Shaping the West

This week’s discussion focuses on visualizing change over time, as illustrated with railroad company board membership. Though you cannot plug in your own data here as with Wordle, you can adjust what the tool shows and how it shows it.

The questions are much the same as last week: can you imagine using a visualization tool like this for your own sources/data? Could this be useful for research? Or just as a way of presenting data? What kind of features would make such a tool more generally useful?

17 Responses to “Shaping the West”

  1. Melissa Says:

    I think this tool, if expanded to other times/dates, would be immensely useful in showing students events like the expansion of silk road trade, the marriages of the royal houses of Europe, or, perhaps much more useful to a broader swath of folks (historians and others!), the spread of disease. I know we have some charts that do this, but if it was possible to plug in basic data and have it look for other data based on parameters…

    the possibilities here are exciting!

  2. wilssearch Says:

    This looks good as well. It does have the draw back of being a tad confusing on what like means what, but that might be taken care of with a larger image that what I had available to me tonight.

    Using this mapping system along with the Time system might produce some interesting facts about the density of the copperheads in the North and the unionists in the South and then use the other program to show how much the publications influenced or reported the actual social, political, and cultural behaviors of the participants.

    I can’t wait to see what comes up next week!

  3. Jeff Tenuth Says:

    Depending on what I needed to know and what data I had, this could be an extremely useful tool. At its most basic level, it tells me who did what, and when, as well as the relationships between different railroads. Even with that alone, this is an excellent way of graphically representing many different types of data. It could be used for demographic and political data sets, census records, agricultural data, and many other applications as well. Looking at the Spatial History Project data from Stanford, the examples are fascinating. Imagine the possibilities of then layering the data, much the same as using GIS to plot census, transportation, agricultural, or economic data. In theory almost any data set could be displayed in order to discern patterns that words alone may not easily convey. This type of application could speed research as well. But let’s also keep in mind that this is a tool, this is not the end in itself. Our goal is not to create graphical systems that display data alone, but to create and use graphical systems to display data in ways that lead to better or more meaningful interpretation. I encourage other panel members to look at the Stanford University Spatial History Project website and view the other examples of graphically representing historical data. To answer the questions posed by this project, this is not just another way of presenting data, this is breakthrough type methodology that could ease the rigors of library type research and promote interpretation beyond the mere presentation of data. Unless of course, one likes the rigors of library type research (which I do, actually).

  4. Cathy Moran Hajo Says:

    This is a very interesting tool– I could see trying a lot of different things with it, and think that it is the kind of tool that lets us do research on our data, not just report what we found using more traditional methods. The example of the railroad boards does take a little time to get acclimated to, but the other examples on the Stanford site, particularly those that link maps to the display of data do very interesting things.

    I would like to know how the data is entered in this system, whether it is something that a student could do or is more complex. I could see presenting students with data and having them use a system like this to tease out meaning. If everyone used the same data (say the census for a town) but was interested in different issues, the benefits of a flexible tool like this would be very apparent.

    Linking time and place with data is something that we would all want to do more easily, because we know the patterns that we see in the data, but don’t have a great way to show them to others. I think this tool is the most intriguing one so far.

  5. Colin Wilder Says:

    This is spectacular. I think that what is maybe best about it is that the nodes automatically adjust location to fit best, and you can manually put them in different places. The ability to move the needle through time and see that network change is great too. I am interested in doing something like this with social networks of genealogy, patronage, professional connections, and citations among members of the German intelligentsia in the 17th and 18th centuries. If anyone is interested in this or knows someone else who might be, please let me know.

  6. Colin Wilder Says:

    P.S. Feel free to contact me directly by email at “niloc7 AT uchicago DOT edu”.

  7. dcmcmurtry Says:

    I thought all of the visual projects at Stanford’s spatial history project were phenomenal. I especially like the researchers’ goal of highlight changes in space. However, I thought that the images in the “Tides” and “Rio de Janiero” projects were all more conceptually decipherable than the railroad project. The railroad maps, at first glance made some sense but were fairly confusing. After reading the project intro and specific image related overviews, I understood more clearly what the images were supposed to show, but still felt that I didn’t grasp all of the information presented or even understand the details. So while I think the potential is very great, and the investment of work and thought is very impressive, I wonder how many average visitors will be able to understand the maps. Maybe this depends on background; geography departments deal with more complex visual imaging systems on a daily basis than historians generally do in a year.

    It strikes me as more useful as a research tool, therefore, both because it seems necessary have to have a pretty good grasp on the basic issues, relationship and geography of many these topics to get the most out of the maps. and also because as the researcher, the process of defining what information you wish to present and figuring out how to present it may provide opportunity to find other interesting correspondences previously unnoticed. As a newcomer, I learned some basic relationships about the geography of ownership and the social implications of railroad pricing maneuvers, but I had to read what the connections were, I couldn’t divine them from the maps visually. I’ll probably remember the arguments better because of the pictures, but the relationship between the images and the explanations are still a bit hazy for me. It would make comparing information from one data set or geography to another easier, I think. Perhaps comparing the pricing issues in San Francisco with another US or foreign city. In terms of visualizing my research, I could definitely imagine having some graphs or interactive maps similar to this, though I currently have neither the skill or time to create them. Thinking through what I might do and how I might present it, though, has helped to sharpen my analysis of my research and find areas where I need to or would like to know more. And unique and complex maps like this help me think more broadly about how I might do it.

