The Genesis of Textal

Hi! I’m Melissa Terras – Co-Director of UCL Centre for Digital Humanities, and Reader in Electronic Communication in the Department of Information Studies there. I’ve been involved with a variety of software development in the Humanities over the past decade, but I’ve never made an app before.

Textal was my idea. I remember the discussion in my head well, which is the type of trajectory that most of my research ideas come from. It was perhaps 3am or 4am and I was awake with my very young twins (again) and letting thoughts ramble. Why are there no apps yet in Digital Humanities? I thought. Wouldn’t it be great to have an app that showed off some Digital Humanities tools to a wider audience? I thought. Someone should make an app that demonstrates the kind of things that we do in Digital Humanities!  I thought. Which rapidly turned into… I should make an app that shows the kind on things that Digital Humanities do. Digital Humanities in your pocket! Oh dear, I thought. Now I’m going to do have to do it…

But why tackle word clouds? You’ll be familiar, no doubt, with text clouds – a basic visualization of word frequency in a given text as a weighted list – and probably wordles, the online text-cloud generation tool developed by a programmer at IBM in 2008. There’s no doubt that these can be kinda – sorta – useful visualisations of texts (there’s even been research into their usability). But those working in the field of Digital Humanities – the use of computational methods and approaches to undertake research and teaching in the Arts and Humanities – tend to sneer (rightly or wrongly) at wordles.

Text Analysis by computers has been a technique used in the Digital Humanities since the very earliest days of computing.   There are many pretty well understood techniques to look at things like authorship attribution, gender based bias in language, etc. Wordles are so basic in comparison. We know about word lists and stop words and frequency and concordances and… we can do Text Analysis! Why would you use Wordles? Now, there are some pretty good online tools to undertake Text Analysis in a serious fashion, such as Voyant ( But there is a step change between wordles and these tools, with nothing in between.  There hasn’t been, to my knowledge, any linking up of word clouds with the underlying statistics of the text that we normally associate with Text Analysis. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could take a word cloud, and let people click on words of interest, and drill down into their text to see the actual statistics that underpin it? This action would also lend itself to the pinch and stretch paradigm on smartphones.  We can fix wordles, and make them robust, useful, interactive…

So the idea for Textal was born. The name, and the logo, came later. First I had to find the funding to undertake development (I had initially thought I would learn how to do it myself – its been a while since I’ve done some coding, and wouldn’t it be fun! But I quickly realized that that wasn’t feasible with my other duties and current hubbub at home).  I also had to find a research collaborator who would help me out. But those, my friends, are all stories for another blog post…

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  1. […] What do you find particularly cool about Textal and is it what you hoped for back in April 2012 blog post? […]

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