Historical Data Visualization- How attractive can history be made?

Visually presenting historical data attractively is a task that many historians have been presented with and has become an attractive option of formulating data. This is a very highly paid profession as it takes a keen eye and skill for presenting attractive historical data, and not simply a table of results or data. This new way of presenting information is an innovative method, and allows historians to engage with their audiences much more as it is an attractive option. Data visualisation takes information, whether that be from a table or another source, and forms a chart or graph that is visually easy to look at and also one that presents the data in a way that is easy to understand and is clear. There have been many instances both in recent times and throughout history where data has been presented in such a way. One such example is from Florence Nightingale, who used her own diagram, titled  ‘Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East’, (1856), to present her findings on the lack of hygiene within the injured throughout the Crimean War. In her opinion many of the deaths that came as a result of injuries inflicted in battle, were preventable and therefore needed to formulate her findings in an attractive way, so that the men in authority could easily understand what she was trying to prove. Her methods was successful and she helped to change nursing to what we have today, and is credited with saving the lives of millions of injured soldiers through her help in changing how men are treated for injury. Another example of this in history comes from Charles Joseph Minard, who formulated his own diagram of the attack and retreat of Napoleon’s army on Moscow, titled simply,  ‘Map of Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow – 1813-14′ (1869). In this diagram he presents two forms of line graphs. One details the size of the army as they march to Moscow and the other the size as they retreated home. This graphic presents the sheer horror of what the army faced, and that was not even with gun shots being fired. His data shows that the massive block at the start becomes increasingly thin as time and distance go on, and the change in weather conditions, to a very thin line. The retreat shows even more that the size of the army becomes horrifically small and the finishing line shows that of an army of around four hundred and twenty two thousand, only around four thousand made it home alive. What these two historical examples show us is that people have always been aware of the strength in using attractive charts and images to present otherwise boring information. More modern day examples are Slave Voyages Database which contains all the voyages of the transatlantic slave trade and users are able to search for specifics and these are represented by both tables and graphs. Therefore image visualisation has a proven record of success both in modern day and historically. Historians can use it to present their findings in a much more engaging way, and one that many people can find interesting

Works Used

  1. Kostiantyn Kucher and Andreas Kerren, ‘ Text Visualization Browser: A Visual Survey of Text Visualization Techniques’, (2014)
  2. Jefferson Bailey and Lily Pregill, ‘Speak to the Eyes: The History and Practice of Information Visualization’Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America, vol. 33 (2014).



Image Analysis- What can images tell us about the past?

Many books use images to illustrate certain things about the historical topic that they are presented along side, this can be how certain people dressed, or is a picture of a battle etc. But as historians, traditionally we distance ourselves from the images and tend to focus on what the text is saying and tells us. As historians we are taught to view images and present our findings as written text, focusing on the image as a piece of writing, rather than what the image is itself, and therefore we miss the impact a picture can give us. So when it comes to writing a historical piece, we shy away from incorporating images into our work, and in many cases, the use of a picture can heavily aid a historian in trying to get a point across, while also being unable to engage the reader or audience to what they are trying to say. The age old saying fits perfectly into this context, a picture quite often speaks a thousand words. This is especially true when dealing with students, who often loathe the thought of trolling through pages and pages of text, and would much rather be able to gain some historical knowledge through the use of pictures, and widely view them as much more accessible and engaging. Because of this shift of technology and the way history can be accessed, this comes as an advantage when trying to present history through a more attractive and interactive ay for younger generations, who do not conform to the old ways of teaching through textual means. Images allow a quicker response and understanding that five pages of text on the same topic would, and allows for much more engaging discussions and analysis. However, the benefits of quick access to imaging and the quick response they give can also be a weakness of them. Images unlike text, lack context. Context of why this image was published and the response it gave when it was originally published. As time has changed, so too has they was in which images have been viewed. For example, an image of the civil rights movement in 1950 and 1960 would have has mixed emotions, both racist and non-racist. Nowadays with hindsight we can view it as defiance and strength of people against the institutionalised racism that occurred in the US at the time. So as historians we must also be careful not to assume things just because there is no text to disprove it.

Projects and websites have been set up by historians to help engage this attraction to images and the lessons that can be learnt from them. TinEye is a reverse image search engine that allows people to type in an image and see how many times it has been used in writing, whether they are historical or not. This way the user can see just how popular an image is to an audience, and see how a historian or academic has used this fascination in their own work, in the hope of engaging the reader. Although at first this search engine is a little hard to understand if you have not been explained its use, once you have got past the initial confusion, it is interesting to see  how popular certain images are within the historical field. The British Library also has their own Flickr page, and again this is an academic institution acknowledging the way in which images can be used to engage an audience. On this page there are thousands upon thousands of images for people to look at, and are from a huge variety of sources.  Therefore images are a great way of engaging the reader or audience to a new way of learning history.

