Data Access & Covid-19 History

When future historians dissect the social, political, cultural and economic impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic, they will likely have more primary sources in data, photos, oral histories, medical records, and mapping than on any other event in history.

The first pandemic of the digital age will be able to be open to analysis from all sides because of the sheer amount of information that will be available. But, one aspect of this fact is already playing out. How does our access to information in real time today help us to change the course of the effects of Covid-19? The answer to that is still in the future. But, I think it’s worth pointing out all the different ways that data is being used in the current crisis both to analyze the spread of the virus and to mitigate its effects on society.

StoryMaps Live

Earlier in April, I was featured on the StoryMaps Live! broadcast where Allen Carroll (no relation) shared the latest updates to the platform. I was asked to share my experience in using StoryMaps both as a platform for digitally curating A Right to the City for the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum and to deliver content in my own classroom as St. John’s and the rest of the nation have transitioned to Virtual Learning.

StoryMaps Live! April 2020

Internship Post #7

After reading a variety of sources outlining the push and pull between those in academia doing “serious humanities” and those doing “serious digital analysis,” one of our first assignments in the program was to provide a definition of digital public humanities (DPH). I likened DPH to an estuary where the fresh and ocean water comingle to create a distinct ecosystem, one that is known for being one of the great nurseries of the natural world. Having worked on this internship for almost a year, the estuary analogy remains appropriate for my experience working at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, and not simply because the Anacostia River, for which the neighborhood and museum are named is, in fact, an estuary.

Digital public humanities often blurs the lines for traditional methods of academic output that can be unfamiliar for those working in more classical modes of research and presentation.  However, it is a unique space that nurtures not only new methods of presentation, but also new tools made widely available to a growing body of users.

Initially, the desire of the museum staff was to create some lesson plans to go along with the exhibit that could be published on the museum web site.  When I first mentioned creating a digital exhibit both to serve as an educational platform and to preserve public access to A Right to the City, museum staff were concerned about the feasibility of creating a digital project while maintaining the high academic standards of the exhibit in a timely manner. 

In the introductory course, one of our final assignments was to consider how Digital Harlem was not meant to be a construct to present a conclusion akin to a dissertation but rather to be a tool to invite historical inquiry in a way that would not be possible using traditional methods.  Clearly, getting ARTTC into digital format and out to the public would require using the right tool, and I began to consider using StoryMaps

Though mapping is foundational to both Digital Harlem and StoryMaps, each uses that computational power for a different purpose – making them very different tools.  StoryMaps seemed like the right presentation tool to take ARTTC to the digital public, to enhance the exhibit content through its mapping capabilities and to deliver the project in a way that is manageable to museum and SI staff.

However, I did have some difficulties with StoryMaps as an academic presentation tool because it is limited in its ability to provide captions across all content blocks, something critical in designing a museum exhibit.  I created a work-around for it in my project; however, StoryMaps designers should build this functionality as a more intuitive feature to meet the needs of academia, especially for smaller museums like ACM that have limited resources in developing digital content. This highlights the push and pull between the various constituencies in DPH and the need for greater communication to address these issues. (Update as of June 2020: The StoryMaps team was and continues to be responsive to feedback, and these issues have been resolved. The development team is responsive to feedback as new features and capabilities are unrolled.)

Greater communication is a critical need in the DPH community.  The tools are out there, but many operating in more traditional methods are unaware of their existence.  For example, the concept of Digital Harlem might be of use to the work around urban history in Washington DC to reach new conclusions or to visualize DC history in a new way.

Looking ahead to the promise of digital public humanities, it is increasingly important to promote the availability of easy-to-use yet powerful tools like StoryMaps in order to place them into the hands of academicians. “Doing digital humanities” means making the tools more accessible to all – to museum professionals, to scientists (both computer and natural), to curriculum specialists, to educators and to students who have knowledge and ideas to share and information to gather. It is equally important to begin to talk about digital public humanities more broadly, inside academia and out, so that the public understands new possibilities of visualizing and presenting information, like the Digital Harlem project, in order to better engage and to better understand the communities and the world around us.

