Simplicity of Form

One of the biggest challenges that Digital Studies as a whole faces is how abstract and complex its fundamental products are. There is often a high threshold for complexity leaving many creators and users confused because they lack specific knowledge of the particular processes of the Digital Studies. In the realm of Digital Mapping, the various coordinate systems, terms, and file types prevent creators from going as far beyond traditional mapping ideas as they could and keeps the layman away from using the products, as only those immersed in the study of Digital Mapping can understand the scope of the complexity of some of the projects. They may be able to see the big picture, but unlike text files or images, very few understand the mechanics of the processes. With the Digital Map App of Davidson College, I hope to create a simple linking of the ideas of geospatial data that serves as both a practical tool for navigation as well as a simple example of how geospatial data can be approached by an average user.

Stephen Ramsay and Rockwell’s “Developing Things: Notes toward an Epistemology of Building in the Digital Humanities” offers a clear and concise summation of the general issues surrounding digital studies as a whole. Ramsay and Rockwell argue that the abstract nature of Digital Studies as a whole has left many within the community questioning and arguing about what the definition is. This is in part due to the wide range of complex ideas that are a part of different segments of the Digital Humanities, how “but their work is all about XML, XSLT, GIS, R, CSS, and C” (Ramsay, Rockwell). While many average users of computers understand how text can be bolded or italicized and at least know that JPEG and PNG files refer to images, for most people the aforementioned file types are simply gibberish. In addition, in Ramsay and Rockwell’s discussion, there is no uniformity in the use of these file types across even the subsections of the Digital Humanities. Not every map is made with GIS, and not every program is run by C. This complexity is part of why it seems Ramsay and Rockwell have left out discussion of the Digital Humanities for the common man, the only noticeable omission in the article. While I would have liked the discussion there, if the Digital Humanities departments cannot define themselves, then it would be difficult for a layman to have any idea where to start.

There are many attempts to explain the concept of geospatial data, a important concept to the subject of digital mapping, to the layman with mixed results. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) attempts to define geospatial data for those wishing to keep records, but their definitions and procedure reveal the outdated approaches that those working outside the Digital Humanities often take, whether out of ease or necessity. While offering advice on how to store records, the EPA states that “Geospatial data records are often in special formats (e.g., oversized paper maps or data sets). Therefore, it is especially important to identify the geospatial data records with appropriate metadata, so the records can be easily accessed and retrieved with other, related records” (Environmental Protection Agency, Frequent Questions about Geospatial Data and Records). Rather than believe the EPA is ignorant to the more condensed ways of storing geospatial data, it rather seems that they must suggest less compact ways of storing data by the virtue that they are simpler for the user in the face of the overwhelming complexity that shapefiles and raster layers may bring to the uninitiated record keeper. While the FAQ may not be a good robust description of the idea of geospatial data, it must limit itself to inefficient simplicity in order to explain itself to users.

However, even without the need to focus on practical applications like record keeping, the definition of geospatial data can remain elusive. Even the handbook of geospatial data, a “user manual” for those who are trying to understand geospatial servers, must resort to relating text and webpages into its language in order to convey just what geospatial data is. While the guide book makes the claim that “Soon a search for spatial data will be as easy as a Google search for a web page (OpenPlans, GeoServer 2.6.x User Manual) they also bring up “browser” based systems and offer very few concrete examples that truly explain what geospatial data is supposed to be. The handbook tries to argue that geospatial data is fundamentally different from other types of data, yet only describes it using comparisons.

However, to understand geospatial data one only needs to look as far as the concept of spaces and places in people minds, commonly referred to as a “mental map.” Ozkul and Gauntlett’s  “Locative Media in the City: Drawing Maps and Telling Stories” in Mobile Stories, serves as both an easy to comprehend discussion of what mental maps are as well as how people view geospatial data within their own minds. In their study, users were asked to “draw a map of London showing ‘frequently visited places’” (Ozkul Gauntlett 114). What surfaced did not take the form of raster layers, CSS code, or shapefiles placed by a complex coordinate system. Rather, people drew pictures and words in order to explain how geospatial data related to the real world. They also discussed concepts outloud that described how they viewed geospatial data, though they might not have personally called their ideas as such (114). This thorough discussion highlights one of the key difficulties that surrounds the abstract nature of many discussions on digital humanities. Text, pictures, and other common forms of data are not separate entities from geospatial data but rather simply another lense with which to view the various types of data that make up the world as a whole.

