Response for 11/01: Who Are You Doing This For?

(I am by necessity writing this before Andrew and I have had a chance to plan the discussion questions for class, so I will come back to add them later in the week.)

In reading for this week’s class, I was struck by the difference between the ideal informational map and the reality of the practice today.

In writing on Minard’s map of Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia in 1812, Edward Tufte identifies six principles of (presumably good) anayltical design:

1. Comparison, contrasts and differences.

2. Show causality.

3. Integrate 3 or more variables.

4. Integrate multiple kinds of evidence.

5. Thoroughly describe the evidence.

6. Content counts most of all.

For Tufte Minard’s map embodies all of these principles, and it is clear from his and Corbett’s writing that Minard’s map is considered exemplary by people interested in these kinds of things. After looking through the various projects assigned for this week, I’m tempted to conclude that Minard’s is still the best. I found it very intuitive and easy to understand, and it makes its point in a very dramatic way.

I found that nearly all of the digital projects suffered from three shortcomings. First, entering into them without a predetermined goal, and without much background knowledge, created a huge barrier to finding things of interest. Sure I can look at pictures of buildings around Philadelphia (note that the homepage of PhilaPlace doesn’t actually tell you it’s about Philadelphia), or superimpose different maps of Rome on each other, but to what end?

The second shortcoming is in usability. After engaging with these various tools what I inevitably learned was how to use them, and far less about the content contained therein. Many of White’s railroad projects are good examples of this. I now know how to compare freight import/exports at various stations, but what that is supposed to tell me eludes me, even after reading the descriptions. “Putting Harlem on the Map” also has weird issues with the things that can be plotted or searched for. For example, searing for billiards games (a category designed into the system) happening at any time and in any place yields 0 results. So why is that category there?

This relates to the first problem: these tools are clearly for specialists already familiar with the topic at hand.

The last shortcoming is the lack of Tufte’s second principle, causation. I may be lacking the background to spot it, but in looking through the digital projects I never saw a suggestion as to what was causing the phenomena I was engaging with. Plotting domestic abuse in Harlem doesn’t tell me much about why it happened. If anything causality was buried in the textual descriptions, not displayed visually.

Ultimately I am forced to conclude that these tools are more valuable to the people making them, and hence already have the requisite specialized knowledge to draw meaningful conclusions based on them, than they are to a generic end-user such as myself. However, I am willing to be convinced otherwise, and this is one of the questions I would like to address on Thursday.

I did think that White’s discussion about the Digital History Project was very interesting, particularly his discussion of Lefebvre’s three kinds of space. I was particularly interested in the idea of relational space, which is the conceptualization of space in relative terms. As an example White talks about how places can seem closer together or further apart depending on travel time. He followed this idea up in one of his digital projects that displayed space is a function of freight rates, which like many of the projects was interesting but hard to use and conceptualize.

White also makes a point that relates to my complaint about the need for specialization to understand these projects:

“…visualization and spatial history are not about producing illustrations or maps to communicate things that you have discovered by other means. It is a means of doing research; it generates questions that might otherwise go unasked, it reveals historical relations that might otherwise go unnoticed, and it undermines, or substantiates, stories upon which we build our own versions of the past.”

He himself admits that these maps are not about communication, yet many of the projects we looked at do purport to communicate something about a given place, particularly PhilaPlace and the Euclid Corridor History Project. I don’t have a problem with constructing these things as part of your research practice, but often they are presented as if they are for public consumption. I think digital historians need to think about why they are making what they are making and for whom they are making it. I would argue that it is fine to make something for your own use, but it is important to be honest about that fact. And perhaps some more attention needs to be paid to Minard’s map, which to a lay person is much more useful, interesting and meaningful than any of the digital projects.


Update: Questions to be discussed today.


Were there any projects you particularly liked or disliked?

What do you think about the effort required to learn how these things work? Is it worth it?