Internship Post #6

The course in Digital Public History has been particularly helpful in developing the educational plan for A Right to the City and the accompanying digital exhibit.  Early in the course, Dr. Whisnant encouraged each of us to consider our target audience before beginning any project.  Initially, the target audience for lesson plan development was students in the DC area.  After reviewing DCPS curriculum standards, teachers and students in 12th grade government classes emerged as the clear front runner for the target audience.  Some museum staff pushed for including charter schools in the mix as well, but eventually the interim museum director agreed that keeping the primary audience in sharp focus was best.  By homing in on DCPS Government classes, the education plan had the best chance for leveraging access to larger number of students with one targeted plan.  While working with charter schools is also a noble goal, the diversity of their curricular goals and learner ages would make it difficult to deliver a useful universal lesson plan for these schools.  The partnership with DCPS would also provide a clearer path toward publishing the educational materials through DCPS curriculum guides once the project is complete. This was also another focus of the course in Digital Public History – making sure to have a plan in place for promoting the project once it is produced.

The second takeaway from the DPH course was the importance of story-boarding a project in advance of building it.  I have had more challenges with this aspect of project development because the digital exhibit I am creating was not initially designed with a digital presence in mind.  Furthermore, Storymaps has some unique constraints in terms of layout, especially in the BETA version, making the transformation complicated in some ways.  The museum staff seems to be pleased with Storymaps as a platform, and they have mentioned using it as the digital platform for future exhibits.  As such, my recommendation to them would be to take these considerations into mind when writing introduction texts and saving images in a Storymap friendly format from the beginning.

Finally, I have found that ESRI/ArcGIS seems to be much more of an industry standard when it comes to mapping.  I appreciate that platforms like CartoDB were open source at the time, but it would have been helpful to have more exposure to how mapping and layers and intellectual property standards in ESRI work.  Working with the Storymaps platform has been fairly intuitive, however, and I would recommend it as one of the digital platforms that is taught in the Digital Public Humanities program.  I can see it having real usefulness in early projects and as a powerful tool for teachers and students in the Education courses.

Looking Back at 30,794 Words

One of my final assignments is to reflect on what I’ve written over the course of the last ten months through my coursework in the Digital Public Humanities program at George Mason University.  I am proud to say that history and students are the two most commonly occurring terms in the corpus of my writing.

I am also proud to say that word analysis also showed a strong connection between history and learning and students.

Linkage Among Most Frequently Occurring Words

Teaching in the Historical Abundance of the Digital Age

Teaching history in the digital age is a great privilege and a great responsibility.  The resources that I can access and share with my students are almost limitless.  Curious about how the Vikings traded across the river systems of Europe and Asia?  Let’s explore the Vale of York Hoard digitally.  I can even pull up examples of other hoards with a few clicks of the keyboard, and students can compare the similarities and differences between the finds.  Curious about how the idea of blue and white porcelain diffused from Europe to Asia as a result of Mongol invasions and those same river networks?  I can pull up a BBC Radio podcast produced in association with the British Museum and give students access to a 3D model of a similar artifact made possible through the Smithsonian. Having access to these resources gives me the opportunity to help students learn to think historically by engaging with what the raw materials of the past help us to understand about possible narratives that explain their existence.

But, sometimes all this access has its pitfalls.  As students in my class produce their own documentary films, they seek out images and other content that help them to tell their stories. In doing so they often struggle with wading through all of that abundance to find images that actually fit.  Need a picture of a man on a boat?  A Creative Commons search yields hundreds of images.  Choose the first one that looks good and call it a day, never mind the fact that the difference between a Sunday yachting excursion is far different than an immigrant’s journey to the United States.  Need information about the Hippie Movement?  Click on the first blog post that pops up in a Google search despite ads for the latest fashion trends.  But, even in these slips, these mistakes, my students are learning about what it means to think historically because they are actually practicing the skill rather than just learning about an event or memorizing information for a test.  Even though they often fail, they are learning from their mistakes and have an abundance of resources from which to make better choices a second or a third time.

