Exploring the Landscape with Digital Public History

Given that I live in DC, I thought it would be appropriate to try out Histories of the National Mall on, well, the National Mall. I’ve done a lot of reading on the project for class, and I’ve explored the website on my laptop in my apartment, but I’ve never tried it out while walking the National Mall.

Although I initially thought it strange that Histories of the National Mall didn’t have an app, I was glad when I reached the Mall–it’s so much easier to pull up a website than to download an app. The mobile version of mallhistory.org was very user-friendly, even the mobile version of the map of the Mall.

I mostly clicked on the pins on the map as I covered the some of the sites of the Mall: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the DC War Memorial, and the World War II Memorial. Most of the information was useful–when each memorial was built, the circumstances behind their creations, etc.–but there wasn’t anything really interesting or unique: no “Did You Know?” facts I was hoping for. Of course, some of the pins on the map were more along those lines–my favorite was the Mall Weddings pin by the DC War Memorial.

Perhaps because I’ve seen most of the sites on this map at least once before, I had more fun afterwards just clicking on pins at my leisure, not near any of the sites themselves. I personally find it kind of stressful to remember to open the website before I leave a site: I much prefer scouting an area on the map to see if it’s worth heading over. For instance, I finally found out the story behind that Japanese Lantern I always drive by and why exactly there’s a George Mason Memorial (especially important since I now attend GMU). In general, the lesser-known sites had more interesting information: you didn’t really learn anything new about the famous sites, at least from the map.

However, the Explorations page contained all the trivia I was dying for. While I found the Scavenger Hunts (especially the World War II Memorial one) a bit lacking–they featured only around three items, and they weren’t things that were particularly hard to find–I found the general questions fascinating, like “Has anyone ever lived on the Mall?” Some were questions I’ve wondered about before (“How are large objects displayed in the museums?“), and some were things that never even occurred to me (“What were the neighborhoods around the Mall like int he 1800s?“). I also liked that these questions were tagged into categories, so you could read more about the categories that interested you.

I wish there were more connections between the Maps page and the Explorations page, for instance, putting a link to the Korean War Memorial Scavenger Hunt page within the general page about the Korean War Memorial. Most of the pages under the Explorations tab can’t easily be translated into pins on the Map, but it would’ve been nice to include links to the overt ones, like when a question is specifically about the Lincoln Memorial.

I found the People and Past Events pages intimidating, even for someone who likes reading about the minute details. There were so many entries, and I found the idea of looking through even some of them overwhelming. These pages didn’t draw you in like the Map and the Explorations pages.

I like the idea of Histories of the National Mall as a complement to walking the Mall, but sometimes that’s just too hard. The site is far more enjoyable as a desktop version, so I would recommend anyone else take a look at the site before or after visiting the Mall. Maybe I would feel different if I were a tourist visiting for the day, but it’s hard to imagine. I also noticed, unfortunately, that some of the information was outdated, like about the DC War Memorial now serving as the National World War I Memorial (that got reversed, and now there are plans for a WWI Memorial in Pershing Park). I wish there were signs on the Mall encouraging people to use this site, since I think it mostly suffers from a lack of awareness, certainly not a lack of care.

 

Annotating Oral History

I think the mission of the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer is a very admirable one, particularly since I’ve transcribed oral histories of veterans during my time interning at the American Veterans Center. I transcribed to add subtitles in some cases, but most of the time, I transcribed so I could figure out what to tag the video as. However, OHMS goes the extra step and takes you to the point in the video where a particular subject is talked about, rather than simply writing that the video contains that subject somewhere. While I agree this is a natural and seemingly obvious step, I think it might be a little too ambitious. Given all the issues our class had with accessing the site, it may not be user-friendly enough to be crowdsourced just yet. As I’ve discussed last semester, if too much work has to go into crowdsourcing, even the most particular Wikipedia editors aren’t going to do it.

