Tag Archives: Visualizations

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 I’m a strong advocate of open source scholarship, and so from the standpoint of scholarship and crowd sourcing historical content, I think that would be a good result.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.

Visualizing Millions of Words

One of the very first posts I wrote for this blog was about visualizing information and some of the new online tools that had cropped up to make it a little easier to think about the relationships between data–words, people, etc. Interesting as they were, those tools were all very limited in their scope and application, especially when compared to Google’s newly rolled out Ngram viewer. This new tool, brought to you by the good people at GoogleLabs, lets users compare the relationships between words or short phrases, across 5.2 million books (and apparently journals) in Google’s database of scanned works.

The data produced with this tool are not without criticism. I will leave it to the literary scholars and the linguists to hash out the thornier issues here. My own concern is how using a tool such as this one can help students of the past make sense of the past in new or different ways. Among the many things I’ve learned from my students over the years is that they can be pretty persistent in their belief that words have been used in much the same way over time, that they have meant the same things (generally) over time, and/or that words or phrases that are common today were probably common in the past–assuming those words existed. They (my students) know that such assumptions are problematic for all the obvious reasons, but that doesn’t stop them from holding to these assumptions anyway.

I just spent an hour or so playing with the Ngram tool, putting in various words or phrases, and I can already imagine a simple assignment for students in a historical methods course. I would begin such an assignment by asking them to play with word pairs such as war/peace. In the graph below, we see that peace (red) overtook war (blue) in 1743 as a word that appeared in books in English (at least in books Google has scanned to date).

Intriguing as this “finding” is, the lesson that I would then focus on with my students is that what they are looking at in such a graph is nothing more or less than the frequency with which a word is used in book (and only books) published over the centuries. While such frequencies do reflect something, it is not clear from one graph just what that something is. So instead of an answer, a graph like this one is a doorway that leads to a room filled with questions, each of which must be answered by the historian before he or she knows something worth knowing.

After introducing my students to that room full of questions, I would then show them a slightly more sophisticated (emphasis on slightly) use of this tool. My current research is on the history human trafficking. But as the graph below shows, the term “human trafficking” (green) is a very recent formulation in books written in English. More common in prior decades were the terms “white slave trade” (blue) and “traffic in women and children” (red). The first graph below offers students a way to see the waxing and waning of these formulations over the past century.

But this graph also demonstrates a nice lesson in paying attention to what one is looking at. Google’s database of available books runs through 2008. The graph above ends in 2000. If I expand the lower axis to 2008, the lines look quite different (see next graph). My hope would be to use tricks like this to demonstrate to my students how essential it is that they think critically about the data being represented to them in any graphical form.

While I doubt that I’ll ever assign Edward Tufte’s work to my undergraduates, I do think that an exercise such as this one with the Ngram viewer will make it possible to introduce the work of Tufte and others in a way that will be more accessible to undergraduates. If they’ve already played with tools like the Ngram viewer, then the more theoretical and technical discussions will make a lot more sense and will seem a lot more relevant. I think they will also be more likely to see the value in what Stephen Ramsay calls the “hermeneutics of screwing around.”

History Collages and Image Mining

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about how students can begin to sort through the huge databases of historical images now available online. Image mining is still in its infancy, although already we are starting to see some interesting work being done in the field. This work promise to eventually let us do what might be called forensic image mining where one takes an image of, say, a face and then sends out a search looking for other iterations of that face. Much of the work in image mining is still highly technical, but if you are interested, a good place to start might be the work of Thomas Deselaers.

Until efforts such as Deselaers’ bear fruit, we will remain dependent on the metadata added to images to help us locate what we want. Because the kind of metadata we want is generally added only to images posted online by libraries and archives, mining images posted online by the crowd will remain a difficult task for at least a few more years.

For just a minute though, let’s imagine what it will be like five years from now when our students can find images that they want or need through sophisticated image mining techniques. What will they do with those images once they’ve analyzed them?

I’ve always felt that writing about images was a bit like dancing about architecture (to paraphrase Elvis Costello, Frank Zappa, Martin Mull, or Steve Martin depending which Google hit you believe). Describing the content of an image is all well and good, but images are, well, visual, and so creating text about a visual medium removes us one full step (at least) from the thing itself. So why not ask our students to create history with the visual sources they find online?

Already many history teachers do just that by asking students to create history collages in the younger grades or poster presentations in later grades/college about their research. But even these, worthy as they may be, are static representations of the past and once created are difficult to alter. Each year more and more tools emerge online to let students begin to play with images and how they might present them. Just to give one example, our Object of History project here at CHNM lets students create a “visual presentation” drawn from material found on the site. For all its strengths, this particular module exemplifies what won’t work when we can begin to do real image mining–students using the Object of History project can only work with the material in the site, not with material they find elsewhere.

Often I find intriguing ideas from the world outside of academia that seem as though they might be ported over into what we are trying to do in education. Take just a minute and look at the website polyvore.com (thanks to my wife Susan for pointing this one out to me). This site, devoted to women’s fashion, lets its users create “sets” from a database of images that are aggregated from the websites of retailers. Information about each image (we might call it metadata) is embedded in the larger image (we might call it a poster) and to the right you find a fuller description of each item (we might call that an annotation). Creators of these sets can add content from their own images as well.

The image sets on this site then move up and down in popularity based on user feedback, are categorized in a wide variety of ways, and users interact with one another around the sets…a different spin on social networks than what we are used to thinking of in education.

Imagine a world where students can use a tool like polyvore.com and the images available to them are mined from the web (rather than from a discrete set of library or archival sites). What might they create when they are making history in this way? How might their presentation of visual information change the way we think about the past? How might their interactions with one another around such visual creations change the ways they think about the past? I for one am looking forward to such a world.

New NEH Digital Start Up Grants

Last week the Office of Digital Humanities (ODH) at the National Endowment for the Humanities announced the most recent winners of funding from the Digital Humanities Start Up grant competition (including a team here at CHNM).

Three things jump out at me as I look at the list of new projects. The first is a question–what happened to Web 2.0? Only two and possibly three of the projects seem to be utilizing the features of Web 2.0 that we were all so excited about just a year or two ago. I don’t know if this means that Web 2.0 has lost its luster in academic-techie circles, if the folks at the ODH are less interested in Web 2.0 proposals, or if the Web 2.0ish proposals submitted this time around just weren’t very good. One funding announcement does not a trend make, but it will be interesting to see what happens to Web 2.0 humanities in the next round of these grants.

The second thing I noticed in looking at these grants was how few use hand held computing platforms, especially smart phones, as essential technologies. I find this much more troubling than the lack of Web 2.0 grants because I think that the power of hand held computing devices to transform what we do in the digital humanities is far greater than the various things that can be found in the Web 2.0 basket. And I’m not alone in having such strong feelings about the coming impact of smart phones and other hand helds…just listen to what Tom and Dan had to say on this subject back in January.

Finally, it seems that 3D is the next big thing. A significant number of the funded proposals offer some sort of take on the creation of immersive 3D environments in one way or another. To date I think the jury is still out on 3D simulations in the humanities and so I’m pleased to see that the ODH is putting some money into these ideas to see which ones will work. After all, that is the purpose of these start up grants — to invest in a variety of opportunities in the hope that at least some of them pan out.