And, digital technology also provides new ways for students to do the work of history in how they manipulate information.  Digital mapping, storytelling and even the Maker Movement have applications for students to create their own content and express their historical understanding in ways that would have been impossible less than a decade ago.  For students who struggle with traditional forms of expression such as writing an essay or taking a test, these digital tools help bring a a higher level of engagement to a wider population of students.

As daunting as navigating this new age of digital information may be, I am hopeful that the opportunities digital resources provide may be the “iron that sharpens iron” in the toolkit of leaning how to navigate this age responsibly.


Project Post Module 9

Working in Scalar

This week I have had the opportunity to really dig in and figure out Scalar, an open source digital publishing platform developed by the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture.  Dr. Whisnant encouraged me to not limit my vision for the project by what was possible in any particular tool.  Though it is a drawback that each book is published within Scalar’s platform and not through an independent install on a URL of my choosing, I am happy to report that Scalar seems to be the right tool for the vision.

Once one registers for a Scalar account, it is possible to create multiple books on Scalar’s platform.  One can begin a book by uploading content from local files.  Scalar is also able to import digital files from partner archives such as the Getty Library and Metropolitan Museum of Art as well as from affiliated Omeka sites, SoundCloud, YouTube and Vimeo. Each imported item receives its own page with accompanying Metadata intact.  Each page may be tagged (non-linear) by term(s), or it can be designated as a path (linear).

With these tags and paths in place, the author can create a new page that uses Scalar’s variety of layouts and visualization tools to draw upon these paths and tags.  I have chosen to use Scalar’s Structured Media Gallery to create exhibit pages around certain “threads” in the Weaving Our Story archive such as 1968, the Vietnam War, and World War II.  Scalar uses a “generous visual interface” by arranging thumbnails for each item in the exhibit on the main page.  Users can explore the individual items in the exhibit and follow the “path” to the next item in the exhibit; however, each page is also tagged so that one could explore the connection between one item that is housed in two different exhibits.  In this way, the reader is able to explore the complexities of histories presented and see the rich connections between and among the content.

Each exhibit page also exists as its own item and can become paths as well so that the exhibit pages appear on a separate launch page.  Viewers can choose an exhibit path initially and then move along the exhibit path or explore connections.

I am excited by the possibilities Scalar offers me and how the Omeka site and the Scalar site work together.  While Omeka can house the entire archive, the Scalar site is a more curated virtual museum exhibit.  Not everything in a museum’s collection necessarily makes it into the exhibit.

The challenge to this is keeping up with the collection.  I find myself wanting to add more and more outside resources to round out the exhibitions, but I realize that I may need to focus on the structure and format first.  The global history of the 20th century is a vast topic to say the least, and I need to be realistic about what is possible by the end of the semester.

My goals for this week are to work on supplying textual content to the exhibits I’ve built.  I also need to work on creating some content around the blog site for teachers by polishing some existing materials and creating new ones.  I need to continue to work on permissions forms as well.

Project Progress Post Module 8

I was finally able to migrate all of the Omeka items from the first version of the archive to the new version that is tied to the Scalar project and WordPress blog.  Earlier in the semester, I conducted extensive research on finding other themes in Omeka that would allow me to customize the look of the archive without having to do a lot of backend coding work.  I found the Customeka theme to be exactly what I needed in order to adapt the look of the project to mirror Scalar’s layout, which offers fewer options to adapt the aesthetics of the site.

