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March 20, 2019

Hitting the Proverbial Wall

March 20, 2019 | By | No Comments

            I think there is a point in time that every novice reaches in technical projects when they wonder..will I actually successfully complete this project? This is my current mental state in my CHI project. I am swimming in a sea of technical questions in relation to the map demonstration of macromorphoscopic trait data. My lack of experience using Mapbox has become very apparent and my ideas of how I would visualize my data and present this concept to my audience are ever-changing.

            Initially, my intention was to generate a single heat map that could filter through a series of macromorphoscopic traits and their various trait expressions to depict scores densities across space. Several realizations occurred that have changed how I will have to present these data. First, I realized that due to the nature of my data, I will not be able to create a heat map in a way that is meaningful. The geographic location information per individual is generalized to the country in which the individual resided rather than specific coordinate information. This means that a choropleth map will be more appropriate for presenting trait score distributions. In order to create the choropleth map, I need to be able to cross-reference country codes between the map and the macromorphoscopic trait data. The map will need to have countries previously coded and defined so that country names will be recognizable in the datasheet in order to be properly linked.

Example of heat map (taken from Mapbox blog)
Example of a choropleth map (taken from Mapbox tutorials)

           My next realization was that having multiple traits with multiple trait scores on a single map would be difficult to code to filter properly and potentially create confusion for the user. Having separate maps for each trait will allow the user the scroll through the score distributions of a single trait by one trait score at a time. (See image below for example of how these traits are scored. You can see that Anterior Nasal Spine (ANS) can be scored as 1, little to no projection, 2, moderate projection, or 3, marked projection. The individual is assigned and ANS score of either 1, 2, or 3.) This will not only simplify user experience, but it will also allow the user to view multiple traits side-by-side to determine if there are any noticeable patterns in human craniofacial variation across space. Observing patterns in the data will allow the audience to reflect upon and hypothesize about possible climatic and genetic forces that may be influencing trait expression.

User interface of Macromorphoscopic Software.

           Now that I have established a new path for the data visualization component of my project, I need to learn how to perform the technical aspects. Particularly, I need to determine how to structure my data. My data is currently in a single CSV file so that it can be easily imported into various programs. I will need to first create 5 new data files, one file for each trait/map that will be presented on the website. Then I need to decipher how Mapbox requires data to be formatted to create a choropleth map. For example, the data currently lists data by the individual with their associated country and a series of trait scores (Table 1). I believe that after creating new documents with only one trait per datasheet, the data will then need to be summarized by country of residence and trait score (Table 2). This will create the appropriate format for dialogue boxes to be displayed for each country with trait frequencies per score and simplify the user filters to display one trait score distribution at a time.

Table 1. Table of current data format
Table 2. Table of future data format using only ANS as an example

            Overall, I am working to knock through the proverbial wall and start making some rapid progress on the map component of the project in the upcoming weeks. I have written much of the website content and am excited to complete the project and begin sharing it with others.    



March 16, 2019

Historical Data at the Enslaved Conference

March 16, 2019 | By | No Comments

On March 8th and 9th, Michigan State University hosted a conference titled Enslaved: Peoples of the Historic Slave Trade. The conference brought together scholars using databases to research the lives of individuals connected to slavery and the slave trade. The list of presenters can be found here, and videos of the presentations can be found on the Matrix YouTube channel. Most presenters at the conference focused on the lives of enslaved people in the Americas as captured in archival sources. The two dominant geographic areas for this type of research included the United States and Brazil. Other presenters drew from archaeological methods to explore the material pasts of slavery. Oral history and biographies also featured as methodologies used to build databases. Two themes emerged early in the conference and persisted throughout the presentation sessions: First linking different types of data and second developing best practices for data collection and management.

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March 1, 2019

Project Update and Technological Hurdles

March 1, 2019 | By | No Comments

For this month’s blog post, I am going to provide a quick update on my project. I have updated the artifact pages and created markers for the highland sites on my map. Also the front-end framework for loading my 3D models onto an HTML page is fully functional which is by far one of the greatest accomplishments of my life. The next steps are adding descriptions and text to the designated areas throughout my web page. Deciding what to write is going to be difficult because I need to find a balance between making my text approachable for a general audience while being applicable for academics. If I add to much lithics jargon, I will possibly lose anyone who is not a specialist. If I do the complete opposite, my site will not be useful for anyone in academia.

