Digital Humanities Abstracts

“Multiple Architectures and Multiple Media: The Salem Witch Trials and Boston's Back Bay Fens Projects”
Daniel V. Pitti Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, University of Virginia Chris Jessee Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, University of Virginia Stephen Ramsay Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, University of Virginia

The Salem Witch Trials and Boston's Back Bay Fens Projects have been under development at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH) since July 1999. Professor Ben Ray of the Religious Studies Department leads The Salem Witch Trials project. Kathy Poole, a professor in the School of Architecture at the time of the award, leads Boston's Back Bay Fens project. While the two projects have distinctly different subject matter and objectives, they have in common an historical perspective and analysis, and the use of interrelated geographic, social, documentary, and interpretive data and information. Specific challenges involved identifying the key "objects of interest;" analysis of their nature and characteristics; identification of appropriate representation architectures and development of appropriate models and implementations; and finally, interrelating the diverse architectures to fulfill the pedagogical and research objectives of each project. Three papers will be presented describing both the intellectual and technological methods employed in the design and implementation of these two projects. "Data Diversity and Integration in Two Socio-Cultural Historical Research Projects" will provide an overview of each project. In particular, it will describe the people (faculty, student, and staff) involved and the essential research and pedagogical objectives of each project, the analytic methods employed to identify the essential intellectual components and appropriate representational architectures for each, the data and textual schemas developed, and the overarching relational architecture that integrates the diverse, data specific architectures. Each project comprises relational database, XML textual documents (both documentary and interpretative), pictorial material, geographic information, and real-time dynamically created XML data instances used to integrate the various architectures, and data structures and content. "Flash GIS: Delivering Geographic Information on the Internet," using examples from the Salem Witch Trials and Boston's Back Bay Fens, will discuss the challenge of delivering geographic information on the Internet for the humanities researcher. Current GIS-to-web solutions have the benefit of being easy to use and fast to deploy if their features and functionality meet project requirements. However, if the research requires high quality display, animation, a custom interface, or advanced interactivity, these systems will be inadequate. Combining the high quality vector display of Flash with an SQL database, the Institute has developed a system which it has named "Flash GIS." This system offers the extensibility and functionality needed to handle complex geographic relationships. The Flash plug-in was designed to display animated advertising in a web browser, but it is broad and general in function, and thus can be applied to a range of humanities data visualization problems. "Relational Ontologies and the New Historicism," will discuss the opportunity offered by these two projects to think about the ways in which computer technology can assist historians in effecting the union of macro- and micro- historiographic methods. Both projects employ schema with conventional records, but enrich that record set with an extremely rich relational ontology that can capture the complex relationships between divergent record types. This paper discusses the ways in which the system uses those relational junctions to bring forth the micro-narratives implicit in the data--narratives that were perhaps beyond the view of any individual researcher entering data into the database. This paper also presents the Sibelius libraries (a set of generic Java classes for rendering database relationships), and goes on to propose several possibilities for more elaborate data visualizations.

Data Diversity and Integration in Two Socio-Cultural Historical Research Projects

