Writing

Omaha Zoning

A few days ago the New York Times Upshot ran a piece on single-family zoning and the emergence of political energy that is seeking to curtail the prevalence of single-family zoning. We see this happening in Oregon, California, and Minneapolis in particular as cities try to confront affordability, climate change, and inequality. I wanted to take a look at Omaha, and tried to generate a similar map. Pink represents single-family zoning, green is multifamily zoning. Omaha zoning map The housing units here fall into what Omaha zones as Rn residential that varies from high density to low density, as well as what Omaha calls “urban family residential” which includes single-family housing, duplexes, and townhouses. While Omaha allows for additional housing in areas not necessarily zoned for residences (such as apartments built over offices), the map looks only at land set aside exclusively for housing. The higher resolution version is here. Thanks to the City of Omaha for providing open datasets for building footprints, zoning, and city limits.

Alan Brinkley, RIP

What most clearly characterized the intellectual landscape of the first years of the New Deal was an exceptionally wide range of approaches to reform. Some were rooted in the progressive philosophies of the first decades of the 20th century, others in the experience of World War I, still others in the generally unsuccessful reform initiatives of the 1920s… . In fact, the early New Deal was awash in ideas—ideas of significant range and diversity (at least by American standards), but ones that somehow managed for a time to coexist.

– Alan Brinkley, The End of Reform (1995)

Alan Brinkley died over the weekend. He was a giant in writing the history of twentieth century America, and his End of Reform is nothing short of masterful. Rest in peace.

Making my Budget Peloton

If you’re a podcast listener or friend of the pod, you’ve likely heard the advertisements for Peloton – the high-end, at-home bike trainer designed to give you a spinning class experience from your home. But at $2,000 for their bikes, it’s a high ask to get the equipment needed for the full Peloton experience.

So I went in search of a budget-friendlier route. Here’s some notes about my setup.1

I love bicycling, and have racked up plenty of miles with my Trek. But Nebraska winters can be brutal (have I mentioned lately I miss California?) and, with a young kid in the house, it can be hard to find time to get out and ride. So a stationary bike was a perfect solution for me.

My bike setup.

The bike. Sunny Health makes great indoor spinning bikes, and I went with this $264 one. It’s heavy and takes a bit of work if you’re, say, carrying it to your basement. But it’s not difficult put together (so, skip the Amazon professional installation) and it does the job wonderfully. It’s sturdy (a good thing, because you’ll really be cranking the pedals) as well as quiet. You won’t have to worry about waking your kids while they’re asleep and you’re pedaling your ass off.

The cadence. Next, pick up a Wahoo wireless RPM cadence monitor and attach it to your crank shaft. You’ll need this to monitor your cadence during rides, which is important for keeping pace with the instructor. I typically sync this data to Strava. UPDATE: Not anymore. I just record the workout with my Apple Watch and keep everything in Apple Health.

The trainers. Finally, subscribe to the Peloton app – anyone can buy and use the app, you don’t need their equipment for it. And their instructors are great – you can filter classes by instructors, length, type of workout, and so on to really nail down what you’re after. I have an iPad mount attached to the handlebars to hold my iPad with the app while I ride, as well as a mount for my phone to monitor cadence. There’s a free two-week trial if you want to test it out.

All in all, it’s a fraction of the cost of a Peloton setup. The integration won’t be as fully-featured – you won’t, for example, be able to monitor distance – but all the data you capture can sync to Apple Health without a hitch.

Some tips

  • Find an instructor you like. Robin and Emma are awesome.
  • Don’t jump into the long rides or hard rides, especially if you’re just starting out. Pick a 30 minute ride and build up from there.
  • Monitor your heartrate. I have an Apple Watch for this.
  • Don’t go crazy buying peripherals. Sure, you could get cycling shoes or clips – but you don’t need them. The only peripheral items I’ve picked up are a cheap iPad and iPhone mount and a rubber mat to protect the floor under the bike.