The next part of this blog will discuss technological hurdles in an age of open information. Recently I have had to teach myself the basics of Blender to create animations for my website. While there are tutorials online and on YouTube I found most of them hard to follow. This was due mostly my lack of experience using Blender and the tutorials themselves were hard to follow. I experienced the same problem when I was attempting to get Three.js to function properly for my artifact pages. Three.js is a front-end framework that displays 3D models on websites and allows users to manipulate the rendered objects. For some reason, one which I finally figured out after an unspeakable amount of time, the models refused to appear in the center of the screen and had an extremely wide orbit around an arbitrary center (I used orbit controls for the manipulation on my artifact pages). My initial thought was that maybe my point of origin (PO) was incorrect for my models so I googled the problem and found conflicting information. I moved on and began a long search to why Three.js refused to cooperate. 300+ commits to GitHub later, I realize that my PO was the problem so I download blender and set the origin correctly. The long journey finally ended and I had a functioning framework.

What I learned from this experience is that I should trust myself more and that the easiest explanation is usually the best. Occam’s Razor strikes again.



February 26, 2019

Metadata, Metadata, Metadata

February 26, 2019 | By | No Comments

My project entails the creation of a digital library for the management and public outreach of archaeological cultural heritage. The initial work towards this goal has entailed the building a metadata scheme. That is, finding the right data to describe data. There are a number of factors that go into describing data, but the most important and obvious goal should be its usefulness. There are three things I have done so far that I think have helped to make my metadata scheme useful:

  1. Researching established metadata schemes
  2. Utilizing metadata schemes already in use for the collections.
  3. Learning the collections management system, KORA, to better build my metadata scheme.

Established metadata schemes already exist to describe resources. Utilizing one or more of these uniform systems to describe data has many benefits. First, it makes it easier to compare and search through different collections from different organizations if the entities for describing those collections are the same. Secondly, it does some of the work for you by providing a useful list of possible terms to use that you may not have thought of. The Dublin Core Metadata Initiative, for example, provides standard metadata entities and their definitions for describing resources. These include 15 “core properties” such as contributor, coverage, creator, date, description, identifier, etc. These entities are included in my metadata scheme, especially for the description of documentary resources like articles, newspaper clippings, and journals.

Using established, international metadata schemes is an important way to clearly organize and describe your data in a way that can be compared and clearly understood. But it is also important to transfer data that is already in the books. These collections are already being managed, and as such, have established metadata describing these collections. Transferring data already on record into the digital library will be much easier if the entities from both systems are somewhat analogous. To that end, I am using entities from collections management software already being utilized on campus to influence my choice of entities and the organization of the metadata scheme. ARGUS is one such software system.

The organization of the metadata scheme is also being heavily influenced by KORA; the collections management software program I am utilizing to build the digital library. The structure of KORA is organized around projects, forms, pages, fields and records.  The project will likely contain many forms which will be equivalent to the individual collections within the digital library. The metadata scheme will then be put into pages which will contain fields where data can be entered. The pages and fields will be the metadata scheme. A record will be the actual data describing an object that has been entered into the metadata scheme. The goal for my next blog post is to better describe the actual organization of my metadata scheme after putting it into KORA.



February 19, 2019

The Challenges of the Digital in Digital History

February 19, 2019 | By | No Comments

By any normal standard, I am a relatively tech-savvy person. When it comes to programming, my experience is…minimal. My HTML skills are relatively new and underdeveloped, although growing which each attempt to do something new. My project for CHI focuses on oral histories mapping the history of migration across borders in West Africa, a topic I have spent too many years thinking about. My comfort level was this topic is matched with my lack of comfort of making this project digital.

