Tag Archives: GIS

Clio, Eight Years On

Way back in 2005 (about 4o Internet years), I taught our intro to digital history for graduate students, the first of two required courses for our PhD students and these days a requirement for our MA students in Art History. Then, for a variety of reasons having mostly to do with a sojourn in administration, I didn’t teach the course again until this semester.

As you might imagine, when I looked at my syllabus from 2005 for inspiration, all I could do was laugh. I think I ended up using something like 20% of the readings from 2005. Many of the weekly topics were the same, but the flood of writing about digital history/humanities, and the many new tools, especially computational tools, available to us now meant that I had to substantially rethink my approach to the course. We’ve wrapped up for the semester and as I sit down to start grading my students’ final projects next week, I’ll be looking at a whole lot of work that I never could have imagined in 2005.

To be sure, much of what my students were interested in hasn’t changed a lot. Their questions as historians and art historians in 2013 are very similar to the questions they were asking in 2005. The big difference is the tools available to them for answering those questions.

And of those tools and/or approaches to digital historical/art historical analysis that really stand out are text analysis, especially topic modeling with tools like Mallet, and geographic analysis with GIS tools such as ArcGIS. In both cases, the students using these tools have engaged in what we’re now calling “distant reading” of large volumes of information and then using one or both of tools like Mallet and ArcGIS to analyze their data and then display their findings. I don’t know if anyone even used the term “distant reading” in 2005. I know I didn’t.

Tools that would allow the distant reading of large corpora of historical sources certainly existed in 2005, but the bar to entry was so high that no one in our department, and I suspect in any history department, was incorporating these sorts of tools into their teaching. These days, however, the bar to entry has dropped substantially and so a number of my students were able to do some pretty sophisticated work in topic modeling and geographic analysis.

The other thing that makes this sort of work possible, of course, is the mass digitization of sources for the students to then use these tools on. Distant reading depends on these corpora and at least for teaching we can’t ask our students to do the work without easy access to the sources they need. Which is why we need to keep advocating for open access to digitized historical sources.

Finally, few of my students would have been able to do the work they did without the technological support and advice of a couple of the more advanced students in the room who showed up on campus this fall already reasonably adept with these tools. Had they not been available (and so willing) to support their colleagues in the course, the results I am looking at now would have been much less diverse.

For me, the big result is that before I teach the course again (I sure hope I won’t wait another eight years) I need to rethink the overall structure of the syllabus. This time around I took the existing structure and just plugged in new topics and readings. And while that worked well enough, it didn’t work well enough for me. Next time around I’m going to restructure the course more specifically around four or five key topics in digital history/art history and leave it up to the students to fill in around the margins of those topics. That way we’ll have more time to do more sophisticated work on fewer things.

What those things are will be a function of how long a hiatus I take between this semester and the next time I teach the course.

More Historical Mapping Projects

It seems that almost every month now a new application appears that makes it easier and easier to mash up historical and geographic information. Two that I’ve taken notice of this week are Weaving History and HistoryPin, both still in their beta versions, and so still a little quirky.

WeavingHistory lets the user build “factlets” which can then be incorporated into “threads.” These factlets are either user created or scraped from Wikipedia and can include one photograph and relevant date information. The latter bit of data is important, because once a thread is created and factlets are attached to it, the user can then see either a timeline of the thread generated by MIT’s Simile timeline maker, or a “geochrono” view that provides both a Google map with pins for each factlet and a Simile timeline.

I like the ease of use of this particular tool. I created a five factlet thread on the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe using text from our 1989 website project in about 10-15 minutes. The largest amount of time was devoted to searching out a few image URLs for the pictures I wanted. I can see a number of applications for this tool, especially for K-12 teachers who need to spend a fair amount of time on chronological and geographical thinking skills.