Sources Used

  1. Anna Pegler-Gordon, ‘Seeing Images in History’Perspectives on History(February 2006).
  2. James Borchert, ‘Historical photo-analysis: A research method’, Vol. 15, No. 2, Historical Methods(1982).
  3. https://www.tineye.com/
  4. https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/

Fieldtrip Seminar to IHR London

As a digital historian, we are always being presented with new findings and topics from a host of historians, who are keen to present their research and show off their projects. The seminar attended was given by Digital Historian Sophia Ananiadou and was presenting her research projects titled ‘Mining the History of Medicine Project’ and what this project was about was her taking all of the medical texts, and compiling them into one huge historical database, and users, whether they be historians or not, would be able to search them using different algorithms. Every text would be digitized and then separated based on certain groups which would make searching them a lot easier. Although a lot of what was spoken about did not relate to my own understanding of digital history, and at times was very technical and something I had little understanding of especially being about medicine, one can see the use of such a project like this. A project such as this, though it is very time consuming to set up and create, will in the long term lower and eliminate the use of manual searching, allowing a historian, or person interested in such a project to search through thousands and thousands of pages worth of medical texts with simply a few search terms. This type of project will help historians and academics to navigate their way through so many texts in a lot less time that if they had to go through an archive and manually pick out relevant texts. In that regard it is a very good project and one i feel will be useful to the people who are interested in it most. However there are some criticisms of it, and these are that it was very hard to understand some of the language that was used because i feel of the specialization of the topic that you need to have. There were times that i was unable to engage fully because i was unable and had little knowledge of what was being said. Projects like this tend to have a much more specialized and individual attraction, and i do not feel as though this project is catered for ordinary people.

There are though massive strengths that can be drawn upon this project, and projects like this. Until recently, websites most often used text-based searches, which only found documents containing specific user-defined words or phrases. Now though, through use of a semantic web, text mining can find content based on meaning and context, rather than searching and gaining information by a specific word. Additionally, text mining software can be used to build large dossiers of information about specific people and events, and this is where this project falls under. For example, large datasets based on data extracted from news reports can be built to facilitate social networks analysis or counter-intelligence. In effect, the text mining software may act in a capacity similar to an intelligence analyst or research librarian, albeit with a more limited scope of analysis. Text mining is also used in some email spam filters as a way of determining the characteristics of messages that are likely to be advertisements or other unwanted material. Text mining also has a interest in the academic world and there are institutions set up such as The National Centre for Text Mining at the University of Manchester, which is the first publicly funded text mining centre in the world, and The School of Information at the University of California Berkeley, and thus proves the growing popularity of such projects. Therefore text mining has increasingly become an important tool for the research of historians

Sources used

  1. Mining the History of Medicine ProjectThe National Centre for Text Mining.
  2. “The University of Manchester”. Manchester.ac.uk.
  3. “Content Analysis of Verbatim Explanations”. Ppc.sas.upenn.edu.

Evaluating the Infinite Archive

How Has this changed the Way we access historical materials? Evaluating the Texas Slave Project

The evaluation of web pages is critical to the understanding of the information they present and whether what they say is valid. When looking at every website that claims to be historically accurate, historians must approach this with caution, and look for certain things to ensure that the author of the page is not just making it all up, and is producing the correct history. Because much of the internet is uncensored and not monitored for its historical accuracy, there have been examples of hoaxes, where people have faked pieces of history, and people who did not look for the right signs, believed it. One such example of this is known as ‘The Last American Pirate’, and this was a hoax set up by students at George Mason University. This was part of their class titled Faking The Past and they made up a person called Edward Owens, who supposedly live in Virginia in the 19th Century, all of which was fake. This was a lesson that their lecturer formulated to teach his students about how easy a made up story can find its legs and own life on the internet, if it’s not monitored properly. This also showed just how easily believable many people find the information they read on the internet, and feel that because it is their and somebody has placed their name on it, it must be true. This calls upon our ethics as a historian, and shows the development of popular media and culture. This project. which angered many people including academics, who saw it as a teacher purposely teaching his students to lie and deceive people on the internet. What this project helped to show, was the shifting nature and truth behind much of what is posted on the internet.

Another popular form of information that many people take for granted as being one hundred percent accurate, and has come under fire for many reasons in the past is Wikipedia. This is a massive encyclopaedia of almost everything there is to know, and has authors for many areas. Wikipedia however has been prone to many historical and normal inaccuracies, and this is because of its lack of security. This website allows anyone to publish on pages so long as they have an account, and this means you can pretty much have free reign of what you want to publish, which has in the past led to many cases of inaccuracy. Many academics advise students to stay clear of Wikipedia because of this, but can be useful in finding the sources that are used for articles, as the page has got better in recent times, as many people monitor it for abuse and see it as their job to monitor it and correct it. This therefore means that when we are presented with a historical website we must employ our knowledge of the past to analyse the motivations and information we are presented with. Within the Texas Slave Project, the information we are presented with allows us to explore the rapid change and spread of slavery within the state of Texas, and this website presents many primary sources and has a database of information for us. Because of the nature of the URL being .org we know that it is a non profit website and because of it primary source abundance, and citations from where they come from, we are able to at least have some comfort in knowing that this is a reliable website. Also the authors and the site itself have been nominated for awards so that also strengthens the reliability of it.