  1. Of course, the budget-friendliness of this setup also means I already have the additional equipment needed. In this case: an iPhone, an iPad, and an Apple Watch. Don’t follow this guide if you need to buy Apple devices to make it work; just go buy the Peloton.

Twitter Use at WHA2018

For the past few years following the Western History Association’s annual meeting I’ve been collecting Twitter analytics on users that tweet with the conference hashtag. We just wrapped up #wha2018 and it’s time to see what’s in the data. We spent the week in San Antonio, which, strangly enough, was colder than here in Omaha. Thanks, Texas.

Anyway.

First off, and most simply, we can see the frequency of tweets over the past nine days. These are aggregated using three-hour intervals about #wha2018 over time. Unsurprisingly, there’s a slight build-up before the conference began on Thursday and cyclical activity thereafter.

Tweets about WHA2018 over time.

Here are the top people tweeting over the past nine days. Megan just edged out Lindsey. But Megan, Lindsey, Brian, and David substantially led the way in tweets.

Highest Twitter users at WHA2018.

We can also see what words most frequently appeared over the course of the conference. Here’s what we have for this year (color and size simply indicate frequency of words):

Word cloud of top words used at WHA2018.

I was also curious about interactions among users, so I created a semantic network to do a quick-and-dirty visualization of user connections via retweets, quotes, mentions, or replies. Each line indicates some kind of semantic connection between users, and the larger nodes indicate a higher number of connections.

Semantic relationships among Twitter users at WHA2018.

And for future reference, here are the word clouds from past WHA conferences I’ve created.

Past WHA word cloud visualizations.

Overcast 4.2

Marco Arment introducing Overcast 4.2:

In Overcast 4.2, the login screen now prominently encourages anonymous accounts by default.

If you already have an account in iCloud, it’ll pop up a dialog box over this screen asking if you want to use it.

And the first time you launch 4.2, people with email-based accounts will be encouraged to migrate them to anonymous accounts.

How often do you get an update to an app that asks for less information from you? I’ve been an Overcast user since it launched, and Marco’s commitment to this kind of thing adds to my desire to keep supporting his work for a long time.

Software I Use

I am picky about the software I use. But I think I’m justified to be so: these are things that I use every day, and should help me get the work done I’m trying to do. So, as things stand in 2018, here is what I install on any new machine I work with.

Gestimer

When things get especially busy, I need a way to carve my day into blocks of time. The other problem: if I get focused on something, I’ll lose track of time. Gestimer helps remind me to take a break. While Pomorodo has never seemed to click with me, Gestimer serves as a good stand-in for that approach. If I need to focus on a task, I’ll tell the timer to remind me in 45 minutes to take a walk. It’s a small thing, but it works well for my brain.

Fantastical

While Apple’s default calendar app is pretty good, the ease of adding events to Fantastical can’t be beat. The natural language processing is too good to pass up, so triggering the app with a global shortcut lets me easily type “Call Paul on Monday at 3pm to discuss the podcast” all without the jumble of mouseclicks it would take to do that on any other calendar.

Alfred 3

Spotlight is good, and getting better, but for speed it can’t hold a candle to Alfred.

1Password

You should be using a password manager, and you should be using this one. Their apps are fantastic and they have great customer support.

iTerm 2

A great replacement for the default Terminal app.

neovim

Vim, but just the good parts. The killer feature is a much stronger plugin architecture.

Homebrew

Homebrew is how I install almost any software on my Mac that isn’t available in the App Store or on npm.

Visual Code Studio

I’ve abandoned Sublime Text and Atom for Microsoft’s Visual Code Studio when I’m doing Javascript and web development. Although I do most of my development work in vim and a terminal, the environment of Visual Code is terrific.

RStudio

When I’m not doing Javascript and web development, I’m writing in R. And no R environment is complete without RStudio. Not only is it a must for development, but it makes for a great teaching environment as well.