  8. Thomas Mackie Says:

    I used portions of this web page “Shaping the West” with the intent to see if portions can be used to interpret human geography. My students need to create projects on spatial history or a spatial version of their other studies. I spent time looking over Slave Market of Reo De Janeeiro. The movement map is interesting and the readings makes it understandable. Time progression maps are useful in exhibit design but difficult with many schools because of limited technology. Several programs would not let me load due to software issues. Google earth will not download pr0perly on our computers, limiting some of the technology.
    To be shelfish I was mostly looking for a form of interpretation that I could use to interpret my museum’s research data.
    As with many forms of this technology, they appear somewhat randomly in the virtual universe and not assembled where they can be found when needed.

  9. tim vermande Says:

    With most of my students being visually oriented, I have always found representations such as this to be very useful. It is not so much about forcing “facts” into memory as it is for showing trends and illustrating change so that students will take up an interest in looking further.

    This would be far more useful if there was a way to input my own data–and then be able to share it with others. Having this as a program that could be readily used and at a location where it can be found

  10. Steven Scott Says:

    I could see a lot of uses for this type of visual aid, both in the classroom and especially when presenting work at a conference. I do a lot of work with demographic figures – number of indentured servants migrating to Virginia over the course of the 17th century and into the 18th century; number of slaves imported; number of total bound laborers in Virginia over that span; etc. For these purposes, I found the expanding and contracting circles showing the number of cattle in various areas of the country throughout the late-19th and early-20th centuries the easiest to visualize and possibly appropriate for my own research.

    Even though we could not input our own data, I would imagine this would be very easy data entry and for a novice user such as myself, I would be more amendable to using a tool like this if the interface was relatively easy to use.

  11. Kelly Kennington Says:

    I could see this tool being used to trace the lawyers I study in antebellum St. Louis, following their careers through different types of lawsuits and through different political circles. The tool could also be an interesting way to trace members of any community through time, following their affiliations and participation in different groups and organizations. I would be very interested in seeing this tool developed to allow for users to input their own data.

  12. Andrew H. Lee Says:

    I think I could use it for research, especially since I have been trying to get spatial ideas of various places where the subject of my dissertation lived in Spain and France. Working on a body such as a an anarchist trade union and its associated publications I know using GIS imagery could help me more clearly see trends I suspect are true but lack the overall picture. Ease of data entry and the ability to compare and match different sets would be especially useful, as I want to compare a number of different sets of data. But i agree with many of the other commentators, it required a bit of effort to sometimes understand what was being represented, and I wonder if students would instantly get it, would have the patience and take the time to understand, or would require more instruction. But for my own research I really want a tool like this that I can enter data into. I asked our local GIS folks about data for Spain but have not heard back…

  13. allison Says:

    This tool, and the whole spatial history project really blew me away…and I was very sympathetic to the underlying theoretical claim that while spatial language has been taken up in a big way in historical research, spatial experiences remain under conceptualized and under investigated. The possibilities in my own field are limitless – visualization of the networks of writers, editors, artists, etc. associated with the ever proliferating periodical press in nineteenth-century France, artistic migrations in the same period, urbanizing Paris – the latter has of course been particularly well researched and written about, but I could imagine a visualization that might alter some of the standard narratives. What would a spatial visualization of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades project – itself a kind of alternative spatial visualization in both text and image – look like? What might a model of the places he went and wrote about, the photographs and quotes he gathered, reveal about this enormous and complex work?

  14. AUrbanski Says:

    Despite the fact that my slow, slow computer would not let me load many of the visualizations, I was impressed with what the creators of this site have done. I think if a tool like this was ever made available for public use, it would have to be very simple to plug in the data and get your results (which would be quite a task, I’m sure), but the value of visualizations like these is extremely useful. Today, people are more drawn to images that move around on the screen as well as images you can manipulate. Therefore, this tool makes reading data both fun and educational. Who knew that could be possible!

  15. Sara M Says:

    I think this is a great visualization tool in general, and a good aid for the historian. Considering that the data exists as a corpus ready to be uploaded, and it means a great work of compilation at least, this tool can be used to draw maps and graphics. I think on Mr. Moretti’s work, where from a specific data questions may raise. Could we do the opposite as upload data on the great diasporas, for example, and generate maps and graphics showing dates, numbers, points of departure and arrival…. How useful this could be to visualize and trace all these movements along the time in the human history? How interesting could it the maps and graphics could express new evidence confronting known interpretations? I would like to have data to make a test…

  16. sara m. Says:

    I forgot to mention that this can be very useful for research, but currently I can visuzalize it more as a way of showing date.
    I think that making this resource more interactive would be nice. Tags and pop-ups could be added with summaries/information about each of the nodes of the rail, as a work in progress.

  17. Nabeel Siddiqui Says:

    I am rarely ever a critic of digital history. Unfortunately, I just don’t see this tool adding as much to the field as I would hope. It seems like it isn’t really any different from the other tools that we have used, such as Many Eyes, and, in fact, seems less capable of accomplishing tasks than usual.

    I can understand the use of mapping out directors, artists, etc. I can also understand the use of using the tool for demographic history, but I honestly am having trouble realizing how I could use this as much as other more powerful tools. Perhaps, if this was the first digital history tool of its kind, I would be blown away by it. Unfortunately, it is not and I can’t justify anyone using this over Many Eyes unless they simply want a different graph. As far as the concept goes though, I do not find it that innovative although I do appreciate the hard work that was put into it. I know I couldn’t create it.

Enhancing Historical Research With Text-Mining and Analysis Tools