Monthly Archives: November 2013

Reflections on the “Our Marathon” Project

At the beginning of the semester, I recall, we were a bit critical of crowdsourced digital collections. In particular, I’m thinking of the September 11th digital archive. I remember we were skeptical as to its usefulness as a source of historical data. This week our class took a look at Northeastern University’s “Our Marathon” project, which is similarly constructed. After looking at this, my feeling is that these sites do have some usefulness.

To be sure, it doesn’t seem like a historian could interpret the bombing in terms of its meaning to the history of the country as a whole or Boston from this source. The project focuses on the stories of everyday people, such as those who were near where the bomb went off, describing how they remembered the events of that day as they transpired, and police officers involved in the immediate aftermath. There isn’t much about how the federal government responded in terms of policy or how the national mood changed, for instance, that would lend toward an interpretation of the bigger picture.

While providing an interpretation of historical events may be one of the (if not the) central tasks of the historian, this is not all that is involved in the historian’s line of work. Sometimes it helps to describe historical events in detail, so that there is a deeper connection to the historian’s overall interpretation. And this website provides the historian a tool that can be used to “tell the story,” if not to interpret it.

I should emphasize that a big part of why I think this site works is because the event is both so recent and so specific.  The memories are still fresh in the contributor’s minds, and how they felt that day is very evident in their descriptions. It would be more difficult, for example, to try to crowdsource an archive of memories of “McCarthyism.” What all would that label encompass? Would we so easily be able to identify common threads amongst the contributors? Would their memory of how they felt still be as clear sixty years later?

The fact that this event is recent and (relatively) clearly demarcated means we can worry less about the accuracy and consistency of focus in responses and identify reoccurring elements that could help the historian of modern America tell the story of that day in rich, interesting detail, even while trying to keep the focus on a group of people instead of a few individuals. I noticed, for example, many people, in their initial reaction to the first explosion, thought that an accident had happened (such as a ceremonial cannon accidentally going off or a truck hitting a building). It wasn’t actually until the second explosion shortly after that mass hysteria started to spread rapidly. Another aspect of the project I was interested in was its preservation of “memes,” short slogans and icons that were meant to capture a collective feeling, in this case, the resilience and pride of the Boston community; unswayed by the malicious intent of the bombers. I thought this was a powerful visual element that captured both the feelings involved that day and the way those feelings are expressed in our increasingly digital world.

To summarize my point, these examples, I think, prove the effectiveness of crowdsourced digital collections in contributing to the storytelling aspect of the Historian’s craft, if not the hermeneutical aspect.

Visual Literacy and Public History

One of issues evident in this week’s readings was the concept of visual rhetoric as a function of the knowledge a viewer already has. In “Visualizations and Historic Arguments”, Theibault summarized this concern succinctly: “…authors have to consider how much background information the readers bring to the visualization…complex visualizations has increased the gaps between expert and novice interpreters, which raises challenges for historians who seek the most effective visual approach”. This struck me as a particularly important consideration from the stand point of public history, which frequently has the opportunity to engage an audience with very diverse backgrounds and levels of education.

Familiarity with the theory and methods of scholarly inquiry and interpretation, and the assumptions that are made in the construction of a visualization, is much less relevant to the tourist playing with the light up map of the Freedom Trail in the Old State House or following a time line of Midde Eastern history in the Museum of Science’s Dead Sea Scroll exhibit. To this public, Johanna Drucker’s visualizations of temporality exceed casual understanding, even as they reflect important considerations regarding the interpretation and use of qualitative concepts in visualizations as a scholarly activity. Martyn Jessop notes this disparity: “years of school life, and many of adulthood, are spent mastering written language but the western education system places little effort, or value on, teaching visual literacy” (288). Jessop is also understanding visualizations as a scholarly activity, but his treatment is more inclusive due his broadly stated purpose (“discovery of new knowledge” (282)) and use (if it generates insights (287)), and this has more purchase in public history. At this point, in visual literacy, Drucker’s visualizations require substantial explanation, relating to another concept introduced by Tufte when he discusses “Layers and Separation”, “confusion and clutter are failures of design, not attributes of information” (53).

Also for use in public history, a viewer’s background factors into creating effective visualizations by appealing to a customized experience. In describing the use of courtroom graphics, Tufte acknowledges their appeal to a jury: “visual displays of information encourage a diversity of individual viewer styles and rates of editing, personalizing, reasoning, and understanding …simultaneously a wideband and a perceiver-controllable channel”(31). I like the courtroom scenario for the treatment of an audience, because there is no doubt regarding what the lawyer is trying to do. There is clearly a visual rhetoric intent on persuading the jury to a particular point of view and in order to appeal to the jury, the lowest common denominator of visual understanding has to be constructed. The “perceiver-controllable channel” is a method of achieving this commonality between diverse individuals, which is a guiding principle that could definitely be used to develop visualizations for public history.

