Category Archives: Fieldschool Student Posts

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.

Closing in on the Finish Line and the Topic of Political Correctness

As I am writing this post, I realize that I didn’t write one for last week when we first started developing.  At least, I don’t remember posting one so I apologize.  This week has been extremely chaotic for my personal life so it is no wonder that I keep running into so many road blocks with my writing.  On Wednesday, my parents and youngest sister almost died in a serious car accident that completely totaled their vehicle and turned it into a convertible.  Thursday my laptop crashed as I was going to shut it down and I lost all of my research on one of my topics for the project so I have to redo it.  And then today, Friday, I woke up and checked my bank account in order to make sure a bill payment went through only to find out that someone on the other side of the country was using my account to make fraudulent purchases.  Very chaotic, indeed.

Away from personal.

Last week when we decided the teams and roles for all of our people, I ended up in content where I typically end up.  I originally wanted to be a part of web design but I tend to thrive in content and research due to my areas of interest.  Besides suffering writer’s block due to my preoccupied mind, I also had an issue with something I typically try to avoid: being politically correct in terms of ethnicity and race.  Without giving too much of the project idea/theme away, I can comfortably say that one of my topics deals with civil rights and the issue of racial discrimination.  This is an issue for me because I am always unsure of what is politically correct to label someone.

Being the modern university student that I am, there are many things that I believe I am better about than my parents such as eating healthier, managing money better, actually getting a degree, and not labeling people.  My generation has had an issue with labels since middle school when bullying was terrible enough for assemblies and everyone had to listen to faculty rhetoric about how labels are obsolete and everyone is human…and labels are bad. On repeat.  I got it, I get it, I’ll keep getting it.  I try my hardest to not label or belittle anyone and I feel like I generally do okay, but it is impossible to get away from labels in the social sciences.  I mean, my degree specialization is in ASIAN studies.

This is why I am having one of my issues with this piece on civil rights.  A lot of literature labels people as African American, Asian American, Native American, white, etc.  But if I use these labels then I am erasing Caribbean Americans and including them as African Americans.  Same with European Americans that have darker complexions or are ancestrally from Africa.  I would be taking away Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, Filipino Americans, Korean Americans, etc. and labeling them as Asian Americans.  And not all white people are equal!!  I am so tired of being ‘othered’ in classes that cover issues about race because I have fair skin.  Italian, Irish, and Polish Americans were not always considered as equal, it’s a large misconception.  The topic just becomes too touchy when race is involved and yet race can’t be taken away from the topic because it is the key reason behind the topic.

Civil rights is just a difficult topic to write about while trying to include everything.  If civil rights was an easy topic, than there wouldn’t be so many civil rights violations going on today.  Or rather, human rights violations disguised as civil rights issues.  It’s impossible to be politically correct all of the time or even some of the time because no matter what, you are going to offend someone.  Try to at least keep that in mind if you visit our site once it is finished.

Project Planning and Management Tools: Group Thinking and Writing through Google Docs

This week we came up with the gameplan for our “Detroit Digital” project, and used a variety of tools to help us in the process. Along with the variety of ‘group tools’ such as collective brainstorming, individual written reflection, and small team discussions we also used the following digital tools: Google Docs, Base Camp, and GitHub. In the first (and most difficult) stages of our project, we had to come up with a project that stitched together the broader narrative and doable specifics of data. This process was incredibly challenging and involved a lot of reflective thinking and discussion. However, Google Docs and Google Docs Spreadsheets was incredibly helpful as a platform for multi-staged collaborative thinking and writing.

We used google docs to compose our official vision document and a more detailed workplan. As a platform Google Docs is simple, sleek, and has a low barrier of entry (fully on cloud, no need for account, although a linked Google account makes things more manageable). As a space for collaboration, Google Docs can be very effective if tasks for a group are specific rather than general. For example, when writing up our vision document, only a handful of individuals contributed to changing the text while the majority of the group added comments to the side. Although the comments were overall helpful, they did not move the process forward without a more thorough in person, followup discussion. Furthermore, Google Docs does not ‘track changes’ in the same way as a word processor that allows for clearer comprehension of who made changes and what was changed from the original document. However, when given a more specific task such as full authorship on a particular section of the workplan (a great idea by our wonderful project manager Taz!), Google Docs was an effective planning tool for a group to quickly contribute, discuss, and amend.


Charts, Charts, Charts!

This week we’re moving beyond the maps and into (soon to be) charted territory. We’ve chosen to play around with XCharts, which is a javascript library for what else — charts — that works alongside the d3 library. Though we’re not sure how deep we’ll be able to delve into the scripts, I think it will be a good starting off point. It took a few hours to figure out how things are set up and the basics of manipulating the style, which was hindered by a few errors on XChart’s quick startup instructions page. I had to do some “Google mining” to find out that XCharts is still incompatible with d3’s newest version 3, which XCharts fails to mention on their page. Linking to d3.v2.min.js instead of d3.v3 seemed to do the trick; though I must admit that at this stage in my skill level, most of my successes are pretty much based on luck and trying what seems to be the same thing over and over 😉 Another frustrating thing is that their documentation and examples pages are honestly not really that helpful unless you know quite a bit about javascript. It’s all a little over the heads of us at the field school, which is why we’ve chosen to all work on these charts at the same time so we can figure it out together.

