CHI for a Historian-in-Training Part 2: Mapping a Narrative

Since my last post on ‘translating’ a document to data, we explored tools to visualize space such as CartoDB, Mapbox, and Leaflet and toyed with some data tools such as Tableau and Google Fusion Tables. With this short introduction to spatial and data visualization, we were handed the task to come up with a group visualization project.

Throughout our discussion for the group project, I realized that one of the primary issues we confronted was the important although often nebulous distinction between a visualization project and the mapping of cultural heritage. Even in my own brief proposal, I realized that my understanding of a ‘visualization’ was very much linked to maps and spatial representation. My idea was to integrate in some form several detailed and beautiful historic maps of Saigon that are housed in the MSU Archives & Historical Collections in order to understand the evolution of Saigon as a city, administrative base for the Republic of Vietnam, and development over the course of the Vietnam War. As in my example, overlaying ‘maps on maps on maps’ could be a useful tool to understand historic events and change over time, but lacked the dynamism of a data intensive narrative. This distinction has pushed me to think deeper about what I want to do and what is possible. In the case of a lot of historic themed projects, neat data is hard to come by and must be collected, organized, and cleaned up before it can really tell a story. It looks like for my own projects I will have to begin back at that step before I can create a visualization that integrates both space and data.

Although I might confess that I still might not fully understand the difference, I think I have a better sense now of what constitutes a good visualization–a combination of data and a narrative.

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