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Hacking Voltaire

Tuesday, 4 February, 2020

The Voltaire Foundation’s first ever Hackathon took place on Friday 24th January 2020, as part of a generous John Fell Fund grant. It was held in the suitably historic St Luke’s Chapel in the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, a now deconsecrated chapel which once formed part of the Radcliffe Infirmary. The event was attended by over twenty students and researchers from a range of disciplines and institutions, including a large contingent of our colleagues from the Sorbonne. We were also joined by a number of specialist advisers, and of course our judges: Nicholas Cronk (Voltaire Foundation), Marian Hobson (Queen Mary), Glenn Roe (Sorbonne), and Kathryn Eccles (OII).

For the uninitiated, a hackathon (or, in French, ‘un hackathon’), is an event which brings together a large group of people to engage in collaborative digital projects. In the case of the Voltaire Hackathon, participants were asked to bring together their expertise and passion for the written word to conceive and realise projects drawn from an almost intimidatingly broad corpus: the collected works and correspondence of Voltaire, as found in TOUT Voltaire and Electronic Enlightenment, which were made available both as plain text and TEI-XML files. Armed with this corpus, participants in teams of three to five would compete for the ultimate prize: a small 3D-printed bust of the man himself.

Voltaire hackathon

Voltaire or bust! The winners’ trophy.

Following a warm welcome from Nicholas Cronk and an introduction to the dataset from Glenn Roe, participants were given time to mix, mingle, and form their teams under the guidance of Kathryn Eccles. Each individual brought to the team their own strengths and skillset, with each group trying to find a balance of Voltaire specialists, French speakers, and digital specialists. Once teams had formed, participants set about the challenging task of finding just one project among the vast corpus of Voltaire’s literary and personal output – a project which needed to be at a working prototype stage within the six or so hours allotted to complete it. Some groups had clearly arrived with a concept already in mind, while others played around with a few ideas before settling on one point of focus. The room was soon abuzz with discussion and excited planning, in French, English, and the odd smattering of Franglais.

Having introduced themselves, established individual skillsets, and settled on a plan, teams set to work. By lunchtime, it was already clear that there were a wide range of interests represented: imagistic language in Voltaire’s poetry; mapping place in Candide’s journey and Voltaire’s correspondence; visualising the spread and reception of the Lettres Philosophiques in Voltaire’s correspondence; and analysing the presence of and response to the ideas of 17th-century philosophers within Voltaire’s œuvre. Each project presented its own unique challenges, not least of all the sheer size of the corpus available to each group, but over the course of the day, each project began to take a tangible shape.

Voltaire hackathon

Hacking away in St Luke’s Chapel.

At the end of the day, each team presented their work back to the judges and the other groups, explaining their concept, method, and the initial findings. The final products engaged not only with a wide range of works from the corpus, but also in a wide range of techniques, including building user interfaces for public engagement, and producing linguistic analysis, data visualisation, and geospatial analysis. All of the projects presented represented a huge amount of hard work, talent, and passion from the Hackathon participants, and it was exciting to get a sense of the huge potential in a digital approach to Voltaire and the Enlightenment more widely. However, there could only be one winner, and the much-coveted prize was award to Olle Hammarstrom, Maria Florutau, and Andrei Sorescu for their innovative work on Voltaire’s engagement with earlier philosophers.

Voltaire hackathon

The winning team: Maria Florutau, Olle Hammarstrom and Andrei Sorescu.

However, without intending to sound trite, it was not the winning, but the taking part that counts. Although all of the participants would have been thrilled to win a tiny Voltaire of their very own, the day was a rewarding experience in and of itself, pushing all the attendees out of their comfort zones. For those with little experience in the digital humanities, it opened eyes to the techniques and insight available to them in the realm of computing, while those with little or no background in Voltaire were able to find a new interest; even in our internet age, it was evident from the smiles and laughter from participants that there is still a great deal of humour to be found in Voltaire’s work and correspondence. Overall, the day was a great success, both productive and enjoyable, and will, with a bit of luck, be repeated again in the not-so-distant future.

– Josie Dyster, Research Assistant, Voltaire Foundation, Oxford

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