Daniel V. Pitti
Each year the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities awards a two- year fellowships for computer-assisted research in the humanities to a member of the humanities faculty at the University of Virginia. The selection committee evaluates proposals based on the merit of content and on innovative use of computer technology in humanities research. The Salem Witch Trials and Boston's Back Bay Fens projects were awarded fellowships in 1999, under the Institute's early policy of offering two one-year fellowships each year. The Salem Witch Trial project is using computer technology to document, research, and interpret the witch trials that took place between 1692 and 1693 in Salem, Massachusetts. The Boston's Back Bay Fens project is using computer technology to document, research, and interpret the history of the infrastructure of Boston's Back Bay Fens park and surrounding area from 1878 until the present. While the two projects differ significantly in the subjects being investigated, we can characterize each as an historical, social, and cultural study. The similarities in methodology and the related focus on social and cultural phenomena in a bounded space and time lead to similar computer data representations and architectures. At the outset of each project, the faculty researchers leading each project began a series of meetings with Institute faculty and staff, and graduate students assisting the projects. The goals of these meetings are to analyze the objectives of each project, to identify the resources and relations among them required to meet the objectives, to identify the appropriate computer architectures for representing the resources and meeting the research objectives, and, finally, to develop appropriate, detailed representational schemas. Both projects utilize a wide variety of both primary and secondary resources. While many of these resources are textual in nature, many represent a variety of other forms: geographic information, pictorial and other graphic materials, as well as social and cultural data extracted from primary resources and represented. A central challenge in all projects at the Institute is identifying the central "objects of interests." Objects of interest comprise both the key artifacts and resources that constitute the core evidence under study, as well as the people, places, things, and events documented in these resources. While the resources and the various social, cultural, and political entities they document are of primary importance, the relations among them are equally important. Both projects employ relational databases at the center of their architectures. The Salem Witch Trials database has primary tables representing people (accusers, accused, witnesses, and the like), organizations or corporate bodies (including courts, juries, households, and town, church, and legal officials), legal and judicial events (accusations, arrests, trials, convictions, executions, and the like), public and private buildings and structures (court houses, homes, and so on), and bibliographic resources (court records and other documentary evidence, critical early and modern secondary resources, pictorial materials, maps, derived and original digital materials, and so on). Many of the materials described in bibliographic records in the database are the sources for describing the individuals, organizations, events, and structures represented in the databases. Each primary table defines a set of descriptive attributes for each object. In turn, each object represented in a primary table is related to each of the others in a variety of ways through secondary tables. People, for example, are related through secondary tables from which family structures can be dynamically derived. Families, in turn, are related to households, which encompass broader relations than families. Families, further, are related to houses, which are also related to specific geographic information locating them in space, as well as in time. In this manner, people, organizations, structures, events, and resources function as primitives that, when interrelated, comprise more complex structures serving particular research and analytic objectives. Boston's Back Bay Fens has five primary tables: people, organizations or corporate bodies, events, objects or structures, and bibliographic resources. While the primary tables are remarkably similar to the tables in Salem Witch Trials tables, there is only some overlap in the attributes associated with each object. The differences in attributes primarily reflect differences in the nature of the disciplines (religious studies and history of architecture) and the nature of the objects and relations being investigated. The primary objects identified and the attributes identified and associated with them reflect the disciplinary methodology employed, and assumptions about which phenomenon will lead to furthering our understanding. In essence, the entities represented in each primary table and the relations between them in secondary tables reflect the hypothetical assumptions of each researcher. The information represented in the databases is extracted from a variety of primary and secondary resources. The latter category includes both second and first generation digital materials. Decisions concerning the appropriate architectures and representations of the primary and secondary resources required additional analysis, though not independent of the analysis and design of the databases. The entities represented in the database are necessarily related to the documentary and secondary sources, and these relations must necessarily be maintained. Maintaining these relations requires identifying and representing in both the database representations and the representations of the resources machine-readable data facilitating correlations. Given the historical nature of each project, spatial and temporal orientation of the people and organizations that play significant roles, the natural and cultural objects that coexist with them, and the events that reveal significant relations among them, become of critical importance. Geographic and temporal information thus plays a critical role in each of these projects. We can characterize existing Geographic Information Systems (GIS) as generally dealing with change over time through a series of static maps linked to relatively flat structures representing the data being plotted through time and space. Both of these projects, however, wanted to be able to display (visualize?) people, objects, and events in geographic space and through time dynamically. This presented the challenge of not merely re-presenting maps as images or even GIS, but representing geographic information in relation to entities represented in the respective databases. The data in the databases is used "to drive" dynamic temporal-geographic displays. Each project also had to consider the representation of texts, pictorial and other graphic material. Given past and extensive experience with markup and imaging technologies, texts were not a difficult challenge. Neither project had significant interest in text bearing artifacts as such, or in exploring text or editing theory. Both projects were primarily interested in the information content of texts: reading, searching. In addition to reading and searching, individual texts and people, objects, and events documented in them also had to be represented in a machine-readable manner that would facilitate correlations with entities in the relational databases, and, through them, maps. TEI Lite was chosen as the method for representing texts. Some texts from primary resources are also represented as images, and some texts, where creating machine-readable texts was not deemed necessary or currently economically feasible, are only represented as images. The Salem Witch Trials and the Boston's Back Bay Fens projects are socio- cultural historical studies. While the subject matter in each differs, the similarities in methodology lead to similarities in the phenomenon represented and the methods for representing them. Both projects employ relational databases as axis around which are correlated sophisticated dynamic GIS systems, and resources represented using XML and XML systems, as well other technologies appropriate to the nature of the data and research objectives. While the databases play a central role in the analysis and navigation of the data and resources, XML plays the role of representing texts, as well as integration of the various resources and resource systems employed in the two projects.

