SHANTI at the University of Virginia

Activities / Mandala Project

The Mandala Project

SHANTI’s mandate at the University of Virginia is to collaborate on fashioning a sustainable digital ecology supporting innovation and excellence for scholars, staff, and faculty in their learning, research, and engagement activities. A cornerstone of this evolving ecology is the upcoming release of our Mandala Framework, a suite of interconnected digital applications supporting the creation and dissemination of scholarly content on the Web. In essence, it is a type of content management system (CMS) for scholars, allowing scholars across from the spectrum – from the Luddite to expert user – to easily store, structure, visualize, network, and publish scholarly content without special grants or programming assistance. The system is designed to be usable by neophytes as soon as they are introduced to it, and yet create content that expresses sophisticated ideas.

  1. Store: to upload, store, describe, interrelate, and present rich media in small to large collections (texts, photos, audio-video).
  2. Structure: to create easy structured data of any type in the form of online spreadsheets requiring minimal training.
  3. Visualize: to creatively analyze and visualize that data in profoundly interactive ways – maps, charts, timelines, networks, slide-shows, videos, and dynamic interactive combinations.
  4. Network: to describe the basic constituents of human culture – agents, places, events, topics – in structured and networked ways.
  5. Publish: to deploy all of the above within the context of an overall framework allowing rapid creation of multimedia essays which can be fluidly combined and recombined in diverse ways with each other and all of the above content.

Scholars can thus manage complex collections of diverse digital objects, create visualizations, describe the intricate networks of human culture, publish essays,  and build websites. In particular, MANDALA aims to provide one framework that can support a broad range of scholarly interests in online publication: (i) media intensive collections, such as a massive video collection; (ii) fluid streams of content (such as ReligionDispatches.org), (iii) long-form scholarly articles, (iv) cultural network documentation, and visualizations and interactional content. This enables scholars to publish content on the Web that includes complex data, interpretative articles that are both rapidly written and published (aka blogs) or peer-reviewed long-form analytical essays, and rich visual content used for visual argumentation in its own right or in support of textual arguments. By developing this with emerging practices of information sharing and integration, scholars can expose their data and finished interpretative pieces, as well as making their scholarly resources available to others in a modular fashion that can be reconfigured for other uses as well.

The range of possible sites comprises a spectrum from content-intensive to communication-intensive uses, extending from what we might term “thematic research collections” on one end, to “essays and communication” or “flexible streams of content” on the other. A thematic research collection typically has large collections of deeply interrelated media resources (texts, photographs, audio-video, etc.) and structured data (bibliographies, place descriptions, dictionary entries, biographical studies, etc.) organized around a specific thematic subject – a cultural region, time period, person, and so forth. “Essays and communication,” or “flexible streams of content,” in contrast, points to websites which are more focused on relatively shorter essays, such as blogs, and which typically have many people contributing on a constant basis, so that content is rapidly changing. In such sites, the focus is more on those essays, and their characteristics – subjects, authors, dates, etc. – rather than on complex collections of media resources and structured data. Either type of site may also have various kinds of visualizations – maps, charts, timelines, network visualizations, slideshows, and the like. Mandala supports both kinds of websites, as well as blended sites that have both complex collections of media resources and structured data, and a constantly updated array of essays that may be brief and/or informal, as well as peer reviewed and lengthy.

We are preparing for a beta release of the Mandala Framework in Fall 2014.  We will then release a series of updates over the next five years that add additional capacities, and also deepen the integration of the various constituent components. SHANTI offers the capacity for individuals or groups to easily create a new web site using the Mandala framework, which can then be used to rapidly create customized content with a minimum of technical assistance. SHANTI, however, cannot work with projects on an individual basis to customize the framework for their needs, though it will address bugs, and listen to user feedback to factor into ongoing development priorities. If you have a scholarly project that you would like to develop on the Mandala framework, please contact us to get an advance peek!