Visualizing for the Public

4 Mar

According to AHA President James Grossman, we have entered an age of ‘Big Data,’ which requires ‘Big History.’[1] This phenomena finds historians tackling large corpuses of data with digital tools, to find new patterns and questions to focus their research. It always requires historians to reexamine their approaches to displaying their research. Working with complex data sets creates unique opportunities to move beyond graphs, maps, and trees, or at least to create interactive interfaces to allow readers to interact with results.

Visualization is one of these display options, a way to create “images derived from processing information… which presents that information more effectively than regular texts could.”[2] John Theibault expounds on two distinct uses for these visualizations within historical scholarship: a way to identify patterns within big data sets to pursue new research questions, or as a means to enhancing an argument.[3] The former method requires digital tools be incorporated from the inception of the project, a technique that Richard White identifies. He explains that visualizations are “a means of doing research; it generates questions that might go unasked… and it undermines or substantiates stories upon which we built our own versions of the past.”[4] As many on this blog explored last week, visualizations created from big data sets, and a combination of close and far reading of this material can prove provocative for historians to push their research and explore new avenues of inquiry.

As an aspiring public historian, my mind traditional wanders from that of academic research towards applications for these visualizations. This method provides an exciting and refreshing avenue to potentially engage audiences with complex historical topics. Digital project especially provide a space for historians to rethink how they display their research and even to make these data sets interactive.

An Example from The Spatial History Project

An Example from The Spatial History Project images-1

Stanford University’s Shaping the West project is a prime example of such endeavors. Produced in conjunction Richard White’s research on the transcontinental railroad, this project developed digital tools to analyze visually how railroad influenced experiences in the nineteenth century American West. The map produced explore how perceptions of settlers in the west were influenced by patterns, like land holdings, communications and commerce. These visualizations move beyond simple maps, and vary tremendously, from chronicles of railroad accidents, to geographic residencies of Railroad Company stockholders or cattle production in the American West. Further, most maps are interactive, allowing viewers to alter data sets by years or geographic location and explore changes which occur. All of this allows views to see historical research and interpretation (because I would argue that visualization is a way of interpreting historical data) in a very different way from a customary book format. The variety of graphs, also provide insight into the myriad of influences the transcontinental railroad affected. By providing data for not solely on train stations, but economic, social, and cultural factors explores the multitude of historical sources available to examine this topic.


Other successful digital history visualizations allow more interactivity within data sets. Users can in essence play with the data, exploring and finding their own interpretations within visualizations of their own creation. Unlike Shaping the West, which has already done much of the historical interpretation, Mapping Text, a project out of Stanford University and the University of North Texas, allows viewers to create their own visualizations from a data set. Here, the project took over 230,000 digitized Texan newspaper pages from Chronicling America and paired it with a University of North Texas project called Portal to Texas History. The website allows viewers to conduct a qualitative survey of the newspapers, place these searches within a contextualized timeline, and see visualizations. These allow for analysis of patterns based on common words, era, or location. This visualization provides an opportunity to break down the large data set, and creates opportunities for exploration for visitors. This project, and other like it, create an avenue for non-historians and historians alike to connect to historical data and provides a tactile and straightforward method to find patterns within data.

Of course, visualizations come with their own precautionary tales, and the potential to confuse viewers or distort data. But, with these precautions in mind, visualizations coupled with digital history projects can provide exciting opportunities to engage the public with sophisticated and complex research conclusions in an understandable way.

[1] James Grossman, “Big Data’: An Opportunity fro Historians?,” Perspectives on History (American Historical Association, March 2012).

[2] John Theibault, “Visualizations and Historical Arguments,” in Writing History in the Digital Age, ed. Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki (Spring 2012).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Richard White, “What is Spatial History?,” Spatial History Lab: Working Papers (February 1, 2010)


One Response to “Visualizing for the Public”

  1. angelabpotter March 4, 2013 at 10:38 pm #

    I was drawn to many of the same graphs and maps that you were. I agree with White that visualization has the possibility to “generates questions that might go unasked,” but I am not sure how we use this technology to “see the holes” and not keep reproducing them.
    White’s interpretation of the railroads is certainly new, but I am not sure that he elucidation the process behind this.
    I think that the Mapping Text, project has the most potential for public use and interaction. Intersting blog.

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