April 8, 2014

digital humanities / spatial history

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3 min. | 447 words

[This post originally appeared at Day of DH on 2014-04-08]

It’s a sunny California day (after a week of much needed rain). I’m variously spending time outside and in, drinking coffee, and, today, writing code. Welcome to my day.

I’m in what I believe are the final stages of a visualization project. In collaboration with Cameron Blevins, we are building a spatial history of the U.S. Post Office in the nineteenth century. Cameron is interested in the ways that the post office can be used as a proxy to understand the development of the American West over the century by plotting the location of thousands of post offices. The result of our work together has been a way for Cameron to ask new questions about settlement patterns in geographic and temporal detail.

Roughly a year ago Cameron had asked me about methods for visualizing a very large number of point data he had collected on the post offices. A variety of mapping solutions exist for this, but for me it was a chance to add another tool to my toolbox. Having been tossed into the viper’s nest of JavaScript and the data visualization library D3.js, I thought it prudent to see if D3 could handle what we wanted to get out of the visualizations.

I haven’t been disappointed. Sure, plenty of tools exist that easily allow Cameron to plot the data — Tableau or Google Earth Engine, for example, allows him to quickly draw coordinate data — but the customization of the research question has been key. The tools we use for humanities research, after all, should conform to the shape of the research question, not the other way around. Plugging in the post data gives Cameron one avenue for his research, but D3 has helped build in other ways to ask question. Cameron, for example, wanted to understand post offices in snapshots of time. Our solution has been the implementation of a timeline that allows users to drag, resize, and move spans of time in order to change the status of a post office for that particular time range (either closed, opened, active throughout the time period, and so on).

Geography of the Post

The project is nearly ready for a beta launch. Some of my morning time belongs to my dissertation, but my day will likely be spent on D3: tracking down a few bugs yet in Cameron’s code, and continuing work on a visualization plugin I’m working on for Palladio. More on that later.

Today, I’m going to try and write on the various things I do – giving you a snapshot more akin to a Week of DH – but things that make up my day-to-day work.

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Greetings! My name is Jason Heppler. I am a Digital Engagement Librarian and Assistant Professor of History at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a scholar of the twentieth-century United States. I often write here about the history of the North American West, technology, the environment, politics, culture, and coffee. You can follow me on Twitter, or learn more about me.