Local History and Community History Response

Local history suffers from the very real challenge of lack of public interest. After all, most of the people interested in Connecticut history are going to be from Connecticut, and while Connecticut isn’t the smallest state in land mass or population (things you only know if you’re from Connecticut!), it’s already a smaller pool to draw from than, say, Civil War enthusiasts or Americans in general, Also, because of their smaller size and the potential lack of public interest, these organizations receive less funding, whether that’s in the form of personal donations or corporate/academic endowments. Many of them have to list themselves as nonprofits, and that usually dissuades burgeoning public historians from beginning careers there. However, while all these challenges would appear to spell the end of local history organizations forever, it is also pretty clear that these organizations aren’t dead for several important reasons. First, their staffs are very dedicated, often because the history is personal to them. Because their audiences–especially their online audiences–are so niche, they don’t have to pander to the public, which makes their websites more enriching learning hubs.

I am encountering a lot of the same problems that local history websites face: smaller audiences, a “so what?” attitude, and a small staff that consists of just me! My solutions to these problems involve adapting the techniques that these sites use: celebrating their uniqueness, making the site as user-friendly as possible to eliminate the technology barrier, and providing a lot of information to explore.

Physical/Digital Site Comparative Review

For my comparative review, I visited the “My Fellow Soldiers” exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum. (As an aside, go visit the Postal Museum! The building is beautiful and it’s got some very clever, interactive exhibits.) Military history has always been a passion of mine, so I figured this would be a good exhibit to examine in depth.

The physical design of the exhibit was a simple square. You were directed to go in on the left, where you were confronted with the exhibit title and a paragraph explaining the importance of mail to soldiers in wartime. I thought this part was the perfect introduction: a primer on why these letters mean so much more than a civilian will ever know.

To the left of the introduction text and optional video were two more panels filled with explanation. Below each panel are items in the exhibit. Since the Postal Museum, from what I saw, caters to a younger audience, I thought the language in these panels was clear and concise. It didn’t talk down to the reader, but it didn’t assume the reader had all the information, say, a veteran would have.

Along the next wall was the meat of the exhibit: mail sent by various soldiers from various wars. The most interesting items were at eye-level (always very important!), and the items weren’t just letters. This section demonstrated that despite the tendency for the public to romanticize wartime letters, it never has just been–and it especially isn’t today–just letters. Books were on display, as well as drawings and photographs. This section illustrates both what soldiers send and receive in the mail, and the variety is surprising and heartwarming.

After the long wall of items, there was this panel, highlighting the importance of remembering World War I in light of the WWI centennial. (The 100th anniversary of WWI’s Armistice Day will be on November 11th, 2018.) While seemingly out of place, this helps explain why this exhibit exists in the first place, and corresponds with the dates it will be up: April 6, 2017 – November 29, 2018. Due to the fact that all WWI veterans have all passed away, it is easy to forget about this war and, more importantly, about how this war changed the United States’ future wars.

One of my favorite quotes in this exhibit was the one featured in the photo above: “Few things impact a unit’s moral more than mail… A small piece of correspondence from home means the world to these brave young men and women who fight for freedom.” – Brig. Gen. Sean J. Byrne. This quote helps you get at the “so what?” of this exhibit: highlighting the importance mail–such an everyday part of normal life–can bring such joy to soldiers who are far away from friends and family. And while you are basking in the lovely glow of these words, the exhibit designers (smartly) put information about the three things that help soldiers get their mail: free mail, free time, and free access. These are the drier details of history, but still very important to know.

My other favorite part of this exhibit were these three letters featured in this accordion-fold panel, featuring soldiers from 1991, 1969, and 1846. Not only is the text of the letters written out, but there are also buttons you can press so you can hear the audio as well. This section brings in another dimension: sound. It strikes a chord to hear a voice reading a letter (as you will see in the part when I review the digital presence of this exhibit!). I think it’s very appropriate that the exhibit designers featured a woman, as a lot of these letters are mostly wives at home writing to their husbands at war. Starting with Capt. Ann H. Patrie’s letter shows the viewer that things have changes, that war has changed. And as we go back in time to 1969 and 1846, you can compare Patrie’s letter to the others.

Each soldier has a title over their letter and description: Patrie’s is “At the Front,” PFC Frank A. Kowalczyk’s (1969) is “Reel to Reel,” and Lt. William McKean’s (1846) is “Seeing the World.” Each title (as well as the description, of course) helps frame the reader’s impression before reading the letter, and each conveys a very different message and mood. One deals with horror, another deals with adventure. As this exhibit has shown before, every soldier’s experience is different, and therefore every letter is unique.