Flash GIS: Delivering Geographic Information on the Internet

Chris Jessee
Delivering geographic information on the Internet is a great challenge for the humanities researcher. Current GIS-to-web solutions have the benefit of being easy to use and fast to deploy if their features and functionality meet your project requirements. However, if you need high quality display, animation, a custom interface or advanced interactivity these systems will be inadequate. Combining the high quality vector display of Flash with an SQL database, we have developed a system we call Flash GIS. This system can offer the extensibility and functionality needed to handle complex geographic relationships. The Flash plug-in was designed to display animated advertising in a web browser, but it is broad and general in function and thus can be applied to a range of humanities data visualization problems. In order for Flash GIS to move beyond its current proof-of-concept state and become production ready, automated conversion of standard GIS file formats to Flash's .swf format will be needed. If we can overcome this hurdle, Flash's flexibility and ease of integration with immerging technologies gives it the potential to be a robust GIS-to-web solution for humanities research.
GIS-to-Web Solutions
Slow download, lack of customization and limited animation are the major problems with current GIS-to-web solutions. Commercial solutions like ESRI ArcIMS or AutoDesk MapGuide share the same organizational model: 1) a database, 2) an application server on a web server and 3) a display engine in the web browser. The application server functions to negotiate the communication between the database and the display engine. The display engine may be as simple as the web browser or as sophisticated as a Java applet. The display engines vary but provide these common functions:
  • Pan and zoom
  • Show and hide layer or coverage
  • Cursor location readout of latitude and longitude
  • Hot linked objects and areas to web resources
  • Object information rollovers
  • Printing
If the browser is used as the display engine, all user interaction requires message passing to the application server, thus making response times slow. Java applets are large and slow to download and inherit the poor quality of the Java display technology. Java applets may not function properly across multiple platforms and browsers and may not be supported in future versions of web browsers. Current GIS-to web solutions use native GIS file formats for storage. Native file formats are convenient as preprocessing is reduced or eliminated, but their inefficient structure results in large files sizes. Only limited tools and functionality for showing change over time or animation are available in these off-the-shelf systems. Customization of interactive functions and user interface are also very limited without extensive programming.
Flash GIS
With installation on 96 percent of all web browsers, the Flash player plug-in is a more stable delivery target than the web browsers themselves. There are hundreds of thousands of Flash users - far more than all GIS users combined. Although Flash was designed to deliver animation and advertising, not GIS data, the ease with which we have re-purposed Flash demonstrates its flexibility and adaptability to a broad range of display and data visualization tasks. Flash GIS follows the same organizational model as commercial GIS-to-web solutions with the Flash Player plug-in serves as the display engine on the web browser. We store data in a temporary XML file to reduce server hits, speed delivery and allow the display to run independent of the server. When the database contents change, the temporary XML file is updated to reflect the changes. If the data changes frequently a direct XML socket connection to the database would replace the XML temp file. Our configuration is as follows:
PostgreSQL Database > Java Servlet > XML > Flash Player Plug-in
Flash is composed of an authoring environment and a browser plug-in. Using the plug-in as the GIS display engine and the authoring environment for tool and interface development provides significant advantages over commercial GIS-to-web solutions. Flash offers the following features:
  • Fast downloads via open, compact, streaming media file format. (SWF).
  • High quality vector and raster display.
  • High-level customizable interactivity.
  • Automatic viewer scaling in the web browser.
  • Complete control over interface customization.
  • Animation - positional, shape and display property transformations.
  • Tight integration with off-the-shelf web development tools.
  • Retrieval and display of HTML, XML, images, movies and other map files.
  • Standards based scripting language. (ECMA-Script, JavaScript)
  • Encapsulation - separation of data from display.
  • Data driven from local or remote files or any ODBC database.
  • Deliverable to a broad range of devices and media, including removable media, web browsers and wireless devices.
The Valley of the Shadow Project: This initial effort shows the theater-level movements of American Civil War units from Augusta County, Virginia, and Franklin County, Pennsylvania. Each major battle they fought in is linked to a database fact sheet, which provides detailed information on that unit's experience. All urls are hand coded and all animation hand tweened. Production details available here: This link includes information on projection correction of historic maps as well as detailed information about conversion from the Shape to .swf file format. The Salem Witch Trials Project: This map shows the occurrence of witchcraft accusations in the Massachusetts Bay Province during 1692. Animation and object properties are driven by externally loaded XML data. This regional map also demonstrates pan and zoom, lat long tracking, external file loading, an advanced menu system and dynamically calculated date values. The Salem Township Map is in early development, serving as a test-bed for arbitrary coordinate system re-mapping and point plotting accuracy. The Boston Back Bay Fens Project: This case study of Boston's Back Bay Fens and its surrounding urban landscape demonstrates the extreme data density that Flash can manage, while maintaining small file sizes and a high level of interactivity. This map is also in a state of early development. Page Viewer Project: This simple page viewer demonstrates the ease with which Flash tools can be generalized and reused. The pan and zoom navigation tool shown in the page viewer originated in the Salem Regional map. It was re-purposed into a page viewing utility in a matter of minutes.
Remaining Challenges
Flash's .swf file format is an open standard and available for developers to integrate into their products. Our technique for migrating Shape files into .swf format optimizes the data by converting simple segmented lines into bezier spline curves using the MaPublisher Plug-in running in Adobe Illustrator. However, This conversion and optimization process is labor intensive. An automated conversion from standard GIS file formats into .swf format is needed for Flash to work well in a larger production pipeline. Ideally, ESRI would adopt the Flash format as a direct output option. Software vendors and users have a great opportunity to deliver better products and projects based on Flash's strengths. For example, Flash uses a technology termed SmartClips, which allows a user to create a Flash interface that assists users in repetitive authoring tasks. A single high-level user can empower any number of lesser skilled users with advanced functionality using SmartClips. Another Macromedia product, Director, has recently added 3d capabilities with Shockwave 3-d. This promises rich and highly customizable 3d elements and environments that integrate cleanly with Flash. Despite Flash's roots as an advertising and animation tool, the humanities GIS community should consider it as a display engine. Flash, more than other available technologies, can offer the extensibility and functionality required to display these complex geographic relationships.

