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The Role of Digital Humanities in a Major Natural Disaster

21 May 2012

In the months since a 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit New Zealand’s Canterbury province in September 2010, the region has experience over ten thousand aftershocks, 430 above magnitude 4.0. The most devastating aftershock, a 6.2 earthquake under the centre of Christchurch on 22 February 2011, had one of the highest peak ground acceleration rates ever recorded. This event claimed 185 lives, damaged 80% of the central city beyond repair, and forced the abandonment of 6,000 homes. It was the third costliest insurance event in history.

In this talk Paul Millar, the CEISMIC Canterbury Earthquakes Digital Archive project leader, discusses the role of digital humanities in developing an international resource to preserve the digital record of the earthquakes’ impacts and the long-term process of recovery. Millar’s initial project proposal was predicated on the belief that “when all the empirical data around the earthquakes has been collected and the city’s infrastructure restored, the effects will still be felt among families and communities for decades to come, and that these experiences needed to be recorded, preserved and made available for commemoration and scholarship.” This view was fully supported by University of Canterbury senior management, who endorsed the CEISMIC project’s digital humanities approach by resourcing it at an equivalent level to a number of the university’s world-leading geology and engineering earthquake research projects.

Since the CEISMIC project began, it has grown and evolved in ways far exceeding the scope of the initial proposal. Millar will suggest that the evolution of the project reflects both the need for humanities scholars to be prepared to play a practical role in recovery following such major events, and the value and validity of digital humanities principles of openness and collaboration.