Internship with Smithsonian teaches need for human intelligence

Antigua & Barbuda is a small island nation in the Caribbean Sea. If folks in the United States have heard of it, it might be because of the recent ravages of Hurricane Irma. Barbuda, population about 1,600, was evacuated. After the storm, people who live there have little to go back to.

I knew Antigua & Barbuda was somewhere in the Caribbean, but little else. Now, several weeks into a virtual internship with the Smithsonian Institution, I have become familiar with the islands’ colonial history and their cultural heritage sites.

Several students in a graduate certificate program in digital public humanities at George Mason University are working on cataloguing museums and other cultural repositories important to countries and territories in the Caribbean. Students from other universities are tracking sites in Syria. The work is part of the Georeferenced Cultural Repository Inventory, a joint project of the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the Smithsonian Institution. As Brian Daniels of UPenn explained to interns, the inventory aims to catalog sites that may be threatened by conflict, such as in Syria, or by natural disaster, such as what has happened across the Caribbean due to a series of hurricanes.

So far the internship has been a mixture of somewhat repetitive tasks (for example, looking up geographical coordinates in Google Maps and other sources) and interesting detective work. Just after Hurricane Maria hit, several of us were attempting to locate coordinates for sites in Puerto Rico. Finding a street address wasn’t too difficult in some cases, but a challenge in others. However, getting more detailed information in several cases proved impossible. A virtual internship means we are seeking information via the internet. But with most of Puerto Rico without power, a number of servers there were offline, resulting in dead ends for our searches.

Similar challenges have been encountered in Antigua & Barbuda; I suspect this will be the case in other islands assigned to us. We have been encouraged to use a number of open- and crowd-driven resources in our searching. The information can be very rich in some cases, but quite lacking in others. As much as I like Google Maps, and as much as I would love to use its “Street View” function to travel around St. John’s (the capital of Antigua & Barbuda), the little yellow man icon just pops back into its spot when I drag it into the city. This is one place Google has not yet photographed.

The internship so far is a good reminder that even in a digital age we still need human intelligence to gather information.