The coffee break as a driver of science: Nodegoat @ Uni Bern (2017-2021)

The coffee break was sometimes referred to as the ‘driver of science’ during the COVID 19 pandemic, as the isolation in the home office made people aware of how important the break-related, social interactions are for scientific exchange in the corridors, on the stairs and in the canteen. In fact, the success story of the virtual research environment Nodegoat at the University of Bern can also be traced back to a coffee break. It took place in 2017 in the research pool of the Institute of History. The starting point was a database migration that I had to manage in the same year for the digital research project Repertorium Academicum Germanicum (RAG), a major project that was being worked on by research groups at the universities of Bern and Giessen (D). The project required new software for data entry and data visualisation, as the previous system was getting on in years and could no longer be brought up to date at a reasonable cost. After some research on potential solutions, it turned out that no software met the complex requirements. And developing my own software was out of the question due to time constraints. Instead of doing more research, I preferred to let things rest for a moment and reconsider the overall situation over a cup of coffee. Nothing was more obvious than to take this opportunity to call on my colleague, who was working on her dissertation for another project in the neighbouring office, to share some thoughts about God and the world, about software and database migrations. After briefly explaining the complicated situation, the colleague (a historian) immediately asked whether we had also considered Nodegoat. She had attended a Nodegoat workshop in Düsseldorf by the developers of Nodegoat (LAB1000) to gain insights into network analysis, which she would consider for her dissertation. To my surprise, I had never heard of this software. Nodegoat, she continued, is specialised in managing and visualising research data, with both functions integrated into the same software. Amazed and slightly electrified, I immediately set about testing Nodegoat in detail. LAB1100 provided a test environment. Surprisingly, Nodegoat had exactly the range of functions we needed for the RAG. Now it was only a matter of convincing the top level of the project management of Nodegoat, which was sceptical at first. Only a workshop with LAB1100 in Bern finally brought the breakthrough. In the workshop, a new data model was created and the data migration was analysed in detail. The starting signal was given and after three months the previously used database was history. On 1 January 2018, the time had come: Nodegoat was put into operation by the teams in Bern and Giessen. This was followed by training and a series of data cleansing sessions, which progressed quickly thanks to the new interface, which displays the data clearly and makes it correspondingly easy to detect irregularities. The collaboration with LAB1100 proved to be a stroke of luck. In close coordination with the developers, the RAG was able to initiate various software modules. It started with an extension of the Nodegoat interface (API) to speed up the data migration. After the data migration, it was about the complex module for the collection and visualisation of approximate temporal information as well as various modules for data visualisation and data export. The first project year of the RAG with Nodegoat was satisfactory for the teams. The training effort for the new working environment was kept within narrow limits. Data could now be entered much faster and more fluently than in the old system (MS Access as frontend, MS SQL Server as backend). For the first time, visualisations allow a complete overview of the immense data stock (60,000 persons, about one million pieces of information on curricula vitae, careers, institutions) that has been collected by hand over the years. Here you can see, for example, the scholars’ areas of origin by university in the Old Empire 1250-1550, whereby the University of Krakow was also taken into account due to its outstanding importance in education (source: rag-online.org).

When, in 2019, the University of Bern promised the faculties a budget for corresponding projects as part of its digitisation strategy, it was obvious to me to bring Nodegoat into play. The reason for this was that Nodegoat offers a digital infrastructure for the humanities that is not project specific. In contrast, research projects in the humanities today still develop their own software specifically adapted to the project, which therefore only functions as an isolated solution and cannot be used by other projects. Nodegoat, on the other hand, can be used by all disciplines (not only) in the humanities, because the data model can be defined individually and thus adapted to different sources and questions. Another plus point is the global aspect. The development of Nodegoat, which is available as open source software, is shared by various educational institutions and projects worldwide. This international collaboration for a flexible research environment is, in my opinion, the key to a sustainable digital infrastructure (not only) in the humanities. Also, the worldwide use of the same research environment, which is also specialised in the visualisation of research data, automatically promotes inter- and transdisciplinary exchange as well as research collaboration in general. These arguments were also convincing at the Institute of History and we were able to submit the “Application for Strategic Faculty Funds, Funding Line III, Digitisation” to the university. Title of the project: “Establishing a shared Virtual Research Environment (VRE)”. The funds were granted and Nodegoat GO went live as a multi-user platform in April 2020. To facilitate the launch, I took over the Nodegoat support position and was able to advise numerous projects from a wide range of fields in the humanities (history, archaeology, German studies, English studies, music and theatre studies): from sources to data model and visualisations. In mid-2021, after Nodegoat GO had got off to a good start, I handed over the support position to a student as planned, with the intention of promoting the transfer of knowledge about Nodegoat (as well as digital skills in general) at all levels: support from students for students and projects. Incidentally, the University of Bern is the first university to have created a position for Nodegoat support. A pioneering act that has not failed to have an impact: as of November 2021, around 50 projects with around 100 users are now working with Nodegoat GO at the university, as well as other, larger projects with their own Nodegoat installations. And all this because of a coffee break.

Cite this article as: Kaspar Gubler: The coffee break as a driver of science: Nodegoat @ Uni Bern (2017-2021), in HistData, 07/12/2021, https://histdata.hypotheses.org/2559