Data is not nearly as sectioned off into buckets of categories with no overlap as those who are obsessed with the quantitative over the qualitative might want you to think. Images like photographs can easily contain text, from a photo of a book to a simple captioned image. Text can be used to create images such as ASCII[1] art or emoticons[2]. The tools we use to create these are the same at their base as well. Webpages are made up of pixels which create both text and images, all of which are founded in the same code. There are different tools that produce similar results, but it is not the intrinsic makeup of these types of data that defines what they are but rather how we as people choose to interpret them. Likewise, geospatial data doesn’t need to be made up of completely different types of components from webpages or any other medium. What geospatial data does is combine the same elements that we use daily to produce other types of data in a way that people interpret as having to do with the space and place around them. This simplicity is something I hope to achieve with the Davidson Mapping App I am creating with the MIT aiAppInventor software[3].

Rather than trying to keep a purity of only geospatial data, the Davidson Mapping App attempts to look at text and image data through a geospatial lense. The current Davidson map[4] uses shapes and symbols as primary indicators of space, yet often that is confusing since people don’t tend to think in terms of those particular symbols but rather in terms of descriptions and mental pictures (Ozkul, Gauntlett). Therefore, the Mapping App adds textual descriptions and identifiable images to the available data to give users the best sense of where these spaces are, what they look like, and what they contain. Practically speaking, the text gives the buildings a sense of what they are commonly used for and the specific areas inside them, such as Hance Auditorium on the fourth floor of Chambers, which according to several Davidson students, was a very difficult place to locate the first time. The images help give the users’ mental maps a better foundation than the symbols; rather than simplistic shapefiles to go off of, users can have an image of the building or space in their minds that matches up very closely to what they will see when they approach the space. However, the app serves a purpose in getting users familiar with geospatial data itself as well.

MIT’s aiAppInventor is a program built around simplicity and therefore is a perfect medium to try to convey geospatial data in a clear and simple manner. The apps are programmed using predetermined blocks of code, which keeps the interface simple for both creators and users. While at first this design may seem limiting, it helps to streamline the application of use. One cannot incorporate GIS files or Excel data spreadsheets into this tool. Therefore, the cartographer and the layman are on common ground and data does not need to be translated from a complicated form back into simplistic terms. The app inventor does not work well for complicated projects, but is a great tool for understanding basic components of data and for presenting those components to a user.

In order to get definition at the higher levels of digital studies, we must first people to explain ourselves on simple terms to the average person. While there will always be an important place for discussion at the higher level of the subject, it’s important to make the Digital Humanities to be as accessible as possible for the common person as basic math, science, language or art is. Tools that appeal to our interpretation of geospatial data rather than the semantics about it will help us better understand what the essence of Digital Mapping within the Digital Humanities really is.

[1] ASCII art is made up of pictures using only the 128 characters from  American Standard Code for Information Interchange.

[2] Emoticons use the characters on a keyboard to denote certain facial expressions or emotions.

[3] http://appinventor.mit.edu/explore/

[4]http://www.davidson.edu/Documents/About/Visit/Campus%20Map/Campus-Map-8-5×11-2013.pdf

Citations

Didem Ozkul and David Gauntlett. “Locative Media in the City: Drawing Maps and Telling Stories” in Mobile Stories

“Frequent Questions: Records Management.” U.S Environmental Protection Agency. August 3, 2012. Accessed November 20, 2014. http://www.epa.gov/records/faqs/geospatial.html

Stephen Ramsay and Geoffrey Rockwell.  “Developing Things: Notes Towards an Epistemology of Building in the Digital Humanities” in Debates in the Digital Humanities

OpenPlans, 2014 GeoServer 2.6.x User Manual, accessed November 20, 2014, http://docs.geoserver.org/stable/en/user/introduction/history.html

Literature Review: Define the Person, See the Map

A map is something that people used to associate with strictly geography, landmarks, and location. Now, maps have uses such as telling stories, building communities, and documenting significance. No longer are maps just geographical devices; people have their own sense of maps, which include emotion, memory, necessity, etc…all on top of the traditional sense of location. My project, Define the Person, See the Map, takes maps of Davidson College, information provided from different types of students, and ideas/concepts introduced by authors, which all combined together, forms a visual of the ideal map of campus for a certain type of student. My project will answer the question: If students at Davidson College had to create their own map of campus, how would they view/create it?