I bring this up because I am also currently teaching 19 MSU seniors to do digital work. With a great deal of help with LEADR, my students are using StoryMaps to tell digital stories about border regions across the world. Ranging from the Colombia-Venezuela border to Kashmir and back home to the border between Detroit and Windsor, they are using the border analysis skills of our class to do public storytelling digitally.

My class is not a digital humanities class, but we regularly use digital projects/scholarship in discussions of borders around the world. There are few topics as central to public discussions as borders and migration, the topic of my class. I am easing my students into digital tools to demonstrate their importance as storytelling tools, but also to demonstrate to my students the importance of public scholarship.

There is a tension in digital scholarship between free, open-source software and proprietary programs like StoryMaps. Rather than dig into these debates, I want to talk about the reasons I am using StoryMaps. Oftentimes open-source software requires a level of technical expertise difficult to develop in a semester, especially when the course does not focus specifically on the digital.

I hope that this project will serve as a first step into the digital scholarly world for my students, and maybe some of them will even continue to use them going forward. My own extension into the digital has changed my academic focus, and I hope for at least a few of my students, this will be the case as well.



February 13, 2019

Transforming Historical Data into Visualizations

February 13, 2019 | By | No Comments

A central component of my CHI project is working with historical data. The creation of a database from historical documents is a long and tedious process, so I have decided to use one already available online. A group of economic historians published the African Commodity Trade Database (ACTD) by working with the Rural Environment History Group at Wageningen University. One of their datasets includes more than nine thousand commodities exported from Africa from the early nineteenth century to World War II. I plan to build from their work by transforming some of their data into visualizations on a website. This process includes several decisions that will shape my final visualizations and the historical contextualization I will contribute to explaining them. I’ve described part of that process below by highlighting some of the decisions I’ve made in selecting which data to use.

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February 11, 2019

Peruvian Origins Informatics Project

February 11, 2019 | By | No Comments

Introducing my project for the 2018/2019 CHI fellowship: Peruvian Origins Informatics Project. With this project I want to build an interactive, multi-component website that will be accessible to non-academics and will be valuable to future researchers. I want to make this website as accessible as possible by having multiple language options. The site will initially be launched in English but I plan on creating a Spanish version throughout the upcoming year. My project is centered around the South-Central Andes in Peru and is complementary to my own thesis research here at Michigan State University.

The project itself will be hosted on GitHub and will have three main layers. The first layer will be a landing page where users will be able to see pictures I have taken from my field seasons in Peru, access other layers of the site directly through a navigation bar, access related published articles on the archaeological sites included in this project, and be able to interact with the newly created social media pages. Layer 2 is an interactive map with markers designating the various sites included in this project. Users will be able to see the variety of sites represented and click on individual markers which provide site names and links to artifact pages. Layer 3 or the artifact pages will have a 3D model of a projectile point from the site displayed in an interactive viewer. The models will be manipulable with pop-up boxes containing information about the site and artifact viewable on the page itself.

Archaeological sites from the highlands of Peru and desert coast will be featured within my project. I plan on including archaeological sites that date to the initial colonization of Peru (~12.4 kya) to the late holocene (3.1 kya). My project will show the change in material culture through Peruvian prehistory. My future blog posts will outline and detail my progress on the website.



January 31, 2019

Africa’s Imperial Commodities

January 31, 2019 | By | No Comments

Europe’s exploitation of Africa is a common narrative in African history. Scholars continue to use archival records to investigate the movement of enslaved persons and commodities from Africa to the Americas and Europe. In the past ten years, scholars have also produced digital projects that enhance economic, social, and cultural studies related to the transportation of African slaves to the Americas. However, there remain few digital projects harnessing the possibilities of Africa’s commodity data. Economic historians of Africa, more so than others, have contributed to the collection and publication of product-based datasets. While some of them publish their data online, it remains in digital formats requiring knowledge of data analysis software. The goal of my CHI project, then, is to re-purpose the available data as part of interactive visualizations that facilitate access for students and scholars.