As historians then, it is our duty to self police what we view on the internet, checking every minute detail, like the origin of the source, to ensure that we are not taking in any made up information.

Sources Used

  1. Joe Barker, ‘Evaluating Web Pages: Techniques to Apply & Questions to Ask’UC Berkeley – Teaching Library Internet Workshops, (1995).
  2. Place, E., Kendall, M., Hiom, D., Booth, H., Ayres, P., Manuel, A., Smith, P., ‘Internet Detective: Wise up to the Web’Intute Virtual Training Suite, (2006, 2009).
  3. Yoni Applebaum, ‘How the Professor Who Fooled Wikipedia Got Caught by Reddit’The Atlantic(2012).

The Benefits of Crowd sourcing

Crowdsourcing   has become an increasingly good option for scholars and academics to help tag and transcribe huge collections of work, at a relatively low price. It enables them to branch out to the public in a much more cheaper way and pull together enthusiastic volunteers, who devote their time for free [1]. It also allows the public access to materials that were once exclusive to them and deemed too complex for those who were non-experts to understand. In this way, websites such as the Bentham Project, Galaxy Zoo, and The Old Weather, has attracted hundreds of thousands of eager volunteers, who have a keen interest in supporting and raising the profile of academic research and understanding what scholars need transcribing.[2]

The first crowdsourcing website presented was the Bentham Project. This project sought to harness this new popularity and facilitate the transcribing of the works of Jeremy Bentham, a great philosopher and reformer, and publishing them under the scholarly edition titled ‘The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham’. This crowdsource has attracted many thousands of people to it and a total of twenty thousand of his works have been transcribed and published[3] What was done well by this project I feel is the sense of achievement that the user can obtain through participating in this project. However the overall layout is something that could be improved as the current layout is very bland and not engaging to the wider audience, and in particular the younger generation. If this was improved to maybe a similar quality of say the Galaxy Zoo project, which has a proven success as attracted a huge number of volunteers to its project, I feel it would attract a variety of new users. Also the person in which they are focused on is one who is relatively unknown, and even myself had to do some background reading into him.

The second crowdsource website was The Old Weather, this being a database with ship logs from different years and from a variety of historic ships. This I feel is more of a tailored database as it was very hard to understand and get used to using from the outset. However what this website does well is provide it volunteers, who like all these projects are doing it for free, with an incentive to do more, by implementing a scoring system and leader board, by where the user is rewarded with different titles and a target of beating the next person. However, the volunteer would have to spend a lot of time getting to grips with this system as it is very long and very difficult to understand, and least for the member of my class, and I feel this would put  lot of people off. Also the scoring system for new users would maybe act as a deterrent as there are volunteers who have transcribed tens of thousands of logs and new users would have a hard time catching up.

Overall though, crowdsourcing has proved that technology has sped up traditional research methodologies be engaging with the wider world, and allowing regular people who have a keen interest in academics, and who also may not be an expert, to participate in this new research method. Historians have credited this new methodology for its ease of access[4], and as a whole crowdsourcing has proven an initial success.

Works Cited

[1] Holley, R. Many Hands Make Light Work: Public Collaborative OCR Text Correction in Australian Historic Newspapers. National Library of Australia, Canberra (2009)

[2] Raddick, M. J., A.S. Szalay, J. Vandenberg, G. Bracey, P.L. Gay, C. Lintott, P. Murray and K. Schawinski. “Galaxy Zoo: Exploring the Motivations of Citizen Science Volunteers”, Astronomy Education Review, 9:1 (2010)

[3] Causer, T., J. Tonra, and V. Wallace. “Transcription Maximized; Expense Minimized? Crowdsourcing and Editing TheCollected Works of Jeremy Bentham “, Literary and Linguistic Computing (in press, 2012)

[4] Leary, Patrick. “Googling the Victorians.” Journal of Victorian Culture 10:1 (Spring 2005), 72–86.


Is Twitter a good tool for historians to use?

The debate as to whether Twitter is a useful tool for historians to use has come to light in the surge in popular social media, and the increasing pressure for academics to ‘Get with the times’. Dan Cohen is one person who views social media critically and in his article  ‘Professors, start your blogs’  argues that it is the remit of teenagers and those in their twenties. Social media especially Twitter, though in many cases full of complete rubbish, with teenagers telling everyone how their day has been, can allow historians to engage with each other quicker and easier. it enables them the freedom to express themselves without the peer review system and the time constraints it comes with, and while there is a 140 character world limit in each tweet, they are not subjected to the same word limit of a journal article and therefore are allowed the freedom to write as little or as much as they see fit.