A workshop sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities

Project Overview

The University of Richmond, in collaboration with James Madison University, will host a workshop on February 20-21, 2009, in order to bring together leading scholars and experts in the visualization of historical processes. The workshop will foster preliminary discussions and experimentations in creating new tools and techniques to support visualization research in the humanities.

The digital revolution has made massive amounts of historical data available to scholars in electronic formats. Although much of this data (such as census returns and historical voting results) has been used by researchers in conventional ways for years, the migration of datasets into digital formats is opening new possibilities for exploring the human past. Digital mapping and visualization tools, in particular, offer the ability to plot historical processes embedded in datasets. Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS), for example, a scholar can now map voting returns from a 1960 election on top of demographic data from the 1960 census in order to visualize and analyze correlations between factors such as race and politics. Mapping and analyzing the same variables over multiple elections would allow a person to see how these relationships changed across time. As such, the capacity of visualizations to provide new insights into old questions holds remarkable promise for scholars in the humanities.

Yet for all the potential of such investigations, researchers remain significantly limited in their ability to explore data visualizations by a number of obstacles. First, while new capabilities are being added all the time, the tools currently available (such as GIS, the standard in digital cartography) have a limited ability to deal with temporal data. There is, surprisingly, little capacity for addressing change over time without the aid of highly trained experts, often forcing humanities researchers to limit their investigations to a single time and place. Second, the ever-growing collections of digital data are typically locked away in such a wide variety of formats that researchers are forced to undertake the laborious task of collecting and converting data from multiple sources. While interoperability standards (which define how computer systems can talk to each other) exist in the web and geospatial worlds, the humanities community is generally unaware of these standards and has not tested them to see if they meet the needs of humanities scholarship. Researchers are therefore sharply circumscribed in their ability to utilize the stores of data being collected in various places. In short, the vast potential for scholars to explore how historical processes spread out across time and space is impeded both by the limitations of current tools and insufficient explorations of existing techniques. With the emergence of new technical capabilities, ongoing development of new online data repositories, and a keen interest of humanities scholars to explore spatial and temporal dimensions of human activities, now is the opportune time to assess the state-of-the-art and to plot future directions.

This project, therefore, will bring together experts for investigations about how to overcome these limitations. At a two-day workshop in February 20-21, 2009, invited scholars will present and discuss current work on visualizing historical processes, and together consider:

Guided by the workshop discussions, the project directors will experiment with creating prototypes of new tools for overcoming obstacles to data visualization work, and the final product of the project will be a white paper synthesizing the lessons learned. This paper will serve as the basis for a larger collaborative grant proposal aimed at building practical tools for enhancing the ability of scholars to use visualization research techniques.