The core of my idea comes from the concepts of mental maps and sketch maps, which Didem Ozkul and David Gauntlett bring up in “Locative Media in the City: Drawing Maps and Telling Stories”.  The introduction of mental maps to digital mapping has opened up a door leading to new ways to understanding space.  Ozkul and Gauntlett deem cognitive (mental) maps as something that includes “both a broad sense of its geographic features, as well as memories, emotions, and other associations” (Ozkul & Gauntlett, 115).  They go on to say that cognitive maps can’t be directly transferred to paper (115), which is something that my project plans to do: from mind to paper to digital exhibit.  What they do say though, is that a sketch map is an attempt to view a person’s mental map by having them draw a place in order to provoke their spatial emotions associated with that place (118).  I am essentially mapping the mental/sketch maps of different types of Davidson College students with my project.  However, Ozkul and Gauntlett mention that “geographical accuracy is not a significant concern in cognitive mapping” (118). They say this in response to the fact that one individual will think about a certain space differently than another individual, therefore their mental maps and sketch maps will be different and inaccurate from one another. In order to drive a message across to the user of the exhibit, I need geographical accuracy, which will be achieved by using the same base map for each portion of the exhibit denoting the type of student.

Less recently, but still on the topic of mental maps, in 2001, Katriina Soini analyzed the traditional uses of mental maps. Her argument supports what I am trying to do with mental maps in my project even though I’m using them in a less traditional way. She writes that “Mental mapping has traditionally been used in order to explore spatial cognition” (Soini, 229), and she goes on to say that “mental maps have also been analyzed as indications of individual’s spatial preferences, the significance of and attachment to a place” (229). Both the spatial cognition and preference of a place can arise out of necessity associated with that place. An individual’s necessity for a certain place or space derives from that individual’s agenda, which is born variables that define that person; for example, their occupation or age. So, based off of spatial preference, my project focuses on spatial necessity.

Another ability of maps that my project will achieve is story telling.  Viewing the maps will not only teach people about the students and the campus, but it will provide a narrative of what is happening throughout the day. The viewer of a map can only follow the story if he/she understands the language that the map is speaking.  Soini’s argument about mental maps can apply to story telling as well; she writes that mental maps allow people to be able to converse about spatial information (228).  With my project, the viewer will better be able to understand the story that I am conveying if he/she also has a mental map of the college campus; it is a two-way street.  The paths that a student takes on campus will provide details to the story just effectivley as the buildings that the student visits; Lone Koefoed Hansen in “Paths of Movement: Negotiation Spatial Narratives Through GPS Tracking” discusses that narratives come from a combination of daily routine and geography.  Hansen’s chapter encompasses use with space; she uses the term psychogeography, a term from the 1960s that “maps space as it is felt and used by those that inhabit it” (Hansen, 129).   She cites Esther Polak’s NomadicMILK project from 2009, which shows the paths that herdsmen took while working the fields. These simple lines hold within them complex narratives; she found that “When they see their movements replayed in the sand drawings, both herdsmen and truck drives begin telling the stories of their movements in and intertwining with locations through which they navigate” (139).  Polak’s art/map project provides evidence for the ability to visualize a story, and in fact, the visualization can provoke a story that poeple may not have recognized when traveling the path in their daily lives; this is something that my project has the power to do.

