A Brief Tool Review

Part of the process of learning digital history techniques and understanding what they offer to a project is searching for tools and being willing to spend time learning and unlearning how to use them. Because I am committed to using open source tools whenever possible, I focused on finding them to use my with my data. Exhibit, Google Earth, and InfoVis, the three open source visualization tools featured in this project have proven useful additions to my digital repetoire. I have made a conscious decision to build the site without HGIS visualizations - since many people do not have access to a true HGIS set-up and I created my Flash maps with a 30 day trial version of the program.

MIT's SIMILE Exhibit widget is part of a suite of web-based data visualization tools that came out of a Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant. The current iteration of the widget is being maintained and developed by community members. Exhibit is based in JSON data and script files that are easily manipulated for size, rendition, and type of data used. Excel and Google Doc spreadsheets are converted into JSON files with a Babel widget, also part of the project. Because there are multiple examples on the Exhibit wiki site and an active Google Group for Exhibit users, people contemplating using the tool have plenty of opportunities to examine how others have developed projects.

For persons not working on building and visualizing from standard databases, Exhibit is a great option. Before beginning the process of building an Exhibit visualization, users should carefully consider the types of data they want to visualize and format their spreadsheets accordingly - it is much easier to plan ahead when entering data than worrying about it later. When reviewing your JSON data files, you should also check for stray commas, quotation marks, or numbers entered as text. Exhibit visualizations are also useful in the context of larger projects, for example this one on the Railroads and the Making of Modern America site: African Americans and the railroad, from the pages of the Official Records of the war.

Nicolas Garcia Belmonte's JavaScript InfoVis Toolkit is slightly harder than Exhibit to pick up for persons unfamiliar with building and using JSON files but does have a rapid learning curve once a person becomes familiar with the language of graphing. Belmonte's tool offers multiple visualizaiton options, but tranforming spreadsheet or database data to the graphing data file isn't as seamless as Exhibit's Babel widget.

Google Earth is a program everybody and anybody can learn - there is extensive documentation for the tool and a huge community of users to participate in forums, answer questions, etc. I found it most useful for putting suffragist rail cars on actual rail lines (I used a period map as overlay) and getting a sense of what that meant in terms of landscape and movement in 19th century Nebraska. Google Earth also makes a nice teaching tool - it is a good way to get students participating in the creation of a digital project of any number of topics while reinforcing geographic knowledge.

Flash animations can be tricky things - learning about layers and frames and how to manipulate maps in concert with dates - all of this seems to become a series of tests that require multiple attempts. That said, when they are done well (better than the rudimentary examples here), Flash animations are effective visualizations. I don't recommend buying the software without running through the 30 day trial to see if you will actually use it like you think you will.