Video Visualizations

Hey all. I just wanted to post a quick link to a really cool data visualization group’s site. They are called 422 South and do a lot of cinematic data visualizations (similar to my post a few weeks ago about data visualizations). A repository of their data visualization work is available here:

Here is a montage of some of their data visualizations as well:

I think this cinematic quality of data visualizations is something that seems to be underrepresented in the readings for this week. Much of Tufte’s work deals with creating and displaying static visualizations (for example, within the text of a monograph).   Jessop mentions that data visualizations require a a “visual literacy” that is related to how we look at:

  • “Galleries of images.
  • Museums and collections of objects,
  • Film, Television, and other moving images
  • Dramatic re-creations
  • Maps and atlases
  • Pictures of data…
  • …Single Images” (Jessop 286)

But Jessop’s focus is certainly focused on how we look at data visualizations as still images. His article purposefully glosses over the part on “film, television, and other moving images.” Theibault briefly mentions “cinematic mapping,” and Drucker does not talk about video, animation, or cinematic display at all in his piece.

Since I have become introduced to digital humanities and data visualizations (so the past year or so), I’ve noticed an increasing number of video visualizations, particularly on humanities projects. Videos are easier to create these days and videos allow us in the humanities to demonstrate change over time in a way that two-dimensional visualizations do not. Sure static visualizations have been effective at finding ways to incorporate a temporal component, but video and animation gives us the opportunity to manipulate an image over a set period of time (scaled and correlated to an actual interval of time). Check out this recent post on the Infectious Texts Project here at Northeastern: (

Most of the visualizations included in this article are video visualizations. Here is an example:

Even our professor, Ben Schmidt, utilizes video visualizations in his work on the whaling logs (

Or take a look at many of the videos at the Spatial History Project at Stanford such as Railroaded.

I mention all these video visualizations just to point out that I think this seems to be an under-theorized part of looking at, analyzing, and creating visualizations. It seems to me that although video visualizations are not a new phenomena, it has certainly become easier to make video visualizations and to make them available (youtube and other video hosting sites). I definitely do not have time to do this in a blog post, but I do think it is important that we theorize and provide critique for these video visualizations as something similar but distinct from static visualizations and graphs. Hopefully we can discuss this more tonight!

Data Visualizations and the Role of the Historian

In the past week, I was required to read an article entitled “Spatial History” by Richard White, in which he discussed the plotting of data against the background of a digital map, whether of a country, a city, or any other space specified by the researcher. In this article, white emphasizes the role of these data visualizations as “a means of doing research” (White, 6). He also argues that the visualizations should not be merely illustrations that illustrate concepts the researcher has developed through non-digital means. It is appropriate to emphasize the use of visualizations as an interpretive tool, I think. But it is incorrect to assume that these visualizations should be used solely as a means of interpretation.

Too often, I believe, the role of the historian has been emphasized as somebody whose prime responsibility is to read an interpret texts of the past. I believe this ignores another, equally important function of the historian. As much a part of the historian’s job as research (even though research might be the most time-consuming aspect of our job, though, to be sure, I am theorizing here, as I am merely training to become a professional historian), is the role of a public orator. Historians are not merely researchers; they are also instructors whose skills are intended to help upcoming generations think critically about society and human interaction (it’s hard to imagine a professor who hasn’t taught a class at some point!). I believe that data visualizations have the potential to synthesize data in a way that is more readily and easily interpreted by students, and therefore make historical data potentially more accessible and interesting (to the students whose major isn’t in the social sciences, for example).

For this reason, it was refreshing for me to read the article “Visualizations and Historical Arguments” by John Theibault and the book “Envisioning Information” by Edward Tufte. Theibault’s article discusses the power of visualizations in communicating “an argument or narrative beyond the meaning of the words.” He discusses the importance of balancing information density and its proper display. This was also a theme discussed heavily in “Envisioning Information.” Tufte, for his part, discusses the importance of making visual data legible by employing concepts such as “chart junk,” defined as the presence of unnecessary visual displays, and the “1+1 = 3 rule” which emphasizes the problem of constructing visualizations in a way that does not distract the viewer  and thus obscures the meaning of the display.

I think that in discussing the potential of the digital humanities, it’s important that we consider it in terms of the historian’s role as an instructor and arbiter of knowledge as well as just a researcher. Conceptualizing humanities computing in this way might be a step forward, I think, in allowing us to reduce some of the ambiguity about its potential benefits over traditional methods.