In my project, the narrative comes to the viewer via clicking through the exhibit; the screen itself is moving from location to location on the map, but it might as well be the actual student moving around campus throughout the course of the day. In Charles Cumming’s “The 21 Steps”, he successfully simulated a person traveling across the world by having the view jump from different locations on a map. His mapping project is geared strictly to telling a story that includes details in a different way than a book; it shows exactly where the character goes instead of saying that he has gone from point A to point B.  Showing these details allows the viewer to know more about the movement of the character. For my project, I want the viewer to know how the student is moving, otherwise, the viewer may deem it unimportant if I don’t include that information.

Define the Person, See the Map, my project, which is a Neatline exhibit, will allow viewers to explore 16 different maps complete with descriptions of the 16 types of Davidson College students that I have defined. It will complement as well as branch off from the literature that I have reviewed. This literature provides support for my initial project idea as well as what my project can show the viewer. In a combination of Ozkul/Gauntlett and Soini, mental maps were significant to me on three fronts. First, they are what inspired me to pursue this project. Everyone’s mental maps are different as Ozkul and Gauntlett explained leading to different mental maps of the same place. I wanted to create a summed mental map of the campus, so that there would be a single map that could reveal facts about the college’s spatial information. However, I couldn’t ‘break’ mental maps to such a degree, which leads me to the second point of significance of mental maps: they are my data. Instead of creating a universal mental map of campus, I would create maps based off of the mental maps of different types of students, which actually would create a better argument than just one map. The similarities and differences between these maps would inform the viewer how the campus is used by students with different agendas and responsibilities. Third, while someone who has never been to campus could have an understanding of my project, I am relying heavily on the viewer’s own mental map, which Soini explained helps people converse about location, of campus in order to understand my argument: who you are affects where you go and why you go there.  In understanding my argument, the viewer will be able to follow the narrative.  Just showing buildings along with the description of what a student may be in that building contains a narrative on its own, however, by including the paths that the student takes from building to building, I am able to add uniqueness to each map. Space in between place is something that should not be neglected, and Hansen as well as Polak showed that movement has an extreme mental process behind it, so by explaining this process in the descriptions in Neatline, I form a whole other narrative that will educate the viewer about the students on campus. Viewers will be able to see and understand the ideal maps of students who have different lives, yet live on the same campus.

Bibliography

Cumming, Charles. “The 21 Steps.” 2008. http://www.wetellstories.co.uk/stories/week1/

Hansen, Lone Koefoed “Paths of Movement: Negotiation Spatial Narratives Through GPS Tracking.” Mobile Stories: Narrative Practices with Locative Technologies. New York: Routledge, 2014. 128-142. 20 Nov.  2014.

Ozkul, Didem and Gauntlett, David. “Locative Media in the City: Drawing Maps and Telling Stories.” Mobile Stories: Narrative Practices with Locative Technologies. New York: Routledge, 2014. 113-127. 20 Nov.  2014.

Polak, Esther. “NomadicMilk.” 2009. http://www.nomadicmilk.net/full/

Soini, Katriina. “Exploring human dimensions of multifunctional landscapes through mapping and map-making.” Landscape and Urban Planning (2001): 225–239. 20 Nov.  2014.

 

Literature Review

Literature Review

The purpose of this project is to develop a digitized environmental history of Davidson College. This project expands on a senior environmental capstone project that combines aerial photography, remotely sensed data, historical maps, and oral histories to map environmental changes throughout Davidson College’s history. The previous project created a series of maps using ArcMap 10.1 united with a rich historical narrative and timeline to analyze Davidson College’s environment history. While the capstone is comprehensive, its presentation as a manuscript is not sufficient for presenting various maps, timelines, narratives, and images as a cohesive unit. By presenting the above material as a digital Neatline exhibit, this project allows for interactivity and inclusivity throughout the web. Many authors have demonstrated the importance of developing environmental histories, the significance of the college campus in an environmental history context, and the importance of mapping; however, only recently has digital mapping emerged as a reputable discipline. As times have progressed into a digital age, the ways in which authors address and present environmental history problems should continuously develop.

The discipline of environmental history is well recognized and accepted as an area of study. Noted environmentalists such as Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson promoted a moral and political agenda towards the environment, establishing a base for future environmental scholarship. More recently, Donald Hughes (2006) defined environmental history as “history that seeks understanding of human beings as they have lived, worked and thought in relationship to the rest of nature through the changes brought by time”(Hughes, 2006). Although the discipline has evolved to include “ecohistories”, “historical geographies” and “ethnographies of landscape”, environmental historians today agree that the environmental history of a place should be examined in conversation with anthropogenic developments.