Relational Ontologies and the New Historicism

Stephen Ramsay
Modern historiography, in whatever discipline it might occur, is primarily an attempt at multi-leveled contextualization--a weaving together of anecdotal evidence and "micro-narrative" with broader, and perhaps more data-centric quantitative evidence. The modern historian, in other words, cares as much about letters, photographs, and snippets of conversation as about census data, geographical information, and tax records. The former has traditionally resided in digital archives; the latter, in relational databases and GIS systems. Effecting the union of the various technical approaches is not by itself a difficult matter. RDBMS, GIS, and digital collections all participate in a similar quest for order and organization. But with the rise of humanities computing has come opportunities for thinking about how technology can be brought to bear on the two-pronged historicism now current. How can the traditional forms of computer-assisted data representation be used to draw forth unforeseen connections, micro-narratives, and anecdotal anomalies in the large and diverse datasets available to the modern historian? The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities confronted this problem recently with two historiographic projects: "The Salem Witchcraft Papers" and "Evolutionary Infrastructures: Boston's Back Bay Fens." Both of the scholars initiating the projects wanted to capture large datasets concerning events in a sizeable geographic area over a long period of time. They both envisioned databases that would contain the usual large-dataset materials, like GIS data, building records, and population census materials. In both cases, however, the usefulness of the historical record was thought to depend equally upon individual images, biographical information, and individual documents. The database schema we designed (discussed in a previous paper by D. Pitti) organizes the data into a deliberately heterogeneous ontology: people, places, significant events, objects, corporate bodies, and bibliographical records. The data in each of these major tables is organized according to its own internal logic, but these five tables are related in an overall schema that in both systems reaches to almost a hundred separate relational junctions and subtables. The schema, therefore, consists mainly of many-to-many relationships of the form "person/corporate_body.owner()," "object/event.role()," "bibliographical_record/person.about()," and so forth. The data entry mechanisms for the projects involve a combination of both large-scale import, as well as more finely grained data entry. The former method is employed for entering the main records themselves, but the relationships are hand-drawn and classified by members of each respective team. The knowledge possessed by any particular team member is necessarily partial and imperfect. A scholar might have evidence of a connection between the builder of the Boston Conservatory and the building itself, but not about the relationship between that builder and other buildings, or about the relationship between that building and what stood before it. However, the database is all the time watching and recording these connections. We developed a generic Java class library (called the Sibelius libraries) that can search through the junction tables for any particular record looking for these relationships. Whenever the user arrives at a particular record, all of the relationships with other tables are then aggregated and presented to the user. We believe this function is significant for two reasons. On the one hand, it creates synergies out of the partial ontologies possessed by the individual team members; what was partial before may now reveal itself in full. More significant, however, is the fact that these "unwound" connections often have the character of micro-narratives. A typical search result for buildings in the Muddy River Watershed in Boston, for example, might yield information about the New England Conservatory. The linking mechanism will in turn yield further connections to various architects, places, buildings, and events, each of which will yield further connections. One is therefore able to create statements like, "The New England Conservatory, which was once the Harvard Medical Library, was built by Henry Hunnewell, who also built the student house at 96 Fenway, which was once owned by T. Frothingham . . ." At no point was this narrative explicitly entered into the database in this form, and yet the system can use the local connections to build the larger narrative. This paper will discuss our method from both a philosophical and technical standpoint, and will go on to suggest some directions for how research might proceed on the visualization of these "unwound" narratives. We have been experimenting, in particular, with graph visualization software, which we hope eventually to apply to the ontological submaps created by the Sibelius engine.