Modelling data and Historical Research

Historical research that utilises Digital Humanities methodologies often construct databases to help structure the data and information being gathered. This can cause difficulties for how the data is structured and the type of database to be constructed. Luke Kirwan in an 2013 conference paper succinctly summed up the problems in a series of questions and observations:

“The application of digital humanities to the study of history is considered a new methodological approach, but it remains rather ad-hoc. How should a database be structured? How should ‘nouns’ be encoded? How do we tie ancient, sometimes no longer extant regions, into a modern GIS system?” (Kirwan 2013)

Kirwan’s paper on ‘Databases for quantitative history’ raises a number of questions about the feasibility of implementing databases for historical research, and in particular the use of relational databases for quantitative historical data.

The first question that needs to be addressed before any comparative analysis can be implemented is that of definitions. The terms ‘model’ and ‘data’ are utilised indiscriminately with very little definition of what each term means in the context of different modelling techniques. Goodman in Language of Art (1976) wrote a prescient critique of the term ‘model’ in the 1970s that is still relevant to our current context. Goodman’s critique was outlined in detail in Michael Gavin’s article on ‘Agent-based modelling and humanities research’.

’Few terms are used in popular and scientific discourse more promiscuously than ‘model.’” (Gavin 2014)

Goodman’s critique of ‘model’ was in popular and scientific discourse. In recent decades, the term ‘model’ is now ubiquitous across the social sciences and the humanities. This has led humanities scholars to embrace phrases such as ‘data,’ which must be ‘modelled’ for results. This is part of a broader cultural shift within elements of humanities research to borrow the rhetorical phraseology of the scientific method. In particular, this is evident in the digital humanities and this is, in many ways, the most appropriate venue for this hybrid discourse; as digital humanities is in and of itself a hybrid between the humanities and computational techniques.

In the module AFF604A, two distinct types of data modelling were outlined; relational databases and graph databases. Although neither technique is mutually exclusive and can be implemented in tandem on a project that requires a bifurcated approach, it is more common for the databases to be applied separately. For example, the 1641 Depositions project did utilise elements of graph database design and relational databases. However, from exploring the website it would appear that relational databases underpin the significant elements of the project (Conlan and Lawless). In addition, it is unclear to what degree the project followed data modelling standards such as E.F. Codd’s concept of data normalisation.

Another example is the Irish Army Census 1922; this project is a database that is neither a relational database or graph database but attempts to utilise each in its design. The result is a largely unusable dataset that is held in stasis due to the ad-hoc nature of database implementation as outlined by Kirwan. The main search index is designed around a simplistic relational database structure, however it is unclear from examining the website to what degree the data has been normalised.

Although digital humanities is utilising and opening the discussion about different types of modelling data, a lot more research into different computational techniques and the use of differing models is required for implementation in the field of historical research and in particular the design of historical databases.

Work Cited

Conlan, Owen and Seamus Lawless, “Challenges in capturing and modelling humanities data” [undated presentation] dacura.cs.tcd.ie/pv/slides/conlan.pdf. Accessed. 12 May 2017.

Gavin, M, ‘Agent-based modeling and historical simulation’ in Digital Humanities Quarterly, viii, no. 4 (2014).

Kirwan, Luke, “Databases for quantitative history” Proceedings of the Third Conference on Digital Humanities in Luxembourg with a Special Focus on Reading Historical Sources in the Digital Age, Luxembourg, December 5-6 2013.

“Project” 1641.tcd.ie/project. Accessed 12 May 2017.

“Project” Military Archives of Ireland militaryarchives.ie/online-collections/military-archives-irish-army-census-records/project. Accessed 12 May 2017.

 

A reflection on data and knowledge

“Knowledge is what we know. Data is fact, it exists irrespective of our state of knowing.”
(V. Das Gupta, 2017)

The above definition was posited by Dr. Das Gupta as part of a recent lecture. The quotation is evocative of the Donald Rumsfeld quote about ‘known knowns’ (The Atlantic) which itself is a useful way of encapsulating how certain government agencies gather and stratify information. One potential manner of connecting data and knowledge is through context and visualisation. If we can visualise data within a specific context that is related to our pre-existing knowledge of the data, can this lead to a further contextualisation? Or is data visualisation something that is inherently a series of choices and decisions made by the author, resulting in differing interpretations and divergent strands of ‘knowledge’.