What about the relationship between visualizations and their sources? Do visualizations discourage verification?

Are these just interactive ways of engaging with someone else’s ideas?

Are they primary or secondary sources?

Are these tools more useful for their creators or other users?

Should maps like these be considered research tools or conclusions?

How much does context matter?

Is causation really necessary? Seems hard to present.

Is it worth trying to draw visitors?

Are we putting them on a map to help explain things, or just doing it for the sake of doing it?

What is something we can only learn by mapping it?

Is the map an end?

What do we gain by making it digital?

What kinds of meanings can be derived from spatial relationships?

Who is making these and why?


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5 Responses to Response for 11/01: Who Are You Doing This For?

  1. Hi Jason,

    Great post. I like how you pointed out three shortcomings of the digital maps we looked at. I would agree that Minard’s map is the best in terms of its success in conveying a message. When looking at the digital maps like the Euclid Project, which I found to be a helpful model for my own project, I have now realized that I spent much more time trying to use it as opposed to trying to understand what it was telling me. I agree that this is a disadvantage of digital mapping, it is important that the visitor come away with something beyond how to use a tool, otherwise it seems as though the project loses a lot of its purpose. However, I would like to point out that for the Harlem map project the author mentions that he created a blog to supplement it and provide more of an analysis and interpretation of the data. So in terms of your second shortcoming, I think that what it comes down to is the necessity of having a blog or some other medium that allows for interpretation of the data presented. I think this is why I liked Minard’s map best, because somehow without a textual supplement the person looking at it can still get a sense of the message he is trying to put forth. I would definitely agree that his map is more friendly to the lay person, however I can still see the advantages of a digital map.

    • jasonhistory says:

      Hi Rebecca,

      My issue with relegating explanation to the blog is that Minard’s map didn’t require much in terms of explanatory text. I guess it comes down to what one thinks the purpose of creating these visualizations is: are you using them to do research, or to present research?

      The difficulty with the former, which I think is more often the case, is that putting them online and talking about them creates a user expectation that is not fulfilled. Coming to these maps in a public setting, I expect them to tell me something. But that could just be my problem, then.


  2. ClarksonA says:

    Hi Jason,

    Excellent post, I came away from the readings with a different view of mapping it seems. I found them to be a very useful for researchers. You actually used a quote from White that I also used in my blog, yet I took away a different meaning. I thought he was trying to explain how the process of visualization and spatial mapping can help spur questions and illustrate facts otherwise overlooked. I thought what he meant about communication was more the fact that he did not want the maps “to communicate things discovered by other means”. In Robertson’s article he mentioned how he discovered interesting aspects of Harlem life just by inserting traffic accidents into the map. I thought the ways in which mapping can help researchers discover information was really useful and could be used by the public. Although I thought your point of view was interesting and I am excited for tomorrow’s discussion.


  3. Hello Jason

    After reading your comments on the shortcomings of the projects I actually went back and looked at a few of the projects in greater depth. For me the usability was the biggest issue. As some one who is not really that good with computers navigating my way through a few of the projects especially the Harlem one was difficult. At times I would click on a category or fill in the other boxes and nothing would come up therefore leaving me wondering it the information I had typed in really did bring forth no results or if I had not managed to use the tool correctly. I also found that because I had to play around with the tool so much in order to learn how to use it I paid very little attention to the results I was actually getting. While I know that I should have more patience when it comes to learning to use a new digital tool I can not help but feel frustrated when a digital tool takes longer to learn then actually getting the results does and the more I get frustrated the less I want to use that tool.

    As for the first shortcoming you mention about entering the sites without a predetermined goal or background knowledge I only half agree with you. I believe that the creators want you to enter the site without any prior knowledge or goal because it forces you to ask new questions and play around with the different features. By going into the site without a goal you might stumble upon something you did not even consider as a topic or question in need of research.

    I look forward to your discussion on Thursday

    Steph M

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