Firefox

I was a Chrome user for years, and waffled between Chrome and Safari for a long time (especially as the iPad become a go-to computer for working and Safari became rock-solid – but more on that in a future post). But with the launch of the new Firefox Quantum at the end of 2017, I’m back. It’s fast, privacy-conscious, and well-designed. Plus, Google is doing things hostile to a free and open web – so, I feel good throwing my support behind Mozilla and their mission to protect Internet health.1

Bear

I have nearly ten years worth of markdown files sitting in a notes directory in Dropbox that I keep synced with nvALT. And while this setup has served me well all this time, I’ve recently begun migrating much of that to Bear. With its markdown support but also rich text abilities, lovely design, solid iCloud syncing — and, of course, a whimsical Bear — it quickly became my default app for taking notes, keeping references, storing links, or planning projects.

Things 3

I think I’ve tried every task manager. After a year-long stint with Todoist, I’ve settled on Things 3. The design is gorgeous, but more than that the GTD system is still as steady and trustworthy as it was when I first started following its tenants years ago. Todoist had too many blockers that made it ineffective for my tastes (the lack of start dates being a big deal-breaker). Things handles all of this beautifully, and handles tasks in a way that I find just so human.

Nord VPN

You shouldn’t trust your ISP, and you really shouldn’t trust wifi networks you join from an airport or favorite coffee shop. Virtual private networks help secure your connection to networks. (Pro-tip: use Little Snitch to automatically block all incoming and outgoing traffic to your computer when you join an unknown wifi connection, and only allow the VPN connection before you grant the new network any level of trust.)

Pair this with Cloudflare’s new 1.1.1.1 DNS service and force HTTPS, and you have yourself a good setup for privacy and protection.

Dropbox and Backblaze

I’m lumping my sync service of choice and my backup service of choice into a singular heading. They’re both great.


  1. This isn’t to suggest I never use Chrome or other Google services. I use plenty of them. But I’m wary about the influence that the company exerts on the web.

Advocacy, training, and awareness through Endangered Data Week

In the wake of the 2016 US presidential election, librarians, civic hackers, technologists, cultural heritage institutions, journalists, and citizen scientists grew increasingly concerned that government data—particularly data related to topics like climate change, gerrymandering and redlining, and other politically charged subjects—might be threatened through censorship or neglect. Initiatives have sprung up throughout the country, spearheaded by groups like DataRefuge, the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative (EDGI), and the End of Term Web Archive, that attempted to collect, secure, and document government data. The vulnerability of these data underscored the need for quick action on the one hand, and sustained attention to the mechanisms that support (or fail to support) preservation and access to government data, information, and records on the other.

Now in its second year, Endangered Data Week (EDW) takes place February 26 through March 2, 2018, at campuses and institutions around the world. The initiative’s goal is to build upon prior work in digital preservation and coordinate annual international events to raise awareness about threatened data. EDW, supported by the Digital Library Federation (DLF), fosters public conversations about data and encourages the development of reusable curricula for engaging technologists, scholars, librarians, archivists, faculty, students, journalists, nonprofits, and citizens on questions relating to the acquisition, manipulation, visualization, use, and politics of public data.

Decentralized, distributed, and open to all, EDW runs a variety of events designed to shed light on continuing or potential threats to data, train people on acquiring and working with difficult datasets, and build a culture of data consciousness and records transparency. In this way, EDW advocates for open data policies at all levels of government, highlights how such policies can benefit the public and policymakers, and supports the sharing of skills and practices for working with data across a range of disciplines and professions. This year, EDW will offer several events covering a range of issues, skills, and topics. There are over 40 EDW events scheduled across the US and Canada; attendees will participate in health hackathons, learn to work with local open data, explore the accessibility of government data, take part in public Twitter chats about endangered data, and engage in a wide range of other events.

Threats to public data over the past year There are many reasons why federal data may become unavailable or difficult to access, including under-or unfunded infrastructure, privatization, and political suppression. Since the beginning of the Trump administration, we’ve seen valid reasons for concern in all three areas.