After all that good old fashioned pathos, the exhibit tackles the practical side (dare I say “science”?) of mail delivery. Even the ritual involved with doing mail call, as the sign above explains, gives soldiers a reprieve. So now the exhibit deals with all of the other parts of wartime letters: mail call, how packages are delivered, how to inspire people to write. Maybe all this information is less glamorous, but you’re more primed to read these panels after spending lots of time from the point of view of soldiers.

This final wall before exiting was less inspiring: it kind of shoves all the very practical but not as interesting facts about mail delivery in war at you. It is a lot of text–especially if there are children ambling through this exhibit–but I think it would be irresponsible for the Postal Museum to not include this information at all. It has to be included, so it is. There’s nothing very grand about it.

All in all, I thought the exhibit was executed thoughtfully, and I thought a lot of care went into how a person would experience walking through this room.

Now to the digital!

I think it’s less likely that children will be the (accidental) main viewers of this digital exhibit, so the language, while certainly not highfalutin, didn’t seem as intent on being as simple or concise. Nor should it–it’s clear that most people looking at this online exhibit went looking for it, and therefore don’t need their attention highly monitored like a walk-in. Beyond the exhibit page itself, there are Resources and About pages, which help explain a lot. For instance, I perhaps should have realized that this exhibit had a partner: the Center for American War Letters at Chapman University, which is a digital history project if I ever saw one. (Very similar to the Roy Rosenzweig’s Paper of the War Department and Operation War Diary.) So that was something I learned online that I hadn’t realized while I was there in person, which is very interesting for me as an aspiring digital historian, to find a project which greatly interests me. The About page mainly revealed that the Postal Museum clearly doesn’t want the “My Fellow Soldiers” exhibit to exist just online; they give all the information needed for visiting.

Concerning the exhibit, the online medium really allows the creators to explain every step of what they’re doing, rather than subtly nudging the viewer along as the prompts do in an in-person exhibit. There’s yet another About page, this one dedicated solely to the letters in the exhibit: why they were selected, what they are exactly, etc. More letters are featured in the online exhibit, and not just excerpts: whole transcripts can be posted. Thankfully, the online exhibit lets you chose whether to search through the letters via author or theme, which demonstrates the two visitors they expect on the site: those looking for letters written by a specific soldier and those looking more generally. If I wanted to find a letter written by a relative, for instance, I wouldn’t want to trawl through several topics before discovering it. Similarly, if I just wanted to read letters written about the reluctance to fight and staying neutral, it would be a pain to have to scroll through many individual letters before getting to what I wanted. I really appreciate that the full scope of the letters is online. It doesn’t make it better or worse than seeing snippets of letters in-person: the excerpts worked for the setting I was in, while excerpts wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying if I were getting ready to dive into a research project and was starting with these letters.

I appreciated that every letter page featured a description, typed transcript (reading handwriting from war zones is really hard), an image of the actual physical letter itself (who wrote with a typewriter? whose handwriting was the worst?), and–when possible–a photo of the writer of the letter. This is all the information you really need–metadata is nice, but it would really overwhelm any visitor of the website. It’s also very clear that someone took extreme care when transcribing the letters: they all follow very clear stylistic rules, noting when words were typed or handwritten or just plain illegible. However, it seems like a lot of these letters can be read in their entirety, which I’m sure is a result of them choosing between thousands of letters and showcasing the best ones. The sample will always be skewed–it makes you think that everyone was a tremendous writer or speller, for instance–but it presents the best sample for the civilian historian who doesn’t want to deal with slanted cursive or water damage.

With the huge focus on letters, it’s easy to forget that there are other items in the exhibit. The site displays an item at random on the exhibit homepage, encouraging you to click on the link and learn more. Unfortunately, it’s pretty hard to find something you had clicked on at random, but I can understand if cataloguing the art would’ve just been too much, especially for a temporary exhibit. The random items range from photos of soldiers writing letters, propaganda encouraging letter writing, to favorite letters chosen by the curator. This feature reminds me most of being at the exhibit in-person–just ambling about, not quite knowing if you’re hooked or not.

