Virginia Tech has received a grant of $175,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for research about the Russian flu epidemic of the late 19th century.

The project, a collaboration with Leibniz Universität Hannover in Germany, will examine medical discussion and news reporting during the epidemic, from its outbreak in late 1889 through successive waves that persisted well into 1893. Separate funding to Leibniz brings the total project research budget to more than $315,000.

Titled “Tracking the Russian Flu in U.S. and German Medical and Popular Reports, 1889-1893,” the project will collect English- and German-language reports from digitized newspapers and medical journals to create the first comprehensive searchable documentation of the disease.

The data will be used to extract facts and timelines, investigate medical and public reaction to the epidemic, and research how medical knowledge was disseminated through popular reporting.

“This project on the Russian flu exemplifies the commitment to cross-disciplinary, collaborative, and technologically astute humanities scholarship at Virginia Tech,” said Elizabeth Spiller, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “I am particularly pleased to see the central role that Virginia Tech undergraduates will play in the creation of new knowledge, a distinctive feature of so many of our undergraduate majors.”

Virginia Tech participants in the project include Tom Ewing, associate dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and professor in the Department of History; Aditya Prakash, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and an affiliated faculty member at the Discovery Analytics Center; and Amy Nelson, associate professor in the Department of History and Innovation Catalyst Group Faculty Fellow in Technology-enhanced Learning and Online Strategies.

The project’s advisory board includes faculty members from University Libraries, the departments of history and computer science, and the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute.

The project will use and develop computational methods including meme tracking and topic modeling, fact extraction, sentiment detection, data visualization, and social network analysis. Its outcomes will be available to scholars researching popular and scientific perceptions of disease, epidemiologists studying the spread of infectious epidemics in global contexts, and data analysts seeking to track, measure, and predict the spread of information about disease outbreaks and public health responses.

During the fall semester, a team of Virginia Tech undergraduates will begin developing information extraction techniques for measuring the impact of disease on U.S. populations.

"This project is a great example of the exciting synergistic work that can happen at the interface of computing and the humanities,” said Professor Dennis Kafura, head of the Department of Computer Science at Virginia Tech. “The research will lead to improved computational methods for analyzing large text resources that can be used in a variety of other domains. Much will be learned about the perception of past epidemics, which may prove useful in our own times."

At Hannover University, the project is led by Wolfgang Nejdl, executive director of the L3S Research Center and professor at the Department for Computer Science; and Katja Markert, a researcher at the center, which develops innovative methods and technologies that enable intelligent and seamless access to information in large data sources.

This funding from the NEH, an independent federal agency dedicated to supporting research, education, preservation, and public programs in the humanities, continues a strong track record of external funding for the digital humanities at Virginia Tech. Since 2011, Virginia Tech has received more than $350,000 in funding from the NEH Office of Digital Humanities, including a grant through the Digging into Data Challenge.




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