Data sharing and publication is often an unfunded mandate, and the federal government’s ability to share all of the data and information it produces has always been a challenge. Although it has been nearly nine years since the launch of data.gov and nearly five years since the US CIO’s Federal Open Data Policy, the portal only connects users with a small fraction of the federal data appropriate for public use. The past year has seen an increase in austerity measures across nearly all federal agencies. (Brandon Locke’s April 2017 essay “Protect Government Data for Future Historians: Announcing Endangered Data Week” offered one early snapshot of some of these measures.) These budget reductions, alongside an unprecedented number of unfilled positions, pose a serious threat to the ability of agencies to publish open data and maintain the infrastructure needed for dependable access. The use of private contractors and products means that more and more of the data and algorithms used by federal, state, and local governments are inaccessible to the public.1

Since the inaugural Endangered Data Week in April 2017, threats to government data and information have continued to grow. Limitations on federal data due to political motivations have probably garnered the most media attention. The removal, suppression, or reframing of data may be done to prevent research that may run counter to the current administration’s policies, or to prevent effective opposition to an administration’s narratives. Below, we highlight a few of the key ways in which these dangers have developed in that time.

Paywalling data

The Trump administration’s appointment of more directors from the private sector also signals a move toward paywalls, proprietary data and algorithms, and less transparency. For example, Barry Myers, Trump’s pick to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is currently the CEO of AccuWeather. Myers and AccuWeather have long advocated for limiting publicly available information from the Weather Service, instead allowing companies to buy in to a higher level of information access.

Title 44

One important mechanism supporting free public access to government information is a section of the US Code, Title 44, which establishes the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) and the online public access portal for the Government Publishing Office (GPO). Title 44 also contains the only legal guarantee that the federal government will provide its public information for free to the general public. Knowledgeable observers were thus understandably concerned when, in June of 2017, Congress announced a new effort to reform Title 44, releasing a draft of the bill in December 2017.2

Although most observers agree that the law does need some revision (especially to address the challenges posed by born-digital government information) many have also noted that the current text of the bill leaves a great deal to be desired. According to the team at freegovinfo.info, the bill allows the “GPO to delete online information without providing any principles or guidelines or goals to achieve when it does so.” It also centralizes control over distribution and effectively slashes the GPO’s budget. Others (see posts from the Law and Technology Resources for Legal Professionals blog and former Depository Library Council member Bernadine Abbott Hoduski) have decried the bill’s efforts to open the door to the privatization of government information and its proposed elimination of the Congressional Joint Committee on Printing, among other worrisome features.

Climate data

Many of the concerns since 2016 regarding access to public data have been focused on climate and environmental data, and, while there haven’t yet been massive removals of data, there have still been extensive efforts to suppress climate and pollution data. However, thanks to the tireless work of EDGI, we can trace the many changes in culture and secrecy as they spread across the EPA and other agencies. According to EDGI’s The First 100 Days and Counting report, links to climate change initiatives and agency objectives have been removed; cuts have been made to data collection, infrastructure, and data usage training; and the EPA has made a notable shift toward “job creation” instead of environmental protection.

Crime data

The FBI’s October 2017 release of its Crime in the United States report garnered a great deal of press coverage for its significant decrease in data tables. While the FBI contends that this is part of a modernization effort that streamlines the report and makes more data available through its Crime Data Explorer interface, after several months, much of the data remains unavailable to social scientists and nonprofits that rely on the data for research and the allocation and justification of services. Some also have doubts about the FBI’s claims on access to these data. Not only does this lack of access hamper researchers and service providers, it also makes it difficult to challenge or confirm claims from the FBI and the Department of Justice.

Census data

Concern has also mounted, over the past year, about the fate of the 2020 census. In spring of 2017, census director John H. Thompson resigned his post. Subsequently, President Trump signaled his intention to appoint Thomas Brunell, author of the 2008 book Redistricting and Representation: Why Competitive Elections Are Bad for America. Brunell has since stepped aside, but the agency remains leaderless and—according to many civic and legal groups—woefully underfunded.3 Experts warn that underfunding, along with an inadequate questionnaire distribution plan (relying almost entirely on mail and online access) threatens to boost the census’s historical tendency to undercount vulnerable populations such as immigrants and the homeless. A new Trump administration proposal to add a question about citizenship to the census form compounds these issues.4 And we may continue to learn about factors threatening a robust 2020 population count if the NAACP, which recently filed suit to compel the Commerce Department to produce records about preparations for the 2020 census, is successful.5 Since census data determine congressional redistricting and the distribution of funding for infrastructure and social services, the stakes of ensuring a fair and accurate count in 2020 couldn’t be higher. As a recent report noted, “undercounting will ultimately deprive historically marginalized communities of vital public and private resources over the next decade.”6