Only recently have the college town and campus emerged as focuses for scholarship and, even more recently, as a focus for environmental history studies. The importance of the college campus as a significant entity emerged when Gaines (1991) described the college campus as a work of art. His book was one of the first to stray away from the valuations of merit and scholarship, and ranks colleges based on urban space, architectural quality, landscape, and overall appeal. Moreover, authors such as Gumprecht (2007) have examined the historical environmental and social importance of the college campus. Gumprecht (2007) highlighted the needed balance between aesthetics, academics, and development in a particular college’s history, and provided a useful case study that situated the college campus in an environmental history context. Gumprecht’s work highlights the importance of the physical campus as a symbol central to the identity of the college, town, and even state.

Environmental historians focus on various sub disciplines, including geography, when reconstructing historical narratives. In many cases historical geography and the theories of several dimensions of space, provide substance to environmental history narratives. Additionally, authors have adopted the idea of social space or constructed space as a way of critically understanding the surrounding physical environment. The idea of constructed space originated in Lefebvre’s (1991) work The production of space, where he presented different levels of space from abstract space, to natural space, to a more complex social space. Without getting lost in philosophical jargon, it is important to note the significance of Lefebvre’s argument. Social space as a social product gives subjectivity to geography. Lefebvre addressed the argument that space is natural and socially constructed, which highlighted the idea that maps are never completely objective. Lefebvre’s work also highlights the uniqueness of individual spaces, such as Davidson College, with histories that are formed by a combination of physical and social interactions.

Expanding on Lefebvre’s call for understanding socially constructed and physical spaces, existing literature demonstrates the importance of mapping as a form of scholarship. In two of his books chapters, Monmonier (1993) demonstrates the importance of cartographic symbols as a form of analysis. He argues that maps are a “scaled down version of reality”; therefore, various symbols and scales demonstrate different arguments of the cartographer. While Monmonier examines specific symbols and scale levels, his text demonstrates the overall subjectivity of mapping and the importance of the cartographer’s decision making in constructing a narrative. Monmonier demonstrates how maps can be used to create certain arguments of spaces, and are useful when examining human-environment interactions. Moretti (2005) applies the importance of mapping to literary history and argues that mapping literature allows for a different level of understanding about the text. For example, he discovers a circular pattern of geography when he maps out Mary Mitfords, Our Village, and suggests that “when you map out the book, everything changes” (37). Although Moretti’s (2005) arguments examine literature, his concepts can be applied to historical narratives. When one maps out the history of a place, the past may be seen in a different light.

Conversations surrounding the physical and social construction of space have intrigued scholars, but these arguments were not accessible to the public until digital studies emerged as a reputable discipline. In her article, Fitzpatrick (2012) defines digital humanities as ““a nexus of fields within which scholars use computing technologies to investigate the kinds of questions that are traditional to the humanities, or, as is more true of my own work, ask traditional kinds of humanities-oriented questions about computing technologies.” Adopting Fitzpatrick’s first definition, this project attempts to transform a humanities study into an interactive digital exhibit. Expanding on Fitzpatrick call for the essentiality of digital studies, digital studies allow for public consumption of scholarly work.

Other authors address the importance of digitizing maps and argue that digital projects allow for public availability, and for varying levels of argument nonexistent in paper maps. In their book, Hypercities: thick mapping in the digital humanities, Presner et al (2014) develop the term “thick mapping” to describe the processes of “collecting, aggregating, and visualizing ever more layers of geographic or place specific data” (Presner et. al 17). Thick mapping, as Presner et al (2014) define it, can be easily achieved digitally. In his article, Long (2013) argues that digital maps such as google maps can return many elements to the map, including social, political, economic, climatological, biologic, and many other elements.” Although my project does not use google maps, Long highlights the general interactive nature of digital maps, which allows for a combination of spatial and non-spatial data. Additionally, Long (2013) addresses the importance of layers in digital maps as they allow for the “mashing up of non-spatial data on digital mapping interfaces in order to bring together multiple pieces of situated knowledge about and to get diverse perspectives on a particular space” (Long). By combining the arguments presented by Presner et al. (2012) and Long (2013), this project attempts to digitally combine spatial and non-spatial data of Davidson College’s rich environmental history.

