Digital History: Final Project

You may remember my digital project proposal! The semester is winding up and said project has reached its fruition, for better or worse. The glass-half-full takeaway from my digital project is that I learned a lot and gained experience working with an interesting and versatile digital tool, Gephi. On the other hand, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute, I don’t think that the final product is a productive tool for investigating and revealing historical information.

I pulled my data set- the various connections (professional, personal, familial) between various social reformers from the early 20th century- from sources that I have been using to write a lead-up to my thesis on Progressive Era Philadelphia. Keeping track of all the people and organizations found in my research was somewhat confusing to me, and in order to visualize it, I wanted to use a digital tool: in this case, a network visualization.

Here are the results:

Screen Shot 2017-05-01 at 12.09.49 AM
 I went from this…
Screen Shot 2017-05-04 at 9.53.27 PM.png
…to this.


The import of the data into Gephi worked beautifully, but I ran into some issues within the parameters of the program. The original goal was to incorporate into the visualization information about each link between entities, which would have made the project useful as a historical research tool. I could have also provided citations for my data there. However, when I tried to do this, I found that the formatting of that text is restricted in Gephi so that it appears like this:

Screen Shot 2017-05-04 at 9.06.10 PM
Close up on some connections between entities; See “corresponds with, 1901” and “founds 1912”

Because the text can only be displayed on a horizontal axis, instead of appearing along the connection line, it is rendered useless. It’s generally not possible to tell which line the text applies to. I was not able to find a workaround for this problem.

As it is, the project looks pretty cool. It illustrates the numerous connections that were present between the major players of Progressive reform in Philadelphia. I was able to color code it to reflect entities that have the most connections, which underscores their relative importance or influence. I also figured out how to highlight each item’s connections when selected, like this:

Screen Shot 2017-05-04 at 9.51.07 PM
In this screenshot, connections to the “College Settlement Association in Philadelphia” are highlighted while others fade into the background

For this reason, I could see this tool would potentially be really useful in exploring a very large dataset from one particular source. But with the mixed dataset that I’m using, and the necessity of annotating connections and providing citations, it does not make the data much more usable, either for the public or for researchers.

I anticipate that I might be able to surmount this difficulty if I implemented sigma.js, the javascript library that makes Gephi visualizations interactive within a web environment. Or, had I slightly more time, I think that I might instead employ tools for annotating images to make it more useful from a historical interpretation standpoint.


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