Dan Talks Digital History III: In the Sandbox

Apps don’t always work the way you expect.

This week, Prof. Boyer’s assignment was simply to make something. Since it was fall break and I had time to kill, I did a deep dive into d.h. tools. In my last post of this series, I proposed visualizing the time and place of soldiers’ injuries using Timemapper, a tool that combines maps with timelines. I thought that Timemapper would create an animated map: As you scrolled through the timeline, new map markers would appear. However, it turns out that Timemapper only makes static maps. All the markers appear at once, and the sole “moving part” of the visualization is the timeline. If I still want to make a cartoon, I’ll have to use another app (CartoDB? Social Explorer? The promising MyHistro?). But that’s why it’s good to play in the sandbox of digital history. Experimentation is the only way to learn how to use these tools and pick the proper ones for your project.

My first project was an interactive map of Rochester, NY, where I went to college. This experiment taught me the limits of Timemapper. I made spreadsheets for two kinds of places – locations I lived and worked on campus, and my favorite restaurants in the city – and added GPS coordinates. These themed spreadsheets would form each layer of my timemap. I used Timemapper’s template, which meant adding metadata, like start and end dates for the places I lived. When I uploaded the spreadsheet to Timemapper and clicked “Create,” I finally learned the static nature of a timemap. Then I couldn’t get the dates and timeline to appear. Frustrated, I switched to Google My Maps, a free and easy app that comes with every Gmail account. There’s no timeline feature, but the maps look great. The ease of Google Maps makes it an ideal tool for amateur historians, underfunded local historical societies, and students learning cartography for the first time. I’m also interested in sharing the map with my friends, so they can add their own layers and icons, especially for places we enjoyed together.

My other two experiments went smoothly. I made an account with the New York Public Library’s Map Warper and rectified a historical map, “Greater New York’s census districts, 1920: compiled from map prepared 1915-1918 for the 1920 census by the New York Federation of Churches.” The map shows the street layouts in Manhattan one hundred years ago. As I seem to spend a lot of time walking around Manhattan during my vacations, I wanted to compare the city’s past landscape to the present. I added control points to the historical map and a map of modern NYC, so the two images would align. Next, I cropped the historical map to a manageable size. With the click of a button, the old map warped to fit the new one, with the control points acting like tent pegs to hold the image together. The rectified version, blending two centuries’ Manhattans, is available for anyone to view or edit. Map Warper’s intelligent software does most of the work for you, so this experiment was quick. Map warping is useful for studying the accuracy (or, more often, inaccuracies) of old maps, comparing artistic historical maps to today’s scientific but plain-looking maps, and comparing the sprawl of metropolitan areas in the past and present.

Finally, I used Voyant to conduct a statistical analysis of Quaker preacher Abner Woolman’s journal. I’m researching Abner for my Atlantic history class this semester, so I decided to test out a d.h. tool and combine my coursework. I uploaded a transcript of Abner’s handwritten journal to Voyant. The app quickly supplied information about the most common words in the document, their trends, etc. It also produced a neat illustration called a Word Cloud. The key lesson from Voyant was to include a list of “stop words” – prepositions, numbers, articles, and other terms that appear often in writing, but confuse the Voyant app. Unlike a human, a computer cannot recognize significant from insignificant words, so you must tell the computer what words to ignore.

Word cloud of Abner Woolman's journal.
Word cloud of Abner Woolman’s journal.

Overall, my time in the sandbox was occasionally vexing, but mostly fun. I certainly feel more comfortable using these digital tools than I did two weeks ago.

Voyant citation: Sinclair, S. and G. Rockwell (2015). Voyant. Retrieved October 19, 2015 from http://voyant-tools.org/tool/CorpusSummary/.

Cover Photo:
“A medieval depiction of the Ecumene (1482, Johannes Schnitzer, engraver), constructed after the coordinates in Ptolemy’s Geography and using his second map projection. The translation into Latin and dissemination of Geography in Europe, in the beginning of the 15th century, marked the rebirth of scientific cartography, after more than a millennium of stagnation.” Source: http://bit.ly/1RUmH2o.

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