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Data Driven

One of the biggest difficulties I’ve had so far with our project is coordinating the data we have with the story we want to tell. With the projects I had done previously everything fit together easily but our website has proved a bit more challenging. I’ve been working with our music visualization. Before we even began we had to tweak our original idea, and we had to change direction again after we had gathered the data. Ethan told us time and time again to make sure that our visualizations were data-driven but the message hadn’t quite sunk into until I was fighting with data that couldn’t do what we wanted it to. Coming up with ideas was easy but wrangling data was much more difficult. Additionally, while two weeks seemed like a lot of time at the beginning of the field school the time passed quickly once we actually began working. I had anticipated that the most difficult part of this project would be the actual nuts and bolts of the coding, but now I would say that synching our ideas with the data was most difficult. While figuring out the technical side of things can be quite difficult too, it’s also more straightforward. When you have code that’s not working, you do though and debug. If you can’t get a feature to work, you find out another way to do it. But if the data isn’t there, there’s nothing you can do. Without the time or resources to research something yourself, you’re limited to what others have and what you can gain access to.

Characteristics of information architecture

I want to talk a little bit about the information architecture of our website, because that is what I have been spending the greater part of the last week coding. If I’m able to get through this post without once mentioning the number or difficulties I had with the coding experience, I’ll be more happy with myself. However, for future reference, a list of open (to almost closed) questions I have are here:

1. What are the best practices for designing a website which is mainly focused on content-delivery?
a. bear in mind that the content is interactive
b. content are full of color, but not of a single pallette or group of colors
2. What is the shortest possible distance between the navigation of content and the display of meta-project stuff (people page, project about page) that doesn’t detract from the simplicity of the content navigation
a. question whether I’m to use a dropdown list OR a zone that moves the rest of the page down to reveal meta-project stuff OR link to separate pages.
3. will ANY persistent panels (header, footer, or side navigation) detract from the focus on content
a. especially as the site progresses to incorporate more visualizations under each category WITH the possibility of these visualizations having more user control as our development expertise improves.
4. misc color choices.
5.. “Related pages” = y/n

These questions should all be informed by the relative simplicity of themes. There are three themes: looking, speaking, listening. Reflecting on this choice, although it was less of a choice and more of a recognition of time constraints, it seems like the concept creation period needed more time allocated to it and that maybe we should have delved into it earlier in the month. Speaking to the possibility of integrating additional visualizations, people decided that a “coming soon” dialogue would be put somewhere. But this kind of restricts the complexity of visualizations. Skills improve and interests change. This is crucial to the ‘fieldschool’ model of the course. And something I think everyone who works in the area of area of mapping regrets is not having the data at hand for scaling up the complexity. What would a visualization look like, for instance, if it counted user input? What if it relayed social media chatter? What if it spawned mobile-friendly tools?

Messrs. TileMill, MapBox & MapBox.js

Last week was an incredibly busy week at the Fielsdschool. The first half was dedicated to planning our final project as a group; while the second half shifted to working in teams (Tech, Design and Content) to start building. By Friday, the tech team had managed to successfully generate, wrangle and clean a formidable bucket of data, and were moving quickly onto constructing visualisations. It’s not too much of a giveaway to say that one of the visualisation toolkits we’re using is a TileMill, Mapbox and Mapbox.js combination. These 3 tools provide the best way for us to build beautiful map tiles and map layers offline (TileMill), host them online (Mapbox) and carefully customise their functionality (Mabox.js). So far, I am finding a lot to reflect on and/or value in these tools:

The ‘return on investment’: The objects you can create using TileMill are disproportionately delightful (there’s no other word for it) to the amount of work it takes to gain and apply the skills needed to use the application. On Friday morning, we built two test maps that meet our purpose, look distinctive and contain great features like image pop-ups. To do this on top of TileMill’s most basic functionality required some targeted Googling and roughly half an hour. For me, this makes TileMill very valuable: while it isn’t necessarily easy-to-use straight ‘out of the box’ without some existing knowledge (i.e. how digital maps are put together and basic HTML + CSS), the reward for learning those basic skills and applying what feels like only slightly more effort is  incredibly significant.

Learning in context: Working with these tools for the final project has reinforced crucial skills in a context that means these skills are more likely to stick. This can be contrasted against Codecademy’s one flaw that another Fieldschooler pointed out earlier: learning skills in a vacuum can undermine effectively deploying those skills outside of that vacuum. So, while I may know how to call a JavaScript function, I might not have a complete picture of when or why I do that. Happily, though, using TileMIll +  MapBox for a distinct purpose means that I am gaining, for example, a more holistic idea of problem solving; and has meant that I know where the rest of the machinery fits in (i.e. how to test your hosted map before you upload it permanently).

(Always) more to learn: Tuesday’s plan is to leap boots n’ all into MapBox.js. It will be interesting to see how this experience shapes my reflections on this set of tools since, generally speaking, I have found MapBox.js significantly harder to use than TileMill or MapBox. Watch this space for an update on how using a JS Library challenges my delight.


Beyond MapQuest

I have to be honest; before the start of this fieldschool, the extent of my map use was limited to looking at my house on Google Earth and finding directions on MapQuest. I was aware of the many uses of mapping, but lets be real, I had no interest in studying cartography. Yet, this all changed when my eyes were opened to the world of maps, not strictly used for directions of tracking movements – psychogeography. Psychogeography was defined in 1955 by Guy Debord as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviors of individuals”. Though I am no geographer, maps based on psychogeography could be deemed quite useful in the world of anthropology.