Michael Friendly’s chapter ‘A brief history of data visualisation’ (Friendly, 2008) provides a concise overview of data visualisation and its uses throughout history. Friendly attempts to chart the development of data visualisation through the ‘Milestone Project’ (Friendly 2). Friendly’s conclusions are relevant to this question of data visualisation as a tool to help contextualise and expand knowledge about a given set of facts.

“From this history one may also see that most of the innovations in data visualisation arose from concrete, often practical goals: the need or desire to see phenomena and relationships in new or different ways. It is also clear that the development of graphic methods depended fundamentally on parallel advances in technology, data collection and statistical theory.”
(Friendly 30)

From Friendly’s conclusions, it is clear that innovation in data visualisation was driven by goals dictated in some cases by private industry and governmental agencies. In order to present a test case of data visualisation adding context to a given set of facts, some tabulated statistics from the Irish Census 2011 will be utilised in a series of data visualisations. I have taken data originally collated by  the Central Statistics Office (CSO) that has been packaged so that it can be projected into a series of thematic maps in the programming language R. This Irish Census data has been provided courtesy of Prof. Chris Brunsdon and the National Centre for Geocomputation at Maynooth University (data available on request). I created a series of maps in order to illustrate different ways that data visualisation can be utilised. To start with, I am going to be visualising the population data released by the CSO collated from the Irish Census 2011. The total population of Ireland in 2011 as recorded on the census was 4.5 million persons (CSO). Projecting these results onto a map of Ireland looks like this:

 

Total Population of Ireland (2011 Census)

This visualisation of Ireland presents the population of Ireland in 2011 per county, and uses a colour coding system to indicate high and low population counties. However, the results only provide a superficial indication of the population disparity within Ireland. Over 1 in 4 citizens of Ireland live in Dublin City and within the greater Dublin area (CSO). However from this map this is largely obscured by the geographical projection of the counties’ physical size. To compensate, I utilised a cartogram or density projection map; this map utilises the quantity of the data being measured instead of following the geographic boundaries.

Cartogram of Ireland – Total Population (2011 Census)

 

In this map, the city and suburbs of Dublin are so large that the geographic boundaries of Ireland are stretched and distended. While initially complex to examine, this type of data visualisation is a more accurate way of describing population density. One critique of cartograms, in addition to the geographic distortion, is the majoritarian representation of the country. In the example of Ireland, the population of Dublin results in a Dublin-centric map. Although it is not clearly illustrated on a cartogram, the majority of Irish people do not live in Dublin City or its environs. However, the fact that over 1.2 million people do live in the greater Dublin area results in a distortion. As democratic systems attempt to accommodate the minority position within the wider society, using cartograms to make policy decisions would greatly skew the benefits of the society onto the largest areas while severely neglecting the non-Dublin regions of the country. In the case of Ireland, this phenomena is evident in recent social surveys, economic data and a recent report from the Irish Department of Housing and the Economic Social and Research Institute (Irish Times).

From the above maps, it is clear that cartograms present the surveyed data (total population) in a more accurate manner but the geographic boundaries of the map are affected by this. I then used a different metric from the Irish Census 2011, that of empty houses. This is a particularly relevant subject as the current homelessness crisis within Ireland has been blamed on lack of action dealing with empty houses during the period 2011 – 2016 (Irish Independent). The CSO created two specific types of data relating to empty houses; a percentage of vacant houses and a total of vacant houses. Starting with the percentage of vacant houses, I have created a map using the Irish National Grid, similar to the map of the total Irish population.

Percentage of Vacant Houses in Ireland (2011 Census)

From the above map, the highest percentage of vacant houses are in the North West of the country, specifically Leitrim and Donegal. It is important to note that these counties have a low total population, in particular Leitrim which has the smallest population of the entire country. This can be visualised in the following map series:

Comparative map of % Vacant Houses and Total Population (2011 Census)

While this comparative map illustrates the differences between the percentage of empty houses and the total population, it is a misleading comparison as one is a percentage and the other is a total of persons. A more accurate comparative analysis is that of the total number of vacant houses compared to the total population.

