Data Visualization…finally!

As someone who’s always enjoyed the narrative aspect of history, perhaps owing to my love of literature, I’ve always had to imagine events, places, and the scale of historical movements.  With data visualization, I find my imagination can take a break, and at times, was literally unable to process the scale of some events.  I’ve read extensively about the passage from West Africa to North and South America in slave ships, i’ve seen many drawings and also have read some first hand excerpts as to the horrors of the slave trade.  However, I find my imagining of the dreadful conditions on the slave ships, and the magnitude of the devastation of the slave trade pales in comparison to the “Slave Trade in Two Minutes” animation viewed in class.

After utilizing the StorymapJS site, I began to see how the placement of events, military campaigns, battles, can offer a global view of regional and trans-regional conflicts.  As a group, we chose to map some major conquests and battles of Alexander the Great, and one thing that stood out was the frequency of the battles, and the smaller regional space occupies by Alexander and his troops when considered in a global context.  While the conquests and influences of Alexander and the Hellenistic kingdoms who followed were extensive to be sure,one would have to wonder what kind of global context a story map would give to the spread of Islam, for example, or, the spread of the plague or influenza.

The story map software, timeline software, and animations, to name a few, are each a tool, which when used in conjunction with historical analysis, can offer a layered, complex view of history and its events.  However, one particular tool I found to be troublesome to say the least was the NGram viewer from Google.  While it does allow one to search automatically hundreds of years of literature, its uses are limited in that it offers nothing in the way of causality.  Just because one word or phrase is mentioned with more frequency than another does not necessarily indicate anything more than a coincidental relationship.  I had a difficult time finding words, phrases, or combinations of words that could really say anything about a time period or the events and actors at work during that time.  Just because one word is mentioned more frequently than another does not mean that word was used within a body of work with the connotation or denotation that I am using when selecting the word to search.  I found it to be visually interesting but I doubt if I would be inclined to use it in any further research, as there are so many programs that offer much better analyses and visualizations.

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