Uncollected Data

We would also be remiss to not mention some crucial datasets for research and advocacy that have continued to go uncollected over the past year. There are a number of places where nonprofits and journalists have created datasets where the federal government has failed to provide dependable resources. FBI hate crime numbers are known to be far from complete, but the Southern Poverty Law Center’s hate incidents database and volunteer reporters attempt to fill in some of those gaps. Similarly, The Guardian created The Counted, a database of people killed by police in the US in 2015 and 2016, and Vice News assembled a database of all people shot by police in the nation’s 50 largest local police departments (it is also worth noting the barriers that Vice News encountered when requesting public information from many police departments). The existence of these time- and money-intensive parallel datasets speaks to the need for such data to be collected and openly available. While we advocate for continued access to existing public data, we can also ask that the federal government provide these in-demand datasets.

Fighting for openness

It hasn’t been a great year for transparency and openness at the federal level. However, we have seen a great grassroots effort to stand for open data and the use of data to improve the world. DataRefuge mobilized thousands of people around the world to download and preserve threatened data, and is working to document the ways data live in the world. The SSRC convened a group of humanities and social science scholars, data scientists, librarians, and archivists and produced the report Securing Social Science and Humanities Government Data with a number of key takeaways and initiatives. EDGI has been an inspiring example of what a thorough government watchdog can look like in a digital age. The PEGI Project has received funding to address concerns regarding the preservation of electronic government information. November’s Data for Black Lives conference at MIT brought together activists and scholars to discuss how to use data to make concrete and measurable change in black lives.

Currently, members of the Endangered Data Week team are working with the Mozilla Open Leaders program to develop an open set of curricula and training resources for others who want to study, teach, and advocate for publicly available data. As we build toward a culture of data consciousness, we will also work to encourage the use of our resources, guides, and training outside of academe. How, we will ask, can librarians, archivists, and scholars support the work of journalists, for example, who are interested in local crime data to look for patterns of discrimination or uneven enforcement? Finding, preparing, and using such data has an influence in the world of public policy and an informed citizenry as well. In the meantime, join us for this year’s Endangered Data Week and follow #EndangeredData on Twitter. Several of the Endangered Data Week events take place online, including the collection of Public Data Stories on Twitter. We also welcome participation in the Digital Library Federation’s Government Records Transparency & Accountability Interest Group.

Teaching the tidyverse to R novices

This semester I am running my R workshops once again, and as always I start by teaching people the packagers of the tidyverse. As part of Endangered Data Week, I am teaching two workshops introducing beginner R programmers to data tidying/manipulation and data visualization. I’ve taken this approach to using the tidyverse instead of base R for two primary reasons. First, learning how to manipulate data with dplyr and tidyr is easy to understand conceptually and often easier than learning the idiosyncrasies of R. When I show students two lines of code that achieve the same thing in base R and dplyr, I’ve always gotten the same answer: the dplyr way is much easier to read and understand. Tidyverse I’m not alone in my approach here — David Robinson has made the same case in regard to ggplot2. My rationale largely follows his: that teaching students the basics of the tidyverse means they can be up and running with a powerful set of tools quickly. In the case of Endangered Data Week, that means introducing students to messy government data, tidying that data, working with data to produce new data, and drawing conclusions. I’m able to teach these concepts relatively quickly thanks to the power behind dplyr and tidyr. I don’t need to worry about teaching the syntax around [[]] or $ or c(). If students need base R techniques or have questions, they can always get in touch with me for more pointers. For our data manipulation exercises in our workshop, we work off an RMarkdown worksheet together during the session. I provide them with some population data I compiled for a project I worked on last year and we work through most of the functions available in dplyr and tidyr—and if we don’t get through it all, that’s fine; they have the worksheet to complete on their own time. (I make teaching these workshops a little easier for myself by also installing RStudio Server and the necessary packages on Digital Ocean so we can be up and running quickly.) Second, students can be up and running with a good amount of knowledge about R, data manipulation, and visualization in a relatively short amount of time. After an hour-and-a-half together, even students who haven’t programmed previously are learning to work with the language. The grammar of data tidying allows these concepts to be grasped quickly since each step builds upon the previous one. Chaining together a series of tidyverse functions allows the students to see the steps necessary to reshape, clean, and explore a dataset. And those skills can be applied to any dataset, meaning students can take what they learn and use them towards other projects or classes. Likewise, I prize tidyverse methods for their consistency. I’ve seen some wild ways people have accessed or manipulated columns in a data frame (just spend some time on Stack Overflow), but anytime I read someone’s tidyverse example the process clicks faster. That consistency, again, makes using, finding answers, and learning the language that much easier. This isn’t to say I don’t teach any base R — even in the above workshops, students still learn about sum(), slice(), logical operators, and other base methods. But pairing some of the base R methods with the tidyverse makes for a powerful set of tools that can have students manipulating and visualizing data quickly. This approach of teaching tidyverse with an interactive worksheet has worked well — students are up and running with R and applying new skills quickly. My goal is to help people to work with data, and the tidyverse provides a powerful way to get started.

Endangered Data Week

In 2017, Brandon Locke voiced an idea on Twitter: we needed an event to raise awareness, like Banned Books Week, to threats to publicly available data. Those threats were widespread and various: from outright censorship to benign neglect. We were inspired by the work of others, namely DataRefuge, the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, and the work they were doing to secure environmental and climate data from an incoming presidential administration that does not believe in climate change. Joining with the Digital Library Federation, volunteers from around the world helped make EDW more successful that I could have imagined. With the support of our other partners — the Mozilla Science Lab, CLIR, DataRefuge — we helped showcase events all around the world focused on threats to public data.

We’re at it again this year. Next week, February 26 to March 2, is Endangered Data Week. And the concerns of last year are no less present this time around.

This year’s events once again cover a range of approaches, themes, and skills training. We currently have forty-two events scheduled so far across the U.S. and Canada, where attendees are learning:

Adding to our excitement this year is an announcement: Sarah Melton, Rachel Mattson, Brandon, and I are part of Mozilla’s fifth round of Open Leaders. Endangered Data Week’s curriculum development will be part of the Global Sprint May 10–11, 2018, as well. With Mozilla, we’ll be building out more instruction resources under the aegis of Endangered Data Week to promote data literacy, civic engagement, and a culture of data consciousness.

Migrating to Hugo

In my last post I mentioned how I had no concrete plans to migrate my site to Hugo despite testing out the platform a bit.

Well, that was short lived. I blame Netlify.

Not Netlify per se, but my Jekyll setup on Netlify. The issue I ran into was the huge amount of time it would take Jekyll to regenerate my site on Netlfiy and redeploy it. It reached the point of unacceptable (including setting up a Slack hook to get notified when the deploy started and when the deploy ended – just so I knew everything had successfully run in the ten to fifteen minutes it was taking). This likely comes down to how I’m using gulp to help compress CSS and images. But Hugo, as many others have noted, is fast. And in this case, that speed is important to me.

So, here we are. I probably, again, broke a few things. And the site will continue to go through some changes over time, as usual.1 But so far, I’m liking the new setup.


  1. I’m using a design borrowed from Kieran Healy.

HTTPS

I haven’t changed much about this website since I migrated to Jekyll in 2011. I’ve flirted here and there with Hugo, but don’t really have solid plans to fully convert over to it just yet. But I do feel that the standard on the web should be HTTPS, so I’m stepping away from my self-hosted site on Reclaim Hosting and moving over to Netlify. Netlify supports the same commit-and-publish workflow that Github pages does, but, more importantly, comes with Let’s Encrypt to provide SSL on custom domains.