Comparative map of total vacant houses and total population (2011 Census)

This presents a more balanced comparison and shows that although there are a large number of vacant houses in Donegal, Cork replaces Leitrim as the county with the highest amount of vacant dwellings in absolute terms. A cartogram of vacant houses shows the following:

 

Cartogram of total Irish Vacant Houses (2011 Census)

The result of these series of maps shows that although Leitrim was cited repeatedly as a place with the largest number of vacant houses (Leitrim Observer), this was only true as a percentage of all the houses in the county. A more accurate measure of vacant houses shows that Dublin City contained a large amount of vacant houses in 2011, therefore undercutting the argument that surplus houses in remote rural areas contributed to the housing shortage.

In conclusion, the examples of data visualisations created show that this type of visualisation can be beneficial to give added context and additional knowledge to a pre-existing set of facts or perceived facts as reported by the media. However, there are marked differences between the two different sets of data utilised. In the first set of examples the total population of Ireland was mapped onto a series of geographical maps of Ireland. Although the cartogram of population is more accurate for depicting urban density, the majoritarian perspective of the country as depicted by the cartogram was inaccurate. This is due to the sheer imbalance in the distribution of the Irish population. In the second set of examples examining vacant housing, the initial set of statistics on the percentage of vacant houses was utilised in media reporting to imply that the housing crisis had its origins in the amount of houses built in largely unpopulated rural counties such as Leitrim. However using the more accurate number of vacant houses reveals that although the percentages of vacant houses in small rural counties is disproportionally high, a significant number of vacant houses remained in urban centres such as Dublin and Cork. The cartogram that mapped the total number of vacant houses resulted in a more accurate depiction of the housing surplus across the Irish state. The question of whether data visualisation can add context to pre-existing knowledge is true in the case of the vacant houses. The same question applied to the total population of the Irish state is more complex, as the cartogram is more accurate in projecting density but skews the overall perception of population distribution into a Dublin centric map. The context has been added to the knowledge, but it requires further contextualisation or a different data visualisation.

 

Work Cited

‘Rumsfeld’s Knowns and Unknowns: The Intellectual History of a Quip’ The Atlantic Accessed February 17th 2017.

‘Census 2011 – Profile 1 Town and County’ cso.ie Accessed February 12th 2017.

Friendly, Michael. “A Brief History of Data Visualization.” Handbook of Data Visualization. Ed. Chun-houh Chen, Wolfgang Karl Härdle, Antony Unwin  Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2008. pp. 15–56.

‘A housing crisis while 165,000 houses lie empty’ Irish Independent Accessed February 12th 2017.

‘Dublin’s dominance of state near unique in Western world’ Irish Times Accessed February 12th 2017.

‘County has highest level of vacant houses’ Leitrim Observer Accessed February 12th 2017.

DAH Conference 2016

Digital entanglements: the post-digital present

On November 18th 2016 I attended the final Digital Arts and Humanities (DAH) conference held at the Long Room Hub, Trinity College Dublin. The conference’s main theme was ‘Digital entanglements: the post-digital present’. The keynote speakers were Dr. Steven E. Jones and Dr. Maria Chatzichristodoulou. The programme is available here.

The conference was structured as a series of keynote lectures followed by panels with different sub-themes assigned to each. This blog post will focus upon the initial keynote address by Dr. Steven E. Jones, entitled ‘Digital Humanities after the ‘eversion’.

Jones’ lecture started with a discussion of the ‘eversion’ that has taken place with regard to the digital network or the internet. This concept is further developed in his book, The Emergence of the Digital Humanities (2014). The ‘eversion’ as defined by Jones refers to the changes that have taken place within the digital network; this change can be defined as the difference between logging into a static virtual world and having that virtual world encompass our so-called ‘real’ world. Although this is a complex definition and indeed an incomplete one, it does give a sense of the changes that have occurred. The period of 2004 – 2008 is posited as the timeframe when the concept of logging into a virtual world became less relevant as the digital world enveloped daily life.

Examples of the eversion as defined by Jones include; Google Maps, QR codes and daily uses of web accessible technology in our day to day commercial and social  activities. Instead of logging into a digital network, we are now surrounded and immersed within it at all times. Formerly remote regions now have wifi.  Jones employed two examples, benign and malignant, to show the process of ‘eversion’ as it occurs today. Starting with the benign, Jones’ outlined the origins of Pixel Pour by artist Kelly Goeller which was an example of street art installed on a public water pipe in NYC. This piece of art resembles a 8 bit pixelated stream of water flowing from a water pipe, evocative of early Mario Bros. video games from the 1980s and 1990s. This artwork utilises a digital concept, that of pixelated images and creates a real-world version on a street in NYC. The malignant example of ‘eversion’ given by Jones is that of cybersecurity and certain online activities with real world impacts such as ‘doxxing’ and DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks. One example is the recent Comet Pizza controversy where an internet rumour about a child exploitation ring operating out of pizzeria in Washington D.C. led an individual to appear at the real world location armed with a firearm (ABC News). Although this example is extreme, it is part of a trend of increasingly violent and dangerous rhetoric which starts in online blogs and forums, then crosses over into the ‘real’ world.

