Announcing Prism!

We are pleased to announce the official beta release of Prism, a tool for collecting and visualizing crowd-sourced interpretations of texts.

In case you are new to this blog, you should know that Prism is the practicum project of the first cohort of Praxis Program Fellows at the University of Virginia Scholars’ Lab. Six of us have been interning with Scholars’ Lab faculty and staff for the 2011-2012 academic year, as part of a pilot project in team-based graduate methodological training. Praxis aims to produce humanities scholars with practical experience in the work that will underlie theoretical advances in the digital age: the formal representation of knowledge, the design of software and user interfaces, and the management of collaborative teams and complex projects. Over the course of the year, we have been meeting weekly to learn what it takes to theorize and to build a DH project, with the ultimate goal of releasing our own–Prism.

Prism is an experiment in visualizing many readings of a common set of texts, using concepts shared by its users–“the crowd.”  While the Praxis Program itself makes an intervention in graduate training, Prism is an intervention in the concept of crowd-sourcing, which until now has mostly made fact-checkers and copy editors of the crowd.  One of the fundamental questions behind Prism is: what happens when the crowd is asked to imagine and interpret, rather than merely transcribe? The goal of Prism is not to replace individual interpretations, but to produce aesthetic provocations, that is, collective visualizations that incite and encourage conversation.

Now that you know what Prism is, who made it, and why, we invite you to go use it! We welcome conversation (we are humanities grad students, after all), so feel free to share your thoughts, feedback, or suggestions in the comment field below. If you encounter a bug, please report it on our GitHub page where you can also find our open source code and documentation.

And stay tuned for further blog posts from Praxis Program team members this week, reflecting on what we’ve learned and looking forward to what’s next.

–Sarah Storti and Brooke Lestock, for the 2011-12 Praxis Team

Brooke is a 2011-12 Praxis Fellow and MA candidate in the Department of English. She is currently working on a thesis which investigates Virginia Woolf's moment of being as a biographical, historical, and narrative phenomenon in Woolf's fiction and essays. Brooke is also a graduate research assistant in IATH, working on Alison Booth's Collective Biographies…


  1. I can see how Prism could be very useful. The first use that pops into my head is as a focusing device for classroom discussion, allowing a teacher to determine which parts of a poem or short story baffled students when they were reading it on their own in preparation for class. In order for it to be useful in this way, a teacher would have to be able to upload a poem and students would have to be allowed to mark passages that puzzled them or that they wanted to discuss, or that seemed key. It would be great if the visual interface could express the level of puzzlement. For instance, the text remains against a white background if nobody is puzzled but the backdrop or a highlight goes from yellow to orange to red as an increasing number (or percentage) of users flag it as puzzling. It would also be helpful if the students could insert comments or questions and other users could reply. This would allow a discussion to begin before class.

  2. Congratulations to all who were involved in Praxis and Prism throughout the year. It is really wonderful to see the product of your labours on this day for celebrating labour. And what a product it is–you should all be very proud.
    Having had a stab at interpreting Joyce (in itself, a pleasure), here are a couple of early impressions:

    The design and interface are great–very clear, simple, and intuitive.
    Are there plans to allow user-generated categories? Interpretive scope currently seems directed and limited–this is certainly a means of aesthetic provocation, but is there any interest in seeing if similarly provocative ideas can be generated from an undirected interpretation by the crowd?
    I love the sketches of the planned visualisations! It would be great to be able to compare one’s own interpretation with the crowd’s–I think it would enhance the ludic experience for the user.

    I’m sure these are conversations you have already had throughout the course of building the tool, so forgive me if I’m anticipating future developments. At any rate, I’m delighted to see Prism up and running, and am eagerly looking forward to seeing how it develops.

    • Justin,

      Thanks for checking out our project, and thanks especially for taking the time to comment here! The short answer to both of your points is yes: We hope that both category generation by users as well as comparison of individual-to-crowd markings can be incorporated into the next phases of Prism development. In fact, we had always planned that eventually Prism would be something users could really take up for their own ends. We imagine that at some point the user will not only be able to choose his or her own categories, but will also be able to load his or her own *text* into the interface.

      You might be particularly interested in reading David McClure’s (as yet unpublished) blog post on the future of Prism. Stay tuned for that and other speculations, and thanks again for your thoughtful remarks.