In my interpretation of Debord’s definition, these maps can extend to things such as political mapping for upcoming elections, historical migration through time, the spread and eradication of diseases, weather and climate change, subway routes, individuals in relation to the greater universe, and the list goes on and on.

Especially for my field of study (archeology), psychogeographic mapping could be an essential tool in visualizing past cities, cultures, migrations, even behaviors, in a way that could not be previously done. As my time in the fieldschool progresses, I see more and more the importance of digital technology for cultural heritage. The world we live in today thrives in technological circumstances, and since such visualizations are pioneering exhibits that would not be easily accessible to the public, it is pertinent to have these tools to be a step ahead from the competitive world of scholars.


Getting to know your data

This week I was on a project team that learned an incredibly important lesson about creating data-driven visualisations:  get to know your data really well before you get started. Any visualisation you build is considerably sculpted, not only by the meaning implicit the data, but also by how the data has been captured. The issue we faced was trying to explore a story that depended on finely granulated geocoding, but we only realised too late that our data reflected a ‘coarser grain’ of location. For another visualisation this would have been perfect – our issue is no reflection on the quality of the (super cool) data we were using – but, in our context, the data clearly didn’t function with the narrative we wanted to construct and the meaning we wanted to convey. At the last minute we had to re-think our visualisation, and explore a completely different facet of the data. Though we managed to get a new project finished, the process made for some frazzling moments and a late night.

What makes ‘getting to know’ your data difficult?

Time pressure

We were working with 8000 records under significant time pressure, so wanted to dive straight into the building. But, though we began with a great idea for what we wanted to explore, our hurrying meant we didn’t take the time to carefully assess how the location data might function on a map; or how it might relate to the other fields we were trying to represent.  It sounds painfully simple but on the next project, I would take the time early on to speculate on these subjects. With a deadline looming, it would be less hectic to miss out some final features than have to re-think the visualization.

Starting with an undefined idea of what you (ideally) want to do explore.

It’s oxymoronic: the final story and visualisation must appropriately reflect how the underlying data has been captured; but, in order to assess your data you must have a clear idea of that story and the visualisation you want to build. We began with a general idea of what we wanted to convey. This meant that, while we conjectured about how it could look and work, we didn’t sharply envision the vital features needed to convey that idea. And… you can’t always work it as you go along. I think next time I would follow an iterative process: start with a clear idea, assess what foundational features demonstrate that effectively, check the data is capable of that, reshape the idea and so on. Again, taking the time for this at the beginning saves a whole world of coffee and confusion at 11pm.

Applying this lesson outside of the Fieldschool?

The data I work with on a day-to-day basis focuses on Wellington’s print history. My biggest dataset is spreadsheet upon spreadsheet containing details about late 19th-century printers, publishers, booksellers and engravers. It is meticulously geocoded and able to be sliced by year or print service. At this stage, some records are geocoded by numbered street address but some only by street name. From this week’s project I can easily tell that there are limitations to what this data can tell me or how it will convey meaning most effectively. It could tell you an interesting story about the frequency of available print services in individual streets of the city. But – at this stage I would not be able to create a network diagram that links individual addresses.

Hello from Cynthia

My evolution from the analog age was by default. I am a storyteller and since 1991 I have dedicated a large part of my research and artistic life managing outreach and media collaboration with community-based organizations in documenting the U.S. small farm experience. On the whole, most these projects have generated media deliverables to include oral history interviews, documentary video, and black and white photographs. This repository has been developed in the traveling exhibition, Voices of American Farm Women, the MSU Museum’s Voices Project, and three documentary videos that were aired on public television.

I was inspired by the local food, farm, and land movement across the U.S. and in 2006 enrolled in MSU’s Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures department with a Specialization in Gender, Justice and Environmental Change. My intellectual experience at MSU has helped me focus my skill set and scholarship direction…and now with the CHI fieldschool experience, I plan to share my digital repository with the general public, scholars, and fellow digital storytellers.

In Sardegna, I was fascinated Nuragic civilization-lasting from the (18th century BC) to the 2nd century AD. The Nuragic peoples built conical shaped tower fortresses that can be seen across the landscape. I have learned that around these sites is some of the most fertile soil and indeed there are still natural springs or evidence of natural springs as well as Roman churches near the Nuragic ruins. Another fascinating aspect of Sardegna is the medieval use of land-people were given the freedom to use the land in common. There are rules and governance now shaping local organizations in an effort to maintain these ancient rights. Sardegnians still speak an ancient dialect: in fact there are nearly 270 different dialects, some endangered. Therefore, the old land maps have place names (typonames) that represent how the land was used and by whom. I am in love with Sardegna, for all of these reasons and moreover, the contemporary peoples still have a deep connection to the land and a pastoral way of life. Oh, and I did my dissertation research on a heritage breed of cow, called the Sardo-Modicana.

I am certain that Cultural Heritage Informatics can help communities recognize their cultural capital and in the case of Sardegna, help bridge the gap between disciplines (humanistic/social science/natural sciences). I am part of a feasibility study with faculty in Sardegna to create a Center for Digital Research in the Humanities based upon the assumption that active citizen participation can steer change towards sustainable development. I believe Digital Humanities can be harnessed for strengthening a territories’ cultural capital through interaction, creativity, critical thinking, and innovation. Indeed, by exposing young people to the potential that lies in their digital skill-set embedded in their everyday practices from text-messaging with their cell phone, to social media such as facebook and twitter on their personal computer, to interactive animations or movies on a portable media player, they can teach others, like us born-analog folks.

I am learning to embrace technology, thanks to our fearless leader and all of “you young-folk!” And I love: Interactive Visualization: