Visualizing past and present

Laura Bliss’ “The modern beauty of 19th-century data visualizations” demonstrates that our ideas about visualization aren’t new. For all a flashy venn diagram might impress us, most of our methods for putting data into charts are at least a century old. I remember reading Susan Schulten’s book Mapping the Nation last year, and realizing that the 18th-century “geographic revolution” brought about some sophisticated ideas about connecting metrics to spatial data, which we haven’t particularly improved upon. It was humbling. Is there also a challenge in there, somewhere, as to why we’re using 21st-century tools to accomplish 19th-century designs? Or are our visualization techniques just that good? Either way, the scale at which we’re producing visual summaries of data has grown by leaps and bounds, so visualizations give us one way to chart the rise of the digital humanities.

I hadn’t read before about Father Roberto Busa’s 1949 project to produce a full concordance of the Bible with help from IBM. 1 The project walked untrod ground to catalog words and phrases in biblical text and create the most thorough index that yet existed. Susan Hockey takes it as a point of origin for the story of “humanities computing,” and traces the story through Mosteller and Wallace’s 1964 analysis of the Federalist Papers. That analysis used similar methods, but its aim was to compare the diction of the pseudonymous Federalist Papers to the known writings of the figures suspected of writing them. None of these are visual projects, exactly, but they’re ways to connect the dawn of humanities computing to the rise of ready-made desktop applications for text mining in the eighties and nineties, so anyone who has seen a “word cloud” diagram can imagine the possibilities.

Billing itself as “largest body of texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published,” 2 the online collection of The Old Bailey’s proceedings from 1647 to 1913 presents a vast set of legal information. Its twenty-five million words3 would defy any attempt at a Busa-style exhaustive voyeur-expanded-default-skin-1024x647concordance. As it is presented, the collection can be searched with keywords or a few simple “advanced search” features, but if ever a project cried out for an alternative interface, this one does. So that’s what Dan Cohen, along with a dizzying team of other digital humanities luminaries, did in their “Data Mining with Criminal Intent” project. Their stated goals were to make the collection more compatible with tools like Zotero and the visualization tool Voyeur. I’d love to read a post-mortem on how much the tool has actually been used by researchers (the authors themselves say that their guinea-pig researchers were “more challenged” by Voyeur than by Zotero,) but even if this isn’t the occasion for the research world to start using word frequency graphs, it’s a valuable pilot project.

Finally, I was charmed by Kieran Healy’s “Using Metadata to Find Paul Revere.” It’s a tongue-in-cheek sendup of the NSA claim that collecting “only metadata” somehow makes their intrusion into our communications more palatable–and in 18th-century English, at least for as long as the joke plays. In it, Healy uses the practice of network analysis on a cohort of Colonial Americans and the social clubs they belonged to, and demonstrates that you can learn a great deal about someone’s life and social world without necessarily looking at any of the content of their communications. Bringing things full-circle with those 19th-century visualizations, it’s a reminder that fancy-looking network graphs can illustrate some dead simple analysis–nothing that couldn’t be done by quill pen, if it came down to it.