Visualizing and Collaborating

Allen Mikaelian, October 2014

The two threads running through this issue—visualization and collaboration—came together for me in the work I did for my article on the history BA and departmental specializations, and in my hopes for what that kind of work will become.

The collaboration forum was not initially the result of a collaboration. As often happens, we received these articles serendipitously, and they arrived at a time when the AHA’s investigations into career diversity for PhDs were suggesting that history graduate students both wanted and needed more training in skills that facilitate effective collaborations. But what struck us in reading these articles was how much enthusiasm the participants experienced in these partnerships; they were not just ways to get things done, but had an inherent worth and benefit. Angela Firkus saw her students inspired not just by the assignment and materials, but by the fact that everyone stood up to do their part. Bridget María Chesterton found through her collaborations not just the pieces her research was missing, but that her transnational collaborations made her work more global. The authors of the book The Historian’s Macroscope—Shawn Graham, Ian Milligan, and Scott Weingart—took the benefits of collaboration to its logical extreme, inviting the rest of the world to take part even as the book was being written.

All this was in stark contrast to the very solitary work I did looking over data sets for an article on departmental specializations and the history BA. If historical research, from archive to written page, can sometimes feel isolating, pouring through data can be even more so. The level of concentration required and the time it can take, to first formulate and then answer questions, doesn’t help. If someone had been sitting with me while I joined tables, reviewed them, wrote queries to aggregate them into something meaningful, and then created a chart to communicate that meaning, they likely would have fallen into a stupor, even if they were actively interested in the topic and engaged in the questions.

The final product typically does not ask for much participation from the reader either. Even if the charts produced are interesting and revealing, even if they help us see a relationship we hadn’t seen before, they can also be imposing walls between readers and the datasets behind them. This is not ideal; what I want from my solitary hours spent digging through data is to start conversations, but I’ve wondered more and more if presenting static charts is the best way to go about it.

What I really want is what Robert K. Nelson describes in his article about the online version of Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States. I want users to be able to make their own discoveries, change what they see, and adapt what we provide to their own circumstances. And I want to see this loop complete its circuit and become collaborative—I want to hear about what users find, even if it pokes holes in my own interpretations. One of the best classroom experiences I’d ever had was largely due to an assignment I’d given students to construct a collaborative interactive visualization, inputting dates and descriptions into a SIMILE Timeline (www.simile-widgets.org/timeline), following their own interests, and bringing their discoveries to class for discussion.

I searched for a way to offer more interactivity without requiring as much code as SIMILE had, and ended up in the burgeoning world of data visualization and business intelligence software. While my intention was to find a tool to build interactive visualizations, I quickly learned that these platforms would also change how I do my own work. The new generation of data visualization software (I settled on Tableau, but there are many other similar products) is designed to allow for rapid-fire creation of all manner of charts, maps, trees, and graphs, and building queries is so seamless that visualization becomes a part of discovery—not just a way to present what has already been discovered.

Where my eyes would once scan tables of numbers looking for relationships, I now find those relationships by scanning shapes that have been colored and sized by my queries. And if the results of a query lead to more queries (which they usually do), I can change the visualization or change the parameters with one or two clicks. Rapidly moving through these displays, I can test new ideas, create new sets and subsets, and immediately see unexpected relationships.

In this issue, Jacob Soll points out that, historically, visualizations and organization schemes were meant “not only to show knowledge, but to help memorize it.” I know I’m better able to mentally retrieve a visualized relationship than one just expressed in figures. And that means I’m more likely to call it to mind and readily compare it to new information and relationships.

I now spend much more time exploring than building visualizations of what I already know. This sounds good for productivity, but it hasn’t always been—there are three charts in my article for this month, but I created dozens before deciding on those. Many of those were the result of me following a misguided whim down an endless hole. It’s easy to get lost in this part of the process, and getting lost in that way doesn’t help make this work more collaborative.

On the other hand, the new rapid pace of visualization also means that I can now sit with a colleague and interrogate the data in tandem—and that colleague doesn’t have to suffer through the tedium of watching me create a series of aggregations and then work through menus in a spreadsheet.

By the time this issue comes out, I hope to have a few examples up on historians.org—examples that engage readers in the same process of discovery that I experienced while putting them together. This means, of course, that my work on data will become more transparent. Many data sets will be available for download and investigation, as they should be. And so, daunting as it may be, I will, like the authors of The Historians Macroscope, be working in public, and sometimes failing in public. Still, I hope our readers will be motivated to share what they discover.

Allen Mikaelian is the editor of Perspectives on History.

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