Lev Manovich’s concept of augmented space outlined in his article, ‘The poetics of augmented space’ (2006), provides an interesting context to the concept of the ‘eversion’ as outlined by Jones. If we currently exist in a mixed reality that has everted, with aspects of digital artefacts existing in our ‘real’ world then Manovich’s argument that we are currently interacting with augmented spaces is an early precursor to the everted reality that Jones outlines. Manovich uses the example of Canadian artist, Janet Cardiff and her ‘audio’ walks (Manovich 226). It is interesting that both Jones and Manovich use artists projects’ as case-studies to illustrate real-world examples of the concept they are articulating. It shows that art, however one defines the medium, is able to act as a mediator to new concepts and ideas.

Following Dr. Jones’ discussion of the term ‘eversion’ and how it has affected the digital network, he discusses its impact upon the field of digital humanities and potential challenges and opportunities that this ‘eversion’ has presented to the discipline. Jones avoids the simplistic narrative of progress. His emphasis upon a balanced reading of our current environment as a discipline and the uncertain future for the humanities was a welcome component of the discussion.

Other elements of Dr. Jones’ lecture concerned his newly published text, Roberto Busa, S.J., and the Emergence of Humanities Computing: The Priest and the Punched Cards (2016). This text is an interesting history of an early humanities computer created by Father Busa; an Italian priest who created a humanities computer using punch card machines and funding from IBM. This history surrounding humanities computing was new to me as a recent entrant to the field of digital humanities, and I found the painstaking efforts that Jones went to recreating the punch card machines digitally particularly fascinating, and an example of the new types of approaches available in a our post-eversion era.

Overall I found this talk a refreshing and engaging lecture that informed me of some of the new approaches occurring within Digital Humanities. His exploration of the changes occurring within our shared digital culture posed interesting questions that have led to a series of reflections upon the theme outlined. The concept of the internet and how it has evolved from a shared digital network to an all-encompassing latticework that can at times penetrate every aspects of our daily lives. The concept of ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’ are instructive in this regard; if we are free to use the internet and the engage with the shared knowledge within this network, are we also free from it? Is it possible to become unplugged and live, to use a cliché, off grid? Undoubtedly this is still possible and in large parts of the developing world inadequate infrastructure prevents a full engagement with the eversion as outlined by Jones. However Jones’ lecture specifically examined the relationship between the eversion and the digital humanities. Posing the same questions again as a digital humanist, it is not clear who can remain off grid or unaware of the eversion that has occurred. Its full relationship with the digital humanities is still to be explored, in part because the digital humanities is not a unified idea or structure. The freedom to exist as a kaleidoscopic community of intersecting centres, research institutes and in some cases factions, is an empowering aspect of digital humanities.

Work Cited

“Alleged gunman in ‘Pizzagate’ cases pleads not guilty to all charges” ABC News abcnews.go.com/US/alleged-gunman-pizzagate-case-pleads-guilty-counts/story?id=44243444. Accessed 18 December 2016.

Goeller, Kelly ‘Pixel Pour’ kelloworld.com/pixel-pour-1. Accessed 18 December 2016.

Jones, Steven E. “Digital Humanities after the ‘eversion'” DAH Conference. Trinity Long Room Hub, Dublin City. 18 November 2016. Keynote Address.

Manovich, L. “The Poetics of Augmented Space.” Visual Communication, vol. 5, no. 2, SAGE Publications, June 2006, pp. 219–240.

“What doxxing is and why it matters” The Economist theeconomist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2014/03/economist-explains-9. Accessed 18 December 2016.

St. Andrew Records Project

St Andrew’s Records Project

(Copyright. St. Andrews Resource Centre and Trinity College Dublin)

 

This blog post is about a project I consulted on earlier this year. It was a collaboration between St. Andrew’s Resource Centre and Trinity College Dublin. It was a public history project that transcribed the national school records for St. Andrew’s National School, an inner city primary school closed in 1970.

