Visualizing Change

1 Mar

There is a point in every historian’s research when they feel inundated with materials and completely overwhelmed. This happens when a large research project hits critical mass and is what happened to me this week as I tried to understand data mining and visualization. One of the ways we survive this crazy world is to take things one word, one sentence, or one paragraph at a time, otherwise we would be crushed. As I was forced to think big this week, I felt that crushing weight. What happens when there are too many documents and literally not enough man hours in one’s entire life to analyze them all? This kind of source overload is known as big data. In order to combat this deluge, historians have begun to employ data mining and visualization techniques to study these monstrous collections.  The resulting projects are changing the way we analyze history through giving us a big picture view on a narrow topic.

The Digging into Data Challenge offers money to collaborative projects that find useful ways to employ big data.[1] They funded the IMPACT Mummy Radiological Database which contains 49 institutions’ mummy scans. The site includes information about “provenience, dating, mummification features, metric and non-metric testing, damage, restorations, and any associated artifacts, as well as metadata on the imaging studies.”[2]  I found the concepts on their page fascinating. I wish I had a reason to apply to use this database because the casual user cannot access the data.[3] However, if the board approves a researcher, they can access not only the scans but also the coding of the site so they can manipulate the searching features. This kind of database is important for scientific and historical studies as it enables new connections between objects held at various institutions across the globe.[4]

While data mining through massive databases is changing the way some historians research, it is just the first step. Next we have to grapple with how to interpret that data. Visualization tools guide historians’ research and help to display vast amounts of information in an easily digestible format. Sites like VisualEyes offer historians tools to create visualizations of their research that are easily manipulated and interpretative. The Texas Slavery Project was born from a graduate student’s research project. It brings life to what would have been a boring chart. The maps and graphs demonstrate change over time in shades of startling red. Moreover, the tutorial demonstrates that creating this visualization was not that complicated.[5] However, there are more sophisticated visualization projects that result from interdisciplinary and collaborative efforts, such as the Mapping the Republic of Letters project. However, the Texas Slavery Project and the Mapping the Republic of Letters project achieve the same end goal despite the difference in the scale of the projects. They take complicated qualitative and quantitative data and distill those complex data sets into simpler visualizations. This creates a project that enables historians to answer different sets of questions than if they had just sat in an archive reading manuscript collections. Moreover, it allows a broader audience to access and understand their work.

One of the key reasons many visualization and data mining projects are successful and revolutionary is because they require collaboration between humanists, computer scientists, and other specialists. This collaboration can be difficult, as sometimes the people you end up working with live on the other side of an ocean, but can be worth it.[6] These collaborative ventures allow historians to see the landscape of the field from a different scale.

As noted by professionals, this kind of massive project requires innovative thinking. It stops being feasible to employ traditional research tactics to analyze big data because the question of “when” a historian can finish a project turns into a question of “if” it is even feasible due to the volume of sources.[7] Therefore, these new methods change the field, the questions historians can ask, and the product. Our first blog assignment was to define digital history. This led to a discussion by many of my peers as to whether digital history would change our field. Projects that involve data mining and visualization are proof that the way historians are asking questions and proving their theories are changing.

[1] Digging into Data Challenge, “Welcome to the Challenge,” Digging into Data Challenge, (accessed February 28, 2013).

[2] IMPACT, “IMPACT Context Database,” IMPACT Radiological Mummy Database, (accessed February 28, 2013).

[3] IMPACT, “How to Create a Custom Search of IMPACT,” IMPACT Radiological Mummy Database, (accessed February 28, 2013). The restrictive nature of the database protects the institutions’ intellectual property. One does not have to pay to use it. However, they must be approved by a board.

[4] Although I could not see the data, I chose to reflect on this specific project because of the interdisciplinary promise of this site. It is useful to scientists and humanists. In a world that seems to increasingly be dominated by STEM, these kinds of data mining projects hold great promise for historians. And for full disclosure, I also chose this project to reflect on because I think mummies are cool.

[5] University of Virginia, “VisualEyes Tutorial” VisualEyes, (accessed February 28, 2013). Certainly building a site would take a little time, but as a novice I was able to understand the basics of how this program worked.

[6] One of the main points of this article was to explain how these collaborative big data projects worked and how to overcome some of the issues that arise when undertaking such a project. Michael Simeone, Jennifer Guiliano, Rob Kooper, Peter Bajcsy, “Digging into data using new collaborative infrastructures supporting humanities-based computer science research” First Monday, 16 no. 5 (May 2, 2011).

[7] Ibid.


3 Responses to “Visualizing Change”

  1. Elena March 4, 2013 at 6:34 pm #

    Hi Jenny, I like how you got into the behind-the-scenes work aspect of visualizations. Based on a Holocaust data set I was reading about the other day that took ten years (I believe) to compile, it made me realize the enormous scope of some of these projects that can ultimately still be so simplified in a visualization. Though our blog prompt focused on historians this week, it was good to bring up that this is very interdisciplinary and collaborative work.

  2. MDKenny March 4, 2013 at 10:32 pm #

    I also felt that crushing weight this week. This week’s readings and explorations raised questions for me about how graduate students in history will be able to pursue their own individual scholarly interests while also participating in the collaborative work that seems likely to originate at an institutional level.

    I am thinking specifically about this paragraph from Grossman’s “‘Big Data’: An Opportunity for Historians”:

    “Graduate programs might begin thinking more intentionally about the implications of the digital environment as it pertains to our discipline. This includes the potential for new kinds of collaboration that could even be explored experimentally in graduate school. Why not think about joining the historian’s analytical and narrative skills to the statistician’s methods of organization and analysis? Or the historian’s facility with sifting and contextualizing information to the computer scientist’s (or marketing professional’s) ability to generate and process data?”

    It seems to me that if graduate programs are to follow Grossman’s suggestions, the institutional and departmental cultures will have to be radically transformed.

  3. jkalvait March 5, 2013 at 11:36 pm #

    Elena, the use of visualizations really fascinated me, so I felt the need to try to understand it. But, I wish I took Angela’s path and actually tried to create one! Soon I will attempt it!

    And Matthew, that is a great point. I liked what you said in class about it. Working on a collaborative and interdisciplinary project while in graduate school would be an amazing experience. Often it seems like we spend so much time in classes with theory that we miss some of the practical application.

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