I’ve taken some steps to clean up a few links across the site:

sed -i 's|http://jasonheppler.org|http://jasonheppler.org|g' *.md

That said, there might be some broken links yet – if you discover any, it’d be swell if you’d let me know!

Mapping Omaha Bikes

I’ve been getting a bit involved with bicycle advocacy in Omaha, especially now that I’m starting to commute to work by bike. As part of this, I wondered about the safey of bicyclists and pedestrians in the city. So, I threw together a small R Shiny application for exploring pedestrian and bicycling accidents in Omaha.

It’s a fairly simple application, using some data provided by the Nebraska Department of Roads. You can find all of the code and data on Github.

If you’re interested in getting involved, hook up with some local and national organizations:

Arguing with Digital History

First, a loose definition of “digital history”: I take digital history to mean a variety of approaches to using computational, visual, and informational methods in analyzing, visualizing, and presenting historical analysis and arguments. As I consider the ways that “digital history” can engage with argumentation, then, I assume particularities of digital history that rely on graphical displays (maps, networks), take advantage of narrative and hypertextuality, provide access to digitized primary sources, share historical evidence and data compiled for computation and visualization, and that takes the form of a digital scholarly website that integrates some or all of these aspects of research and communication. Such projects are distinct from efforts that define themselves as public history; while much of digital history can be said to be public scholarship, that does not mean they rise to the criteria of public history.1 Under this definition, to state it plainly, digital history must be explicitly digital: that the arguments, visualizations, and narrative are much harder to achieve in print and, thus, can only exist as a digital version.

Many digital history projects tend to fall into the realms of digital collections or data visualization. Some of these projects have led to more traditional venues of historical writing and publishing. The Valley of the Shadow, an archive of Civil War-era material detailing the experiences of Confederate and Union soldiers in Augusta and Franklin Counties in Virginia, led to the publication of “The Differences Slavery Made” by Ed Ayers and William G. Thomas, as well as Ayers’ In the Presence of Mine Enemies.2 The appearance of digital history projects alongside print continues: Richard White’s Railroaded was accompanied by a digital component3Shadows at Dawn relies on a digital companion to provide access to primary sources.4 Conspicuously, these digital components don’t exist primarily for driving a historical thesis, nor do they offer much in the way of expanding on narrative elements of their print partners (or experiments in nonlinear hypertextual narrative). They instead hinge on providing access to a set of material used by the writers in the creation of their monographs.5

The list of digital history projects that attempt to exist as digital-only publications is quite short, a situation that likely reflects the promotion and tenure realities of the academy. Few history departments have attempted to devise promotion structures and guidelines that accommodate digital scholarship, instead continuing to value print (and a book, in particular) as the cornerstone of scholarly merit.6 This is not, however, a limitation of how digital history can engage with argumentation. Digital history is no different, in some ways, with more traditional approaches to history: an interpretation built upon evidence and that recognizes context. While digital history can change how argumentation might look, by being more computational, more visual, and rely on large-scale machine-readable sources, argumentation otherwise utilizes the same techniques and venues for contributing to historical knowledge. While these changes in digital historical argumentation influence the kinds of questions we can ask—after all, only a computer can read and find patterns in 100,000 pages of newspapers7—the answers must still grapple with context and existing historical interpretation.

Insofar, then, that any notion of “digital history” supposes some distinction from “traditional” history, the notion mostly comes down to form. There are cases, such as Mapping the Republic of Letters, where digital projects do not make historical claims. But that presupposes the purpose of such projects. These projects exist not to make arguments in and of themselves, but as aids to research and new knowledge that result in publications destined for traditional publishing venues—and, for better or worse, where such work reaches a specific audience. In other words, these projects still strive for argumentation even though their eventual form may not be only digital.