This all worked well in theory until I began migrating the items from one archive to the other.  While the landing page that I had designed looked like I wanted, the items page was a jumble of text.  In order to customize the landing page to look as I wished, it changed the scale of the font in the items and collections pages.  There was no way to change one without the other.  Apparently, Customeka isn’t as customized as it seems.  I had to go back to the drawing board.

I began playing around with other themes that are offered in the standard Omeka install and settled on the Thanks, Roy theme.  The theme did not meet my needs when I originally designed the first version of the archive, but apparently, RRCHNM released a new version in February that makes it easier to customize colors and type styles.  Coupled with a greater understanding of Omeka myself, I was able to manipulate the standard Omeka theme to meet my aesthetic needs.

I like how Omeka is working for me as an archival repository and feel I’ve made progress as a user and designer within my modest level of expertise using the tool.


Having played around with transcribing oral histories manually, I recognize that it can be a time consuming effort.  Using transcription tools like Transcribe or oTranscribe can enhance the process by slowing down playback when typing.  Both of these platforms, along with the Voice Typing feature in Google Docs, feature the ability to speak text instead of typing it.  Just listen to the audio and speak back what you hear.  The computer does a fairly adequate job of transcription this way; however, it does not work well when playing back the audio directly into the computer’s microphone.  It seems that a human intermediary is still necessary.

However, when all is said and done, the end result is still only a transcribed interview.  According to Doug Boyd of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, the cost of transcribing and auditing an hour long interview can reach $200. To make the interview useful, it would still need to be processed to include an index correlating topics to time in the interview.  This is where OHMS helps to streamline this process by improving search functionality within the interview and does so more efficiently.

First, OHMS can quickly create an encoded transcript of an interviews so that the connection between a keyword and a time in the video are easily accessible.  OHMS also features a viewer so that the encoded transcript can be more easily manipulated on the front end.  Furthermore, OHMS can streamline the process of transcribing the interview by aiding in indexing content rather than fully transcribing it.  While transcription is still the goal for most oral history repositories, the high cost of generating a fully audited transcript can quickly drain resources.  OHMS makes indexing more efficient so that the cost for a graduate student to process an interview is around $30.

I would like to keep this tool in mind as an option for processing my father’s taped memoirs as a gift to my family if it is possible to use OHMS as an open source tool on my own at some point in the future.


Digital Public Humanities: Act II – Public History

I have been teaching secondary English and history since 1993.  During that time I earned my Master of Humanities from the University of Dallas.  Currently, I teach history at St. John’s Episcopal School in Dallas, Texas.  As part of the course, my seventh grade students complete a year-long project involving family oral history and secondary research that culminates in the production of a short documentary film.  Last semester, I used Omeka to build an archival prototype that the school will use to house these films in a more permanent and public way.  Because of its association with the school and student work, I can’t yet share it publicly, but I am hoping that the legal releases will be gathered soon.

My background in digital humanities began when I was a contributing teacher to  Understanding Sacrifice under the guidance of RRCHNM.  I became intrigued by the way in which digital humanities is changing the way history is collected, curated and interpreted.  Tools like Omeka can help give young historians an authentic audience with which to share their learning.  Tools like Palladio can help my students understand relationships in history that might be harder to see in written form.  Inspired by Mapping the Republic of Letters, my students are working on building the metadata for the movers and shakers of the Italian Renaissance in order to create a basic visualization showing the network of patrons and artists as rival families competed for political influence and prestige.

While I enjoy teaching very much, I have come to learn how much I enjoy working with the “stuff” of history both in presenting what I have learned to a wider audience and also in the challenge of digging deep to discover new things.  History is all around us, and digital platforms have given us new tools to preserve, interpret and share that knowledge in ways that would have been impossible only a decade or two ago.

My goals for this semester are to continue to learn about ways in which digital tools can help me do a better job of making history a ‘hands on’ experience for my students and to train them to think like historians in the same way a science teacher encourages scientific thinking in real world ways.  I would also like to develop the professional skills necessary to work more directly with public history projects outside of my role as an educator.