The most obvious downside at present is that in its very early beta form, WeavingHistory is completely open source, so someone may have already gone to the site and changed my thread. I’m a strong advocate of open source scholarship, and so from the standpoint of scholarship and crowd sourcing historical content, I think that would be a good result. However, for teaching purposes, one could not ask a student to create a presentation in WeavingHistory because he or she might then show up for class and find the work completely changed.

HistoryPin is a project that allows users to pin historical photographs onto Google maps so that users can then compare “what it looked like then” with “what it looks like now.” Because one can look first at the historical photograph and then switch to the Street View feature in Google Maps, it is quite easy to see the changes in local geography and the local built environment. Users can also attach “stories” to each picture, a feature that allows for more crowd sourcing of information about the historical images.

This project has all sorts of potential for teaching and learning. Students can easily group a collection of historical images into a collection on the site. Right now there are a number of collections there–perhaps the most popular at present is pictures of royal weddings in the UK. Because the students can add text to the images they place in a collection, very simple and engaging presentations could result. And, because others out there in the wilds of the Internet can also add information to the images, students would have to grapple with what it means to create historical knowledge in public space.

New Data from D.C.

The U.S. government is beginning to post its vast collection of data sets online. At the moment, there are only 47 data sets posted at data.gov and most of these are geological or weather related. However, it won’t be long (I’m told) before data of greater interest to historians begin to appear. I, for one, can’t wait for census data to begin showing up on this site rather than having to rely on other, more cumbersome points of access to the census. My hope is that data.gov will eventually include not only the 2000 census, but all of the census data collected by the federal government. Talk about a treasure trove for historians!

Around the world census authorities are posting more and more raw data in its entirety and in various summary forms. At present much of this data is the most recent information, but soon we can expect to see historical data sets. One thing I like about the data.gov data sets is that many are published in a variety of formats, including, for instance, Google Earth overlays. So, for example, if you want to know how many earthquakes there have been in any part of the world in the past seven days, you can download the file and take a peek. Here’s a look at Alaska.


But what if your interest was in changing patterns of infant mortality in Europe compared to levels of industrialization (say, steel production) over time? Once these data are available, enterprising historians and geographers and sociologists and economists will start to play with the data and instead of earthquakes, we’ll be able to see graphical representations of the relationship between things like mortality and industrialization. Of course, this will require some rather unprecedented cooperation between social scientists who aren’t so used to talking to one another, but I suspect that a passion for data is something many of us share and will become a way to bridge our disciplinary divides.

Geographies of Terror in Poland

I am now a participant in the group blog hist.net based in Switzerland. Before writing anything for the blog, I perused the entries for the past year and was particularly excited by several of them. The one I want to feature today is a post by Marcin Wilkowski about two websites based in Poland that are excellent examples collecting history in a digital environment and the use of GIS to display the material collected.

I have written about similar projects here in the United States in earlier posts. And, of course our September 11 Digital Archive and Hurricane Digital Memory Bank make liberal use of the same kinds of interfaces. But these two sites from Poland deserve special mention.

The first, Ĺšladami Zbrodni (Traces of the Crimes) is a project of the Institute of National Remembrance in Poland that invites the general public to populate the database with images and video of the secret prisons of the Communist regime, of the residences of Communist era officials, and other sites important to the narrative of the regime’s crimes against its own people. The second project, POLIN, has a similar interface, although this site is devoted to preserving the history of Poland’s Jewish community.

Of the two, the former works better as a historical resource–at least at the moment–because it is focused more on contemporary history. The places being cataloged in the Traces project need to be captured as they are now, before much more time passes. The images in the POLIN project, at least the portions I visited, are largely current images of those places. While these are quite useful–as for instance the image of the monument at Jedwabne–what I wanted more of was images from the history of Poland’s Jewish community. Visitors to the site are encouraged to upload such images–I just didn’t find any in my scanning around.

But it is early days for both of these projects. I suspect that as more and more people begin adding materials from their personal collections to the databases, their collections will get richer and richer. For an East European historian like me, they are excellent teaching resources already.