In my own work, I have pursued projects that exist as both print and digital with the exception of one project. The first of these projects, Framing Red Power: The American Indian Movement, the Trail of Broken Treaties, and the Politics of Media served as a digital companion to my Masters thesis and contained narrative, primary sources, and data visualization.8 That project served as an aid to research, but also exists as a stand-alone project containing a greatly abridged version of the traditional thesis. My second project, still in progress, called “Self-sustaining and a good citizen”: William F. Cody and the Progressive Wild West, stands as a digital-only publication that will be going up for peer review.[^8] No print version of this project will exist, but will be accompanied by the imprimatur of a scholarly authority. My third project, also in progress, is Machines in the Valley, which served as a digital companion to my dissertation but is being expanded upon as I begin working on my book manuscript.9 In each of these cases, however, I have tried to design the projects to stand on their own—to engage with a scholarly literature, to narrate historical events, and to take advantage of computational methods to aid interpretation. My projects have tended to serve as publically-accessible digital scholarship: to provide access to historical sources, but also contextualize and narrate those sources with the hope that others may build off that work.


  1. Jason Heppler, et al., “Public History as Digital History as Public History,” working group, National Council on Public History Annual Meeting, Nashville, Tennessee, April 2015.
  2. The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War, University of Virginia http://valley.lib.virginia.edu/In the Presence of Mine Enemies: The Civil War in the Heart of America, 1859—1864 (New York: Norton, 2004).
  3. Richard White, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (New York: Norton, 2012). White’s digital companion, Railroaded, is found at http://railroaded.stanford.eduThe Iron Way likewise had a digital component, providing access to primary sources, data, and visualizations^[William G. Thomas, The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011). Thomas’s digital companion, Railroads and the Making of Modern America, is at http://railroads.unl.edu/.
  4. Karl Jacoby, Shadows at Dawn: An Apache Massacre and the Violence of History (New York: Penguin Books, 2009). Jacoby’s digital companion, Shadows at Dawn, is at http://brown.edu/Research/Aravaipa/.
  5. The same can be said for scholarly articles. Some digital projects provide digital-only whitepapers or pre-prints, such as Stanford’s Spatial History Project http://web.stanford.edu/group/spatialhistory/cgi-bin/site/pub_toc.php. Other digital projects may be accompanied by print publications that appear alongside the digital. See, for example, the work of Claire Arcenas and Caroline Winterer, The Correspondence Network of Benjamin Franklin: The London Decades http://republicofletters.stanford.edu/publications/franklin/.
  6. This is not to suggest there are no digital projects that attempt to be digital-only, but few of those have been peer reviewed let alone granted the imprimatur of an academic press. For example, see Douglas Seefeldt, Horrible Massacre of Emigrants!! The Mountain Meadows Massacre in Public Discourse http://mountainmeadows.unl.edu/Enchanting the Desert http://enchantingthedesert.com/“I Shall Be Glad To See Them”: Gertrude Käsebier’s “Show Indian” Photographs http://codystudies.org/kasebier/index.html.
  7. Library of Congress Chronicling America http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/about/.
  8. Framing Red Power: The American Indian Movement, the Trail of Broken Treaties, and the Politics of Media http://framingredpower.org.
  9. Machines in the Valley: Growth, Conflict, and Environmental Politics in Silicon Valley http://dissertation.jasonheppler.org.

Standing up for Net Neutrality

In 2012, I took my site down in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).

It’s time to stand up again.

Why we need net neutrality from Vimeo Staff on Vimeo.

We have just a few days left to contact Congress and the FCC on plans to dismantle net neutrality rules that were put in place two years ago. These rules ensure that internet service providers—Comcast, Verizon, and others—cannot block or throttle individual websites, charge fees for premium delivery, or favor their own content. But without them, ISPs can reshape the Internet to their liking. Companies are already doing this to bend the Internet to their liking: Comcast, for example, throttled Netflix traffic until Netflix agreed to a demand to pay for a promise of higher streaming speeds.

What you can do:

  • File a comment with the FCC. It’s only a few moments of your time. File before July 14.
  • Spread the word. Tell others about why they need to fight.

On July 12, I’ll be standing with other activists and companies in a day of action to support net neutrality rules. Make your voice heard.