Monthly Archives: July 2013

Finding a Balance within Narrative and Data

This past weekend I had the opportunity to visit some of my friends who live in Detroit. Although I had lived in Michigan for two years, I had not yet explored much of the city. Thus with our CHI Fieldschool project, I was both excited and hesitant to build a website centered on the city.

Understanding the revitalization initiatives in East Jefferson

Understanding the revitalization initiatives in East Jefferson

How could we capture the complexity of a city such as Detroit? From history to music, business to politics, Detroit could not be reduced to one narrative. One of the centerpiece goals of our project was to highlight the multiplicity of Detroit as a place–one instilled with diverse stories from local communities, politicians, and business initiatives.

As a member of the Development team, I learned quickly that a ‘data-driven’ project did not directly imply objectivity. All of our messy data sets contained a measure of subjectivity in how and why we selected or excluded certain things. When helping to wrangle the data for “Speaking-Community Development in Detroit,” I faced the difficulty of finding a balanced set of parameters of which organizations to include. At the same time, I sought to acknowledge our original goals and somewhat presentist understanding of the city; much of the impetus to create such a visualization was to indeed explore the spirit and multiple definitions of ‘revitalization’ that we witnessed.

East Jefferson Revitalization Initiatives

In seeking a delicate and difficult balance, I realized too the striking parallels of selection methods to my own discipline of history. Like my constant reminders to self in my own historical research, I hope that our Digital Detroit project can illuminate a piece of past and display the complex spirit of the present.

For more information on the East Jefferson Corridor initiatives:

Crain’s Detroit – Revitalizing East Jefferson

East Jefferson Corridor Collaborative

 

Moving on after the Field School

These first couple of days after ending the fieldschool have really found me still stuck in the “fuzzy-mind” state that the intense pressure and stress I felt during the last week left me in.  I finished my articles, but they were rushed at the end and I was not completely satisfied with them.  Research and content should have been easy for me but I suffered writer’s block after writer’s block and I left the Matrix everyday feeling a little bit more crazy from sleep deprivation each time.

That being said, I still miss everyone a lot and I miss going to class and working together.  Even though I am entering my fifth year of university, this was the first course/class/place that I have really had to apply project management skills and ideas to group work and it was nearly impossible to do the work on your own.  I am really grateful for how helpful and open everyone was in the fieldschool.  I spent much of my blog posts just complaining about everything we have done or used, but I gained valuable skills that I will use in my future jobs and in my personal life.  I started this with absolutely no previous experience in website design or development so everything from codecademy to mapbox has been new and exciting and absolutely useful to my personal and professional life.

I know that I should be using this space to talk about all of the wonderful skills that I have actually gained or about the course set up or even about how wonderful our professor was and how great and absolutely necessary it was to have his guidance and encouragement, but the main thing I think back to is the people.  I hope that wherever life takes me, that I will still hold onto this network of people and friendships. I hope that if I find myself in New Zealand that Flora will take me to the quirky named bar she used during the one map project, and that if I go to California that I could grab burgers with Cindy and Erick(sorry if I misspelled your name~).   There are always those people who you meet, who have a big impact on your life, that leave quickly after you meet them.  Don’t forget me guys, and don’t forget to monitor our website~~!

I may come back and edit this or add to it later as I remember important things, but this is what I am thinking of right now when I look back at the fieldschool.  We never did have our pizza party or bring in donuts… maybe later?

New Skill Unlocked: Targeted Googling

Formally, the Fieldschool taught us many many things –  from the principles of DH project management to the difference between JavaScript’s ‘methods’ and ‘functions’ – but inevitably some skills arose a little more, um, organically.  One great skill I picked-up related to problem-solving and troubleshooting my own (frequent) mistakes. The tech/dev team really honed a strategy that we called ‘targeted Googling’. We should have given it a more dynamic name but at least it’s functional. Anyway, this phrase just refers to the process by which we solved almost all of our technical problems: just Google the heck out of it.

This sounds both facetious and really obvious but I recommend it quite seriously (and it won’t be any kind of secret to people who work permanently in programming or web development).  There is definitely a knack to targeted Googling too. For those of us who usually use Google to solve trivia debates, it’s a different kettle of fish using one search bar to explain and elicit a useful response to why you think you just broke an entire web-page and/or visualisation.

The first challenge is understanding what’s wrong and how to describe your problem correctly. It was a great day when I realised that a web browser’s JavaScript console provides you with an error message: it wasn’t just a case of ‘timeslider not appearing leaflet plugin’ but that, in the plugin’s JavaScript, the ‘variable SliderControl not defined’. Until I discovered this, I kept trying to describe the errors in terms of how they presented as symptoms, using (often uselessly) broad terms. But the trick to getting useful results is describing where something went wrong – and the error message tells you! My overwhelming recommendation to other newbies: find the error message. It will become your best friend and ally.

The other troublesome step is interpreting the hits you get back. The results are inevitably forum after forum after comment thread after forum, but somewhere in there will be a response to exactly your problem and the piece of correct code you need. I learned to read more than the first page of hits,  look at all of the forums and try all of the solutions. I wish there was a more polite way of saying ‘trial and error’ but implementing the solution is just that: you have to get used to persevering and somewhat blindly plugging pieces of code in that maaay be right (though you’re not sure why).

The last point/caveat is this: unfortunately, knowing all of this still doesn’t mean that I can fix my own problems every time (that’s a whole different story) but knowing what’s wrong, using the right terminology and feeling comfortable being a little bit blind is a significant start to getting the answer you need.

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