Phase 1 of the project was focused on the period between 1900 and 1916. The result was a searchable web database that is currently hosted here. It is envisioned that this project will continue in 2017 and beyond into the Decade of Centenaries.

FSS1 – Quantitative Methods in the Social Sciences

I enrolled in the module FSS1, Quantitative methods in the Social Sciences, as part of my doctoral program. The module is a three day workshop taught by Fionnuala Ní Mhordha from the Geography Department at Maynooth University. I was unsure of what to expect from this module but it turned out to be an in-depth introduction to the statistical program, SPSS developed by IBM.

The module was structured into three days of workshops. This resulted in three intensive session on statistics and training in the uses of the program SPSS. The workshop environment meant that there was opportunity for engagement between the tutor and the class. When learning a new program, this type of process has benefits and limitations. From my perspective, the classes worked very well and the workshop model allowed me to experiment with the program and get feedback from the tutor if I made any mistakes.

As someone studying digital humanities and starting a doctorate in history with an emphasis upon military records, this module proved invaluable and provided me with the necessary program (SPSS) to help interrogate one of my core resources, the Irish Army Census, 1922. To give an example of the workflow I developed from this module, I have outlined how it is being currently utilised in my PhD research.

As part of my PhD research, I’m currently transcribing the Irish Army Census, 1922 ; a census taken of men serving in the National Army in November 1922. It has been partially transcribed so far, and I am currently transcribing the full census with all fields into a database. This is currently stored in a FileMaker Pro database. I used 15,045 transcribed records for the assignment for this module to answer a series of initial research queries. The workflow for this started with my current dataset which is within a FileMaker Pro database. From my FileMaker Pro database, I exported a .csv file containing the information transcribed, all text with the exception of an age field and date field. This was then coded using SPSS into a series of numerical values. Listed below is a frequency table of the Marital Status of 15,045 soldiers listed on the Irish Army Census.

Frequency table of Marital Status

Using the auto code feature in SPSS I was able to take my text based data and transform it into a set of numerical values, in this case ranging from 1 to 4.

1 = Married

2 = Single

3 = Widower

4 = Missing (This means that the census return has no entry)

Taking the data that is already numerical, in this case age data, SPSS can create a well designed histogram that illustrates the data in an effective manner. In this example below, a frequency table of age and a histogram of age show that the majority of men in the dataset examined (15,045) are aged 18 – 24. A cumulative percent of 67.8%.

Frequency table of Age
Histogram of Age

This initial statistical frequency test will form the basis of further research on the age profile of the National Army. The initial results are provisional as this test was only done with 50% of the total servicemen listed on the Irish Army Census. However, it is a good example of some of the types of techniques that can be applied after participating in this FSS1 module.

 

The City and the Rising – A 3D Spatial Humanities Project

images
(Copyright. Noho ltd & Dublin City Council)

This spatial humanities project is a recent example of a public history project. It was created for Dublin City Council (DCC) by Noho Ltd and was launched as part of the 1916 Rising Centenary programme of events. It was featured in a recent talk given by John Buckley to MA students as part of the module AFF624. The project is currently hosted at the following website. The first issue encountered when viewing the project was the usability of the website. The need to switch between a 2D map, 3D (where possible) and pop up text boxes creates a confusing visual experience for the viewer if they are using a 13” laptop. Three different devices were utilised for this evaluation; an iPhone 6, an iMac 5K 27” and a MacBook Pro 13”. The resolution differences between these devices raises significant questions about accessibility. The best viewing experience was achieved on the iMac which presented the information in a clear and concise interface, allowing the user to interact and explore the website with ease. The worst viewing experience was on the iPhone 6, this suggests that mobile viewing was never considered during the design stages of the project. On the MacBook Pro 23”, the resolution scaling resulted in a cluttered and crowded screen, resulting in a limited user experience. The limits the potential of this project to desktop or large screen (15”+) laptop users. The project’s navigation tool is a detailed topographical map of Dublin city. Locations of significance during the Easter Rising are highlighted in different colours; red icons indicate texts boxes and blue icons indicate that a 3D visualisation is available. Some of these visualisations are simple 3D buildings superimposed on the 2D topographical map. The locations with 3D interactive representations are; Sackville Street, St. Stephen’s Green and Dublin Castle.