So far I’m happy with the look and the basic data of XCharts, but trying to overlay multiple series and to implement background “time periods” with rectangles is proving frustrating. Also, the need to input the data array into the html document directly is pretty time-consuming. We’ll see how they all turn out in the end. Since we have a lot of data spread out over the 20th century, most of our charts will be line graphs, but we also have a few subject graphs that we’ll be experimenting to see what we can make that will best represent the data we have. We may have to leave XCharts and turn to another tool for those if we don’t like how things turn out. This seems to be the testing phase of the project as we try to uncover the best visualization we can build.

Web Skeleton

This week in the CHI fieldschool has been quite a whirlwind experience. In one quick week, we have assembled our project teams, formulated our work plan, and begun work on the actual construction of what we have deemed ‘Digital Detroit’ – our cultural heritage website focused upon the construction of Detroit’s identity. I have been assigned the task of lead content expert, which entails drafting each thematic narrative, distributed amongst my content team.

For me, the most difficult and time-consuming aspect of the project’s planning was coming to an agreement on what the ‘essence’ of the project would be. This means coming to concise conclusions on what each historical narrative would entail, which visualization would fit properly with the associated theme, and what tools would be used to reasonably and efficiently accomplish these tasks. Once that was decided, we were able to coordinate with our team members to accomplish each item of our work plan.

Since web design is such a collaborative process, a project manager and team leaders are assigned the duty of making sure each team member is accomplishing their assigned tasks, as well as maintaining cohesiveness between tech development, content, and design. This is to ensure the fluidity and ease of project development, reducing the chances of miscommunication.

As of week one, we have created the skeleton for our web page, began collecting data and constructing visualization, and researched each historical narrative topic to have a drafted copy ready, opening the floor for critiques and tweaks. Since this is a two-week project, we are on the fast track to successfully developing a user- and visual-friendly cultural heritage website on the great Motor City.

Detroit's Historic Fox Theater

Detroit’s Historic Fox Theater

PechaKucha Anyone?

Last week we presented lightning pitches on geospatial visualization projects – all very interesting ones I might add – for consideration as the 2013 CHI fieldschool final project. The creativity of the fieldschool collective is impressive, equally amazing is the effort required to advance from brainstorming to production of a vision document.  We have progressed from our individual concepts to selection of a project and  establishment of themes, workflow, time frame, and milestones for the group. The processes involved in generating ideas, focusing direction, and outlining criteria for the project brought to mind a larger question I oftentimes contemplate regarding heritage collection appraisal and accession.

I don’t subscribe to the notion of memory institutions as neutral repositories.  My thinking is more in keeping with former Society of American Archivists president and historian, Randall Jimerson.  Jimerson advises cultural memory practitioners to be cognizant of exerting “archontic power” in relation to the intersection between history, memory, social power, justice, and heritage materials.

The notion of being professionally accountable for influencing the construction and preservation of future generation’s memory, informed my pitch.  Comparing UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in the U.S. and National Park Service National Heritage Areas; I presented an idea to examine each organization’s heritage listings, noting the absence of over-lap between the agencies and  proposed mapping  heritage resources that have not been included.  As a result of my pitch, I drafted the following concept map:


I intend to use this as a creative problem-solving device to parse the concept of  “showing hospitality to the stranger” (Jimerson, 2009) when addressing archival silences – in this case, heritage silences – to identify narratives for inclusion. This could be a means for locating communities with heritage materials for preservation, digitization, and database management activities.

Jimerson, R.C. (2009). Archives power: Memory, accountability, and social justice. Chicago: Society of American Archivists.


You mean we have to play nice with others?

For the past 4 days we have been developing and planning our final project. It has been an experience to say the least. Trying to find agreement between 10 people who have really never designed a project before has been an interesting and enlightening process for me. And it has to be completely finished in only 2 weeks!!

I honestly must admit that I’ve never been a member of a team like this. I hate team projects normally. I’m accustomed to choosing my own ideas and following them to my precise specifications, whether that be in a class paper, a semester project, or my senior thesis. And I spent all of grade school and high school being that one kid who runs things. College has kind of trained of that out of me since professors are pretty quick to tell you your ideas are just plain wrong. But I’ve mostly only worked on individual projects, so I still controlled my own ideas. The field school is a totally different animal.

We have to work with other people. It’s impossible to control this project individually — not only is it too big to do alone but  to do so would be to its detriment, as we each have different skills and interests. This is one of the main reasons why I’m drawn to digital humanities and one of the main reasons that I am sometimes reluctant. Learning to contribute, to delegate, and to give productive feedback are all critically important skills that are not typically taught or practiced in college courses. But they are required in the digital humanities.

This is all a new kind of experience for me, but I think I and the rest of the team are adjusting well. Our entire team has been doing a great job planning and designing this project, and I think it come together to be something pretty cool. Get excited.

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.