The last requirement of this project is that it be interactive. In his interview with the Onion, Douglas Adams highlights the importance of interactivity of digital humanities and argues “putting in the extra element of interactivity should just add to the possibilities” of any text. Charles Cumming demonstrates the usefulness of interactivity in his digital novel, 21 steps (http://www.wetellstories.co.uk/stories/week1/). In this interactive story, the reader follows the characters on a geographical journey that combines spatial and non-spatial data that connects the reader to the story world.

Considering the importance of interactivity, this project employs the Neatline plugin for Omeka to create an interactive historical archive complete with a narrative, archived photos and ArcMap maps. Ramsey and Rockwell (2012) present the argument that digital tools and the act of digital construction are scholarship themselves, regardless of the thing that is being presented. In conversation with Ramsey and Rockwell (2012), it is important to select the correct tool when developing a digital project. Nowviskie demonstrates the usefulness of Neatline by arguing “It’s a geotemporal exhibit-builder that allows you to create beautiful, complex maps, image annotations, and narrative sequences from collections of documents and artifacts, and to connect your maps and narratives with timelines that are more-than-usually sensitive to ambiguity and nuance” (Nowviskie). As Nowviskie demonstrates, Neatline is capable of combining various forms of media into a unified exhibit – a requirement of my final project. David Mclure, one of the builders of Neatline, declares Neatline is intended for “scholars who want to use maps and timelines to tell stories and make arguments about their subject” (http://news.virginia.edu/content/neatline-helps-map-new-world-digital-humanities-scholarship). In the same article, Andrew Staffer values how “Neatline will allow [him] to layer historical maps”, and is impressed by the “power of Neatline as a framework for integrating spatial analysis into humanities scholarship.”. Considering these critiques and the requirements of my project, Neatline proved to be an appropriate tool for presentation.

Existing literature demonstrates the importance of constructing environmental histories, the usefulness of mapping as a means for presenting humanities research, and the need for digitizing projects using tools such as Neatline to create interactive and comprehensive exhibits. From Lefebvre’s theory of constructed space to Staffers comments on Neatline, this project adapts various previous frameworks to create a comprehensive environmental history of Davidson College.

 

References

Fitzpatrick, K. (2012). The humanities, done digitally. In M. K. Gold (Ed.), Debates in the digital humanities (). Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press.

Gaines, T. A. (1991). The campus as a work of art. New York: Praeger.

Gumprecht, B. (2007). The campus as a public space in the american college town. Journal of Historical Geography, 33(1), 72-103.

Hughes, J. D. (2006). What is environmental history?. Cambridge: Polity.

Lefebvre, H. (1991). The production of space. Oxford, OX, UK; Cambridge, Mass., USA: Blackwell.

Long, Seth (2013) Digital maps and social data (http://technaverbascripta.wordpress.com/2013/03/11/digital-maps-and-social-data/)

Monmonier, M. S. (1993). Mapping it out : Expository cartography for the humanities and social sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Moretti, F. (2005). Graphs, maps, trees : Abstract models for a literary history. London; New York: Verso.

Nowviskie, Bethanie (2014) Neatline and visualization as interpretation(http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/question/how-can-we-better-use-data-andor-research-visualization-humanities/response/neatline-and-vi )

Presner, Todd Samuel,, Shepard, David,,Kawano, Yoh,,. (2014). HyperCities : Thick mapping in the digital humanities

RAMSAY, S., & ROCKWELL, G. (2012). Developing things: Notes toward an epistemology of building in the digital humanities. In M. K. Gold (Ed.), Debates in the digital humanities (). Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press.

Seal, Rob. (2012). Neatline Helps Map New World of Digital Humanities Scholarship. (http://news.virginia.edu/content/neatline-helps-map-new-world-digital-humanities-scholarship)