City and the Rising Front Page (Copyright, NOHO & Dublin City Council)
City and the Rising Front Page (Copyright, Noho ltd & Dublin City Council)
Four Courts. Text box with picture. (Copyright. NOHO & Dublin City Council)
Four Courts. Text box with picture. (Copyright. Noho ltd & Dublin City Council)

The 3D representations generate within the website utilising the WebGL protocol and the process is relatively smooth, although the images are heavily compressed. This is particularly evident on a 5K resolution iMac screen.

Sackville Street - 3D Representation (Copyright. NOHO Ltd. & Dublin City Council)
Sackville Street – 3D Representation (Copyright. Noho ltd & Dublin City Council)

In addition to the 3D representations, the project has a separate Oculus Rift element called the Virtual Museum. This is limited to those who use a Windows computer and have access to the relevant VR technology. This further limits access, as non-Windows users are only able to utilise a portion of the project.

Virtual Museum (Copyright. Noho ltd. & Dublin City Council)
Virtual Museum (Copyright. Noho ltd & Dublin City Council)

The 3D representations of key buildings and areas of Dublin city are the most emphasised parts of the project. For example, when one hovers a mouse over the Dublin Castle icon, the text reads ‘Rebels attack Dublin Castle Gates’ but the 3D view shows an empty and clean representation of Dublin Castle.

Dublin Castle Gates Attacked by Rebels text box (Copyright. NOHO & Dublin City Council)
Dublin Castle Gates Attacked by Rebels text box (Copyright. Noho ltd & Dublin City Council)
'Dublin Castle Attacked by Rebels' 3D Representation (Copyright. NOHO & Dublin City Council)
Dublin Castle 3D Representation (Copyright. Noho ltd & Dublin City Council)

This is a repeated flaw throughout this public humanities project; the inability to represent even in a minimal sense human involvement. The empty world model that is shown is photo-realistic but is removed from the historical reality that is being told. In a way this disconnect is inevitable with this type of project as 3D representations with avatars are harder to create and more expensive. It is important to reiterate that this is a public humanities project paid for with funding from a public institution. Therefore added functionality that is expensive is less likely to occur as budgets of public institutions are highly scrutinised. A quote on the project by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Cllr. Críona Ní Dhálaigh, stated that this project was a form as ‘edutainment’ (TechCentral 2016), this may be the most accurate way of explaining its contradictions. The historical narrative outlined in this project is clear and doesn’t indulge in overt nationalist themes and rhetoric unlike the 1966 commemorations. The images of key persons and destroyed buildings are useful to help visualise the events of the Easter Rising. However the main element of the project, feels like playing the game ‘Myst’. Visually striking and highly detailed but without context, and providing minimal historical augmentation. Unlike the Gettysburg project which sought to engage with the discourse on the Battle of Gettysburg, this project seems to lack a centralised research question or statement. If the 3D elements of this project were supposed to show Dublin prior to the destruction caused by the Easter Rising then this would not be an issue, however the stated aims of the project are a recreation of Dublin during the Easter Rising.

Overall the project is interesting and ambitious in scope and scale. However by de-emphasising the historical record and by presenting a clean, aesthetically pleasing representation, it is unclear what research question is guiding the project. This is unfortunate as the project could be utilised to help bring a new and more interactive experience of the Easter Rising to academics and the general public. However the final product is none of these things, it has potential but it is limited. It fits within the larger issues raised by the recent 1916 commemorations where simplistic and in some cases false assertions about Ireland’s past were disseminated by public institutions.

Work Cited
The City and the Rising. Dublin City Council, www.cityandtherising.com

“The City and the Rising website gives fresh view of 1916.” TechCentral, www.techcentral.ie/the-city-and-the-rising-website-gives-fresh-view-of-1916/

What could General Robert E. Lee see at Gettysburg? – A 2D Spatial Humanities Project

What could General Robert E. Lee see at Gettysburg?

This project is a good example of an initial academic research idea becoming the basis of a larger spatial humanities project. In 2008, Dr. Anne Knowles, a historical geographer utilised Historical Geographic Information Systems (HGIS) to interrogate pre-existing concepts and narratives surrounding the Battle of Gettysburg, a seminal event during the American civil war, in her essay “What could Lee see at Gettysburg?” in Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship (ESRI 2008). Her essay re-examined the physical location of Robert E. Lee during the Battle of Gettysburg and using ArcGIS created a digital composite map of the battle from a number of historical maps including John Bachelder’s Gettysburg maps created in 1873 (Codex99 2013).