Now, the most unique aspect of the exhibit’s digital presence was the “Missing You: Letters from Wartime, 1861-2010” video. While it is on the longer side (8+ minutes), it is well worth the watch. (I’ll admit, I got a little teary during some parts.) The video features excerpts from letters of all the American wars, beginning with the Civil War and ending with the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the more recent war footage (circa 2000’s) looks a little dated and the music is a bit heavy-handed, I thought this was a great symbol of what this exhibit as a whole represents: the transcending power of mail during wartime. The narrators are men and women, as the letter excerpts come from soldiers fighting the wars to their families’ letters written from home. While you get to see how things have changed–no more rampant amputation, video chat, integrated military units–the themes of the letters are universal: a longing for home, whether stated outright or implied underneath the descriptions of too much excitement.

I thought the in-person and digital presences for this exhibit were complementary. I’d really be torn if someone asked me to choose which one I like more, as I think, more importantly, that that question misses the point of this exercise. There are some things that can only be done in-person, and there are some things that can only be accomplished digitally.

 

 

Survey of the Field

In my most recent assignment for Digital Public History, I reviewed 11 websites that tackle various historical topics, from the Great Chicago Fire to diaries of World War I soldiers. The sites were organized by time period into three general phases: Phase 1, Phase 2, and Phase 3. (Very creative, I know.) Here are all the websites:

Phase 1

Phase 2

Phase 3

With all the intellectual rigor of an Amazon review, I’ll start with this: websites today are so much better than in the late 1990’s. This is the most superficial aspect of my analysis, but the Phase 1 and Phase 2 websites remind me that progress on the Internet moves fast, and any website that isn’t maintained regularly looks extremely clunky and outdated. If public history is about engaging the public, then Phase 1 does the worst job: the sites are heavy on text and the content isn’t easily navigable. Thankfully, public historians have realized these sites do little to engagement the viewer, so the aesthetics have improved dramatically by Phase 3.

In a more substantial analysis, the websites from Phase 1 through Phase 3 improve because they deal with less and less over time. Phase 1 features sweeping projects: comprehensive histories of large-scale historical events. It is impossible to curate an entire museum based around these topics, let alone a poorly-designed website with terrible HTML formatting. How does one know if his/her submissions were received? Are these requests for information still active? Even if upkeep for the website has fallen by the wayside, there should still be a note on whether the project has been stalled.

Phase 2 focuses on improving the immediate problems of Phase 1. However, Phase 2 sites get bogged down in their visuals. They all rely heavily on Adobe Flash Player, so if you don’t have that installed, you can’t really experience the site to its fullest extent. These sites seem too focused on the spectacle of watching a Flash video: does this medium actually enhance the historical lesson? Without a transcript, how would I know what the narrator is saying? These sites plod along and encourage a very specific order to view things. While probably exciting for children who are on a computer for the first time, the constant clicking and inability to fast-forward hinder any adult human’s experience with learning. Thankfully, Phase 2 projects aren’t as wide-reaching: they appear to know their audience and therefore cater to them. Mostly, they are online versions of IRL exhibits at museums. So nothing new, nothing that one couldn’t experience offline.

Phase 3 scales back its ambitions, but that actually enhances the website. The space is used more comfortably, with text all over instead of confined to one corner. The projects have very specific goals: document oral histories, display images along with important metadata, commemorate an anniversary. These sites are also aware that they exist in a very large Internet and therefore have to compete for attention. They are quick to mention their endowments and universities associated with them, and they have pages dedicated their mentions outside of the website, i.e., in newspapers or journals, on Facebook and Twitter. Phase 3 sites are aware of the limitations of a website and an online presence, but they also embrace the new possibilities. The project most interested in this is Operation War Diary, which encourages viewers to engage in crowdsourcing, to help digitize all the various wartime literature written by soldiers. This project has a narrow focus–transcribing war diaries of World War I soldiers–but it makes the viewer feel truly part of the experience, and it goes above and beyond experiencing a museum exhibition long-distance.

