blackboard. I use the Visual History Archive as a springboard into conversations of how nontraditional databases can be used to transcend fields and specific areas of inquiry in order to serve an international community of scholars, educators, and students—and even individuals searching their own genealogical histories.

I like to share the story of high school teacher Peter Cook, who was so excited about the idea of using the Visual History Archive in his classroom that he hand-delivered his application for the Institute’s Master Teacher program. Cook, an economics and history teacher at Camino Nuevo Charter Academy in Los Angeles, said he was floored by the work his students were able to produce, using the Visual History Archive.  He recalled that one student had embarked on a research project focusing on Hitler’s strategies, but—after spending time searching through the  Visual History Archive, he changed his study, and began investigating Nazi propaganda, truly delving into the political intricacies.

Cook mentioned another student who used the Visual History Archive’s incredible search capabilities to study the history of Jehovah’s Witnesses during the Holocaust—a creative and novel concept. I was particularly moved by the story of a student who became interested in using the Visual History Archive to learn more about deportation, because it resonated with her own life and her mother’s personal experience.

It is in this way that I believe humanities-based databases have an incredible capacity to teach and heal.  For our students, the USC Shoah Foundation’s testimonies are a powerful tool for understanding history, politics, psychology—everything that encompasses the human condition.

The Visual History Archive and the mission of USC Dornsife are perfectly aligned. As a scientist, my personal goal—and my goal as Dean—is to tackle some of society’s most difficult humanitarian challenges by employing an interdisciplinary approach that blends informatics, science, technology, and the humanities. 

My ultimate mission is to support translational research and translational education. What does that mean?  By providing access for middle- and high school teachers to the  Visual History Archive, we are making it possible for students—during their most impressionable stages—to experience an invaluable opportunity to learn compassion and to be inspired to make changes.

Then, once at the undergraduate level at USC, our students can learn to search the Visual History Archive independently in order to refine their ideas on what exactly the challenges are that they want to solve. Finally, at the graduate and postdoctoral levels, they can begin truly to mine the data for trends and patterns. 

I honestly believe that, as it continues to grow, the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive can emerge as a leading tool for scholars worldwide as they seek resolution to problems we had previously considered unsolvable. Its unprecedented size and search capacities can become an international playground for creative thinkers—who will find ways to identify the patterns—and unravel them.