What could Robert E. Lee see?
Map showing Robert E. Lee’s line of sight  (Knowles 2008)

As shown in the topographical map above, Lee was positioned within a clocktower at the Lutheran seminary which provided him with a wide line of sight from which he could direct his army in the field. This map is not interactive but is highly detailed, a simple colour code shows the areas where Lee could see and the areas he could not. However the map is of the opening position of a three day battle. The emphasis upon line of sight is important as during the nineteenth century, physical eyesight was often decisive in the planning and organisation of one’s army for an upcoming battle. In addition to good intelligence filtered to the command level by scouts, spies and acquired local knowledge (maps, local sympathisers etc.)

In 2013, Dr. Anne Knowles and a team of researchers were asked to create a larger project on the Battle of Gettysburg for the Smithsonian Magazine. This project is currently hosted here. This public humanities project was created during the U.S. sesquicentennial of the American civil war which ran from 2009 to 2015. The Smithsonian project should be viewed as the continuation of Dr. Knowles initial research but with a greater emphasis upon the general public. As a result the maps created are more interactive while remaining topographical maps. The entire three days of the battle have been mapped and the positions of the armies and units are colour coded. Each day can be displayed by a slider that allows for a chronological examination of the battle.

screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-12-02-04
Day 1 – Battle of Gettysburg (Copyright. Smithsonian Magazine)
screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-12-04-47
Day 2 – Battle of Gettysburg (Copyright. Smithsonian Magazine)
screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-12-09-53
Day 3 – Battle of Gettysburg (Copyright. Smithsonian Magazine)

The focus upon the general public is indicative of the needs of the hosting institution, in this case the Smithsonian Magazine. The project is, as of the writing of this blog accessible and has not become abandon-ware, however the functionality of the interactive map is problematic. Firstly the map is not full screen and sits within a window, framed by an article describing the project and its significance. Secondly although a user can scroll through the different days of the battle, the ability to focus upon a given area is limited, for example it is not possible to focus upon Cemetery Hill during the three days of the battle exclusively. This would seem to be a major flaw with the project as the ability to narrow the field of view to one area or unit that took part in the battle was the basis of the original concept underpinning this project, namely the field of vision that was available to General Robert E. Lee.

In conclusion this spatial humanities project is a good example of the problems that arise when an academic essay is transformed into the basis of a public humanities project. Although the final product works well and is useful for researchers as well as the general public, the initial essay with its simple research statement presented much more useful information and added greatly to the discuss of the Battle of Gettysburg. The public humanities project does add new details and provides a more distinctive way of viewing the battle but with the level of specificity and the ability to track an individual unit or area of the battle, the level of granular detail provided by Dr. Knowles initial research is lost.

There are a number of websites and articles that contain parts of the project and provide some of the background information like the types of maps utilised. I have listed all the website below that contain relevant information for the project, starting with the initial topographical maps for Dr. Knowles essay and ending with the Smithsonian Magazine. It would have been more appropriate for the Smithsonian Magazine as the host of the public humanities project to have collated this information into a side website that gave a viewer the full context of this project.

Website articles containing relevant information for this project are listed below

‘Gettysburg’ Codex 99

‘A second cutting edge look at Gettysburg’  Smithsonian Magazine

‘General Lee’s Birds Eye View’ Kenneth Wong Cadalyst

Work Cited

‘Gettysburg’ Codex99 www.codex99.com/cartography/gettysburg

Virginia Sesquicentennial Commemoration 2009 – 2015

(Copyright. Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission)

 

To AFF,

This post is about a very interesting project that occurred in the U.S. state of Virginia. My M.Phil thesis utilised this commemorative project as an example of international best practice for the upcoming centenary of the Irish civil war. Although it finished last year, the website appears to still be active and many of the links remain live. Check it out, as it is an interesting example of a project that attempts to be many things at once; a public history project, a umbrella organisation for commemorative events and a venue for public discourse on the topic of the American Civil War during its sesquicentennial (150th Anniversary).

A project of particular interest to my fellow DH adherents is the following.