Although it seems like looks shouldn’t matter, they do. A poorly designed website with an excellent concept will not garner many views. However, flash (or Flash) should not be a substitute for substance. Does a website really need an annoyingly long video when three sentences on its mission will suffice? Less is always more online. However, if there is going to be more content, it should come from the viewers, not the creators. Interactivity is the most important part of a website; it should not be a static experience. Static is boring. Dynamic experiences, at their most ambitious, involve crowdsourcing sprawling projects that interest civilian historians. A viewer should feel a part of a larger experience. Learning is important, but learning does not occur without engagement. Digital public history cannot demand a person’s time the same way a required history course in high school can, nor can it engage in clickbait and false advertising as most of the Internet does. It has to strike a balance. Not everyone will be interested, but websites can’t cater to everyone. Public history, especially digitized, needs to know its and its audience’s limitations, and work within those parameters. They aren’t a box; they are a foundation.

Crowdsourcing is the most promising aspect of public history. It is the perfect example of everything that is ambitious and wonderful about public history, and it engages people in ways they never could be even when face-to-face with an artifact or a tour guide in a museum. I’ll be interested in what Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality will bring to the field, but the technology is still so new, and I am wary of these tools becoming substitutes for substance in the same way the Flash plug-in is. However, if all these Phases are an indication, things can only improve for digital history as time and technology march on.

What Can You Do With Crowdsourced Digitization?

At first, crowdsourcing seems like handing off tasks to people and not paying them, which doesn’t sound great at all. However, crowdsourcing is best described as a “it takes a village” effort. These tasks would be monotonous for an hourly worker, and mistakes are bound to pop up when the same person is doing the same thing every day. Add hundreds of others and suddenly you have proofreaders and fact-checkers, all doing this because it involves minimal effort. Of course, some users love to get into the weeds with various crowdsourcing projects–all for digital badges or silly stickers–but crowdsourcing works best when it’s portrayed as a quick activity.

The easiest crowdsourcing activity is corrections. I tried this out with NYPL’s Building Inspector, which involves a user checking building shapes or fixing them himself/herself. I like this project because you’re double-checking a computer, which is less daunting than some other crowdsourcing projects. The stakes aren’t high, and you can do a lot in a small amount of time. The motto “Kill Time; Make History” makes that point best. Now, this crowdsourcing is map- and history-focused, but if you want to contribute to modern-day maps, Google Maps also uses crowdsourcing to provide phone numbers for businesses, to add new locations when a new store opens up, to show you pictures of what a building or park looks like–all because circumspect (re: picky) people provide this information.

Transcriptions involve (much) more work. I’m not going to lie: transcriptions involve time and effort. A lot of their tutorials don’t involve 1920’s ragtime piano music and cheeky text: they’re full of rules, guidelines, instructions, etc. I reviewed Papers of the War Department, admittedly because I took a class with Professor Hamner this semester. (Ask me about civil-military relations sometime!) I also love the idea of recovering information that was thought to be lost, as well as the idea of this project being open to the public. I knew the interface wouldn’t be as fun as Building Inspector, but I did expect to be able to zoom in on the letter on the same webpage as the transcription text box. However, zooming in the letter involved opening the image in another tab and zooming in with the web browser’s zoom tool rather than one built into the interface. I hate switching back and forth between tabs when transcribing, so that piece irked me. There also isn’t instant gratification with transcription like with crowdsourced corrections: 18th-century cursive script is very hard to decipher, and the spelling of even erudite men was non-standardized and absolutely appalling to any English minor. However, that is not to say that I don’t like transcribing. While I need to practice reading 18th-century handwriting, I really enjoy transcribing videos on YouTube. Several YouTube communities invite viewers to transcribe their videos and upload captions. Transcription even goes a step farther with communities who also translate videos. This past summer, I transcribed and uploaded captions for several videos for the American Veterans Center’s YouTube channel. This allows people who are hard-of-hearing (which, let’s face it, is the channel’s main demographic) to understand interviews or narration, and it also allows me to improve the metadata, if there is an interesting subject I missed and need to tag. The AVC YouTube videos could benefit from crowdsourcing–I certainly wasn’t going to caption over a thousand videos, some of which are an hour long. So if you want to release your inner court stenographer, audio transcription could be the way to go.

I enjoy crowdsourcing, but I do fear that it contributes to the “gig economy.” If someone is doing a significant amount of work, I think that they should be paid. At the very least, they should be named as a contributor, especially if the work is published. Crowdsourcing does make “ownership” a bit blurry, and if the project creators and managers aren’t circumspect, crowdsourcing can do more harm than good if someone has to go through all the mistakes and fix them all by hand. All in all, crowdsourcing needs to be monitored; things usually will not run smoothly on their own.

