Traditional Humanities Research and Interactive Mapping: Towards a User-Friendly Story of Two Worlds Collide

Vasileios Routsis (v.routsis@ucl.ac.uk), University College London, United Kingdom

1. BACKGROUND

Historians have been using printed maps to illustrate movements of people, trends or any other kind of information for a long time. However, only recently the technological advances made it possible to produce digital interactive environments. Digital Humanities is born out of the need to use computational methods to facilitate humanities research, and data visualisation and digital cartography are two important areas within the Digital Humanities spectrum of research fields.

2. OBJECTIVES

This poster draws on the conclusion of the first phase of the Mapping the Enlightenment: Intellectual Networks and the Making of Knowledge in the European Periphery 1 (MtE) project funded by the Research Centre for Humanities in Greece 2 . The major deliverable was the creation of an online interactive mapping tool capable of indexing and visualising data of movements of Greek-speaking scholars during the Enlightenment Era. The first public version of the tool was released in late December 2017.

The project’s goal is to enhance users’ understanding of the emergence of modern science and technology as the expression of a dynamical geography. Addressing the spatiality of knowledge, it focuses on associating particular cultural traits with specific points on a map, and work on tracking down the various paths and encounters through which such cultural traits and the respective knowledge practices evolved.

By digitising and mapping the original data in a user-friendly way and using the latest modern technology available, the team behind this project hopes to re-emerge existing knowledge out of obscurity and ideally cultivate the ground that can lead to the development of new knowledge around this topic. Two of the major benefits of creating the digital tool include: i) availability/access to information: It is easier to access a website than a printed copy and ii) understanding of information: Interactive visualisation helps users explore and retrieve the information they want easier and in ways that may engage them further.

3. THE MAPPING TOOL

The tool uses a holistic approach to deliver the data with a unified all-in-one interface. Within this framework, there are no separate web pages, and the entirety of the available information is accessible via the tool’s dashboard. Communication between the server and the clients is asynchronous. A considerable effort has been put to enrich the user experience by providing flexibility of the interface to improve data comprehension and to accommodate users’ diverse navigational preferences and different screen resolutions (see Figure 1, Figure 2 and Figure 3 in Appendix).

The tool is custom-built, and its technical infrastructure supports open-source software. On the server side, Apache, PostgreSQL, PHP, and GeoServer with PostGIS library is used. On the client side, the latest versions of the web standards model HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript provide a modern and user-friendly user interface. Leaflet.js and D3.js are the main libraries that drive the mapping and visualisation system core. The combination of these technologies gives life to the historical data of the project by combining powerful visualisation components and a data-driven approach to DOM manipulation.

4. DISCUSSION

Stemming from our own experience developing MtE, the poster intends to discuss and exchange ideas on how modern geohumanities projects can be designed and delivered successfully from their early to final stages. As it is known amongst Digital Humanities scholars, digitisation of information is far from being straight-forward and often involves highly complicated techniques to extract and transform the data to the desired format. Furthermore, as the digital age expands and the underlying technologies change, the problem of digital obsolescence lurks, the situation when a digital resource is no longer supported and readable. There may also be challenges in keeping the necessary balance between offering a simple and user-friendly environment without at the same time compromising the integrity and richness of the original data. In addition, each project may have different needs, peculiarities, and objectives. The discussions that are hoped to be made through this poster aim to lead to an exchange of knowledge from both technical and theoretical perspectives that will help to build better similar digital humanities projects in the future.

Finally, instead of a conclusion, it is worth mentioning that such projects and tools are especially valuable if they contribute in raising the academic and public interest in historical, cultural and societal matters - especially if these engage within a critical discourse. In this context, digital technology is used as a tool and means for these purposes and not as a self-referencing end.

5. APPENDIX

 Figure 1: The tool interface with its dashboard sidebar collapsed, and different windows opened at the same time.
Figure 1. Figure 1: The tool interface with its dashboard sidebar collapsed, and different windows opened at the same time.
 Figure 2: The tool interface with the sidebar open, the timeline placed at the bottom of the screen and an informational window opened.
Figure 2. Figure 2: The tool interface with the sidebar open, the timeline placed at the bottom of the screen and an informational window opened.
 Figure 3: In this screenshot, the timeline is contained within the sidebar with various data graphs open at the same time on top of the map.
Figure 3. Figure 3: In this screenshot, the timeline is contained within the sidebar with various data graphs open at the same time on top of the map.