3 Visualization Projects Point to the Future of Scholarship in the Humanities

Fairfax, Va. — Turning historical and social-science data into pictures could help scholars identify new patterns in old records, according to researchers who gathered at George Mason University this weekend for a conference on technology in the humanities.

At a session devoted to visualization — as making pictures out of data is called — participants discussed their favorite examples. Here are three they discussed.

WorldMapper: At first glance the world maps in this collection look like they’re reflected in a fun-house mirror. The size and shape of each country on the maps is determined by a single demographic factor. For instance, a map showing adult literacy worldwide sizes countries based on the proportion of all residents over 15 years old who are literate. Another map shows which countries are wealthiest by shrinking the size of poor countries and expanding richer ones. It’s easy to see at a glance who the winners and losers are. The project now includes more than 600 maps, and it is led by researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of Sheffield.

Freebase: A new commercial Web service offers tools to help navigate large data sets, and several scholars are experimenting with it. One project using the service is called History of Sciences, and it helps users find biographies of famous scientists by searching on key categories, such as gender, profession, and country. It was created by Pierre Lindenbaum, a French researcher.

Hard Rock Cafe memorabilia site: Perhaps the most surprising example mentioned at the session was the Web site for the Hard Rock Cafe restaurants. It features thumbnail pictures of guitars, gold records, and documents from the chains’ locations around the world. The thumbnail images are arranged on a grid like a contact sheet for a set of snapshots, but users can scroll around to find a particular object, and then zoom in on any item to see it in great detail. The site uses a new interface by Microsoft called Silverlight, so users may have to install a free plug-in for their browser before the site will operate properly. “I’d love to see some archives experiment with something like this that shows the entire collection at this scale,” said Dan Coehn, director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University and an organizer of the conference.

Visualization could also help in teaching, since the approach could help bring data to life to students, said Jeanne Kramer-Smyth, a library-science graduate student at the University of Maryland, in an interview. “They are used to Playstations and Wiis, and all these interactive ways of learning about the world.” she said, referring to the popular video-game systems. “Learning should be fun, and if people think learning is fun they’re going to do it on their personal time.” —Jeffrey R. Young

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