Comparing Tools

Although I admittedly have a preference for Palladio, I will not let my bias paint Voyant and CartoDB as terrible pieces of software. In fact, I think of these tools have their own strengths, are good in their own ways–and I’m not just saying that to avoid making a hard decision. Although all three are meant to highlight information not easily seen or understand within metadata or online archives, they all do completely different things. Voyant analyzes a body of text. It can compare one body of text to the entire corpus, but one has to draw his/her own conclusions from the graphs. I am a sucker for the n-gram search, as I think of it as an academic version of “Google Autofill,” but I digress. Voyant is good for words, words, words. CartoDB, just as its name suggests, is good for maps. If there are a lot of locations in the metadata, it would be a good idea to utilize CartoDB or some other mapping software. CartoDB shows you where things/people are or were. Therefore, it lends itself well using pictures, which Voyant clearly does not. However, just as without words Voyant is useless, CartoDB is useless without location. I enjoy CartoDB, particularly its animation map, but it is only useful in certain contexts. So I’m going to sound like a real estate agent and say CartoDB is all about location, location, location. Finally, my favorite child, Palladio–what more can I say about this? I love finding hidden relationships between sets, even more so when the sets don’t involve comparing real and rational numbers. Palladio solved my biggest pet peeve with CartoDB, which is that CartoDB–unless you put in extra layers and such–doesn’t show how one set relates to another. I really wanted to see which slaves came to move to Alabama from outside the state, but CartoDB couldn’t show me that: it could only show me dots–differently colored dots, but still. Palladio showed me the links, and it also made the nodes different sizes so I could so if there was a big influx of former slaves to a certain Alabama city. I could continue in my cheesy repetition and say that Palladio is all about relationships, (relationships, relationships!) but I see it more as a bridge between what Voyant specializes in and what CartoDB specializes in. This is apparent in the Mapping the Republic of Letters project: it bridges words and location, showing where letters were written and what those letters were about. Bringing all of those things together really makes my heart melt.

However, these software aren’t meant to compete: they’re better at complementing one another. Take biographies about fallen soldiers buried at Normandy American Cemetery (this is somewhat of a recurring motif throughout this blog): I could post all the biographies online and use Voyant to analyze which phrases appear the most. If all these soldiers were buried at the Colleville-sur-Mer, we could guess that words like “France” would appear often. However, Voyant could reveal that. say, a lot of them played baseball, based on the amount of times “baseball” appears in all the reports. Voyant also makes it clear which biographies contain the most information, as it gives the simple word count. Then we could see which biographies could have more gaps than others.

We could use CartoDB in this project for several things. If we want to focus on where all the soldiers came from, we just create points on a dot map, each point representing where each soldier was born. If we have the information about where each soldier died, we could map where they all died in France. It provides something more visual, which Voyant, even with the frequency charts, isn’t great at showing.

Lastly, we could use Palladio to bridge together some of the missing information. We could see lines connecting each soldier from where they were born to where they died. We could graph the relationship between what branch of the military they were a part of and where they died–perhaps indicating the different missions that airmen and soldiers had. We could even see if any of the soldiers could’ve crossed paths, based on the places mentioned in the biographies. Suddenly, new relationships are revealed through networking.

In short, a project can use all three of these tools, all without one overpowering the other. They each have a specialization, so why not use all of them?

Network Analysis with Palladio

I’ve always been intrigued with mapping and networks, given my background in applied mathematics. It’s refreshing to see, instead of mapping sets of real numbers to prime numbers (cue the groaning of all the non-STEM readers) this information being put to more practical use. (I hope my Axiomatic Set Theory professor doesn’t get annoyed I said that!) I really liked using Palladio to create a network, as I find networks inherently more interesting than plain maps. Maps are great for one-dimensional representations–to show relationships, however, I think it’s necessary to use networks.

