Posted by: structureofnews | August 3, 2011

Visual History

The New York Times has a nice piece on how mapping is helping historians – not just in terms of using better software, but by giving them a different perspective on historical information.

This new generation of digital maps has given rise to an academic field known as spatial humanities. Historians, literary theorists, archaeologists and others are using Geographic Information Systems — software that displays and analyzes information related to a physical location — to re-examine real and fictional places like the villages around Salem, Mass., at the time of the witch trials; the Dust Bowl region devastated during the Great Depression; and the Eastcheap taverns where Shakespeare’s Falstaff and Prince Hal caroused.

Like the crew on the starship Enterprise, humanists are exploring a new frontier of the scholarly universe: space.

The parallel with journalists – writers of the first draft of history and all that, after all – is perhaps more than obvious.  But it still bears mentioning: Moving beyond stories into other forms of storytelling, including visual storytelling, can really bring to bear new ideas, analysis and understanding to important issues.  Consider this example from the NYT story:

Geoff Cunfer, a historian at the University of Saskatchewan, revisited causes of the 1930s Dust Bowl by analyzing data from all 208 counties in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas that were affected, an impossible undertaking without this system. He found that the traditional explanation of farmers’ extensively plowing the land without care for environmental limits was only true in some places. Barely plowed Southern counties also suffered from the plague of dust.

That’s precisely what journalism should do – albeit not 70 years after the event.

The human brain, after all, is very well-suited to discerning visual patterns – sometimes it’s a handicap, when we fool ourselves into seeing things that aren’t there, but often it helps us deal with a flood of information that can’t otherwise be easily sorted.

Probably the best-known example of the value of mapping is John Snow’s famous map tracking cholera outbreaks in London, showing that an outbreak in the mid-1800s could be traced to a contaminated pump.   Without the map, you’re faced with a long list of addresses where outbreaks occurred; with the map, you can immediately see where there’s a real concentration of cases and hence where to investigate.

That’s not to say that mapping works for everything – and there are still too many examples (as any graphic journalist will be happy to tell you) where information is plotted on maps for no apparent reason other than to keep editors happy.  But the relative ease of mapping these days – Google Maps and other programs will let to at least get a quick sense of where your data is clustering – means you can explore ideas much more quickly than before.

And just as important, it can help your readers understand what you’re trying to say in a much more intuitive way.


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