We used the same data we’ve used for the past few exercises, which is metadata from interviews conducted by government employees with former slaves from 1936-1937. I found this exercise highlighted the most interesting revelations with the data. With mapping, I said that it mostly eliminates grunt work, but it doesn’t really reveal anything new. I guess the same could be true for network analysis, but I don’t think so. Human beings are terrible at grasping relationships between two sets. It’s why we need phrases like “correlation does not equal causation” but also why people can’t even believe correlation might mean something. (Cough, data relating to climate change leading to bad things.) Sifting through metadata may allow me to grasp a basic understanding of how big the Roman Empire was, but I can’t grasp that same understanding with the Republic of Letters, no matter how many times or how long I could stare at it. Therefore, the network analysis allowed me to see things I had never seen before, even with the text mining and the mapping.

We used Palladio for this exercise, which I found to be easy and intuitive. Although many of the projects we reviewed used Gephi, we used Palladio because Dr. Robertson instructed us to. Easy enough decision, then! The setup, I’ll admit, was a bit confusing, as it involved dragging and dropping .cvs files into the Palladio webpage. Then I had no idea what everything meant, but all that confusion was easily translated into networks when I hit the “graph” button. I have no idea how it translated all the metadata into a network–and I’m sure I’d have to get a degree in computer science to grasp it fully–but it translated the data beautifully, and it allowed me to choose relationships that I wanted to highlight. Just as with comparing any two sets of data, some were more useful than others. When both the source data and the target data contained large quantities, the network was too large to make any sense of. When one group was smaller, limited to say two or three categories, the relationships were plain to see. And relationships varied greatly. You could make a graph to show the relationship between where a particular former slave had been enslaved and where that same former slave was interviewed–effectively showing you where he/she was and where he/she is (at least when the interview was conducted). So that was a relationship across time, for the same person. But you could also graph relationships between people, for instance, between the interviewers and the interviewees. Which people interviewed former slaves the most? Were any former slaves interviewed twice? Suddenly these questions had easy-to-see answers. Then, to really get into what the former slaves talked about, you could graph what males talked about vs. what females talked about. However, just as Dr. Weingart said, just because you can network a relationship doesn’t mean you should. Some graphs were more visually informative than others, and others were just complete messes to both academics and laypeople. The relationships that best benefited from network analysis didn’t involve too many categories–even sorting what slaves talked about by age was a little too much. One-to-one is usually the best, but that doesn’t mean overlap isn’t important–in fact, overlap shows where common interests/places/people exist.

In conclusion, perhaps I loved this exercise just because I like networking, but even all the love of networking and graphing couldn’t make up for terrible software. I really liked Palladio, and I would gladly use it again.

Mapping with CartoDB

I’ve toyed with the idea of mapping before, but I thought mapping would involve lots of coding and headaches. Then I used CartoDB, and my life changed! (Sorry, this sounds like an infomercial.) Seriously, though, CartoDB is much, much more user-friendly than I expected. Although I had to follow instructions to create my multiple maps in CartoDB, I marveled at how easy it all was. I have to offer the caveat that I used a data set already provided to me, so I wasn’t manually entering any data laboriously. However, we’re talking about mapping, NOT metadata (thank goodness!), so let me begin.

The first type of map–the “dot map“–is fairly basic. There’s not much difference between this map and drawing dots on a physical map. However, you do get to select the background map, making it look slick and chic or going with an old-timey look. The background can convey a lot about what kind of data is being presented, so I liked this aspect of CartoDB. The other difference that makes this superior to a regular map and pen is the “hover” or “click” pop-ups, which, as the names suggest, allow information connected to each dot to appear whether you hover or click your cursor on it. I enjoyed the pop-ups because, when graphing in math class, I felt like legends were inadequate to convey all the information I wanted to. This solved that kind of problem perfectly.

The second type of map I tested out was the “animated map.” In this map, dots appeared and disappeared on the map to indicate when each interview was conducted. I really enjoyed this map, even if its information was very limited (i.e., the dates of the interviews). However, if this is the information you wanted, then you wouldn’t have to hover over dozens of dots to find out every date. Also, the animation provided a great insight into the frequency of the interviews across a period of almost a year, especially the months when the most interviews were conducted.

The third map I created was the “heat map,” which I definitely liked the least. I can imagine this kind of map would be useful if there are multiple data points in one town, say, as the dot map tends to let one data point cover up the others. However, since the interviews were relatively widespread, I don’t think this map was the best choice. I can see its uses, however, so don’t write it off. As always, you have to think about the information you want to convey, and the best medium for doing so.

We called the fourth map a “category map.” It’s a bit harder to describe this one, but basically this was a more interactive dot map. I was able to select widgets that allowed you to see the map through different categories: gender of the slave, name of the slave, where the slave was born, etc. True, this was all information available with the pop-ups on the dot map, but I enjoyed the idea of the visual presentation of certain information. Once again, it’s about accessibility of the information. It’s far easier to see dots of two colors and think, “Oh, there are the males and there are the females,” rather than clicking on every single dot. Plus, since I could only select a few widgets, I could focus the dots on the slaves, rather than on the interviewers. The animated map focused on when the interviews took place, which places emphasis on the project to document the slaves, not actually on the slaves themselves.

I suppose with the last map, the “layered map,” I was supposed to utilize all the information I previously learned about creating these maps. However, I couldn’t really use my two favorite types of map–animated and category–so I went the uncreative route and used two dot maps in different colors. The point of the layered map is to showcase multiple data sets on one map, so this map, for instance, shows where slave interviews were conducted and also where slaves were enslaved. However, I wished there were more of a relation between the two data sets. I did get to see that while the interviews were conducted in Alabama, the places people were enslaved were in Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, to name a few. I suppose this might be a fault of mine for expecting too much of CartoDB and of the data sets (they might not have represented the same people, after all), but then I think that eliminates the spirit of a layered map. I wouldn’t put two unrelated data sets on the same map–that wouldn’t make sense. So I wanted to see more of a connection, and there wasn’t one.

Overall, CartoDB was very user-friendly, and it’s a great way to showcase data.

Text Analysis with Voyant

http://docs.voyant-tools.org/start/

Voyant is an online tool (although it requires a download as well as a Java install for that cool Voyant 2.0) that allows you to see/map the frequency of words in a given document. Thankfully, you can paste .txt documents into Voyant, sparing you the need to copy the entire Declaration of Independence in one frustrating scroll. Also, you can copy multiple documents into Voyant, allowing wonderful compare/contrast exercises between the corpus–all of the works–and the individual documents themselves. The five main tools are Cirrus, Reader, Trends, Summary, and Contexts.  Cirrus is basically a fancy word for “Word Cloud”: it gives you a very visual and colorful representation of which words appear most in a given document. Reader, as its title suggests, allows you to read through a whole document–or a whole corpus, if you’re feeling really ambitious. However, it is most useful for allowing you to scroll over certain words to see how many times they appear in that particular document. Trends appeals to my math-loving side because it is a graph of how often a selected word (from the Cirrus tool) appears in the corpus. And if you want to get really fancy with Trends, you can see a graph for how often a word appears in just one document, so you can see if there are unusual spikes within one set even if there aren’t any present in the whole corpus. Summary is also self-explanatory, but it provides the numbers for everything. There’s nothing visual about summary; it’s all about words, words, words–and numbers, I suppose. If you don’t know every document’s length or vocabulary density, the Summary tool will figure it out in a pinch. However, Summary’s most useful category is Distinctive Words, which allows you to see which words appear in one document and no others–which means you don’t have to trawl through the Cirrus or the Frequency tools to see where the gigantic spikes are. Finally, the Contexts tool appeals to my writing-loving side, as it shows you all the surrounding words when it comes to the term/word selected. For instance, Cirrus or Trends couldn’t tell the difference between the nice Mrs. Burns or a fire that burns the whole town down. You could check through the Reader, but frankly, no one wants to do that. Contexts shows you, “Okay, this use of the word means the town was razed.” It stops you from jumping to crazy conclusions, which I am all for.

In conclusion, I find Voyant to be a very useful tool, and even one it could get easy to lose oneself in. However, a lot of Voyant isn’t very intuitive to use, especially features like getting not-so-frequent words to appear on the Trends graph, which involve selecting the word in various other places like a complicated game of leapfrog. Also, the exporting the information was the bane of my existence for this exercise, as exporting a Trends graph didn’t always export it as a Trends graph for “house” in Virginia, but for the whole corpus, which wasn’t selected in the first place! Oh well. Look at your work before you export, kids.