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January 30, 2019

Shaking Off the Dust: Building a Digital Library For My CHI Fellowship Project

January 30, 2019 | By | No Comments

The baffling amount of data in archaeological collections makes their management a daunting task. Subsequently, material culture can sit on shelves for years, collecting dust long after removing the original dirt of excavation. My project for the Cultural Heritage Informatics Fellowship will attempt to address this issue by using KORA to build a digital library for the archaeological collections curated by the MSU archaeology department. KORA is a digital repository and publishing platform that I will use to facilitate easier management of collections and bring some of their unique cultural heritage into the public eye. The Schmidt Collection will be the first collection I attempt to do this with.

Walter L. Schmidt was an avocational archaeologist who collected a large number of artifacts from his farmland in southern Michigan. During the middle of the 20th century, Schmidt discovered hundreds, if not thousands, of artifacts ranging from Paleoindian to historic time periods. A detailed cataloging system describing these artifacts and where they were found on his land was developed.  Many newspaper clippings, correspondences with archaeologists and other documents associated with the collection of artifacts have likewise been saved. Walter Schmidt believed in the cultural value of these artifacts and the significance of his land as an archaeological site.

Mr. Schmidt had originally planned on preventing serious excavations on his land until professional archaeologists could begin excavating. Circumstances, however, did not allow. After passing away in the 1970s, land development in his area likely made the curated artifacts at MSU all that will come of Walter Schmidt’s effort. Since his passing, Walter’s collection has changed hands several times, luckily ending up here at the archaeology department. The loss of the Schmidt site and the lack of useful provenience data are tragic events, but the artifacts that were saved still have massive potential to inform us about our cultural heritage.

KORA will be the engine for unlocking the potential of the Schmidt’s artifacts and documents. This will require the development of a metadata scheme to describe these data. This includes descriptors such as catalog number, document type, site location, artifact type, etc. This is not an insignificant task. The scheme will have to be carefully constructed considering how I am attempting to also build a digital library for additional unknown archaeological collections in the future. After finishing this critical task, the metadata will have to be mapped into a KORA repository which will then allow me to enter the relevant data from the collection. This will be the essence of my project for the CHI fellowship.

But what about getting this information into the public eye? This goal of the project may be beyond the scope of the CHI fellowship. Fortunately, I will have the luxury of combining this project with my continued duties as the museum research assistant in the next academic year. This will allow me the time and resources to publish a digital image library also using KORA.  A major difference between a digital library and a digital repository is in how it makes our collections accessible to the public. A library will take the information I have entered into the repository and display it on a frontend website that will be accessible from the MSU anthropology department website.

There is more to making a collection accessible than building a frontend website, however. A digital library should go beyond displaying the simple metadata and tell a narrative. Consequently, a major goal will be to develop “digital exhibits” within the website which showcase an essay or research about particularly interesting artifacts or the collections themselves. It is my hope that digital exhibits will unlock the potential of these documents and artifacts for the public to see. This will involve quite a bit of effort to produce narratives worthy of engaging the public. Or I can make undergrads do that research for me. By that time, I am sure I will be willing to shoulder off some of the work. Either way, I hope to do my part to make interesting sources of cultural heritage like the Schmidt Collection more accessible, and hopefully shake off a bit of dust.



January 29, 2019

Kicking off the project

January 29, 2019 | By | No Comments

With the new semester kicking off, I am shifting my focus from practicing various digital tools and enhancing technical skills, to working on my own research project, depicting immigrant players on the German national football team since 1990. As I mentioned in my first CHI blog post, I’ve taken interest in how the sociological phenomenon of football influences German national identity. As one of the most popular sports in the world, football is more than just a sport that people watch and play in their leisure time. As a cultural product, football could represent the sprits of certain region as well as a country (nation). In the meanwhile, football also provides its audience a platform to express their emotions with their peers. Football received enormous attention during the World Cup every four years. World Cup attracts not only football fans, but also general population especially when their national team perform well. One of the reasons behind this collective fanaticism roots in the competition form of World Cup. Players fight for their own countries and people who share the same origin stand behind and cheer for them.

In recent years, some people pointed out that the German national football team is no longer “German” anymore. Statement as such triggers me to think what does it mean to be “German”. In my second post, I mentioned the dilemma Einstein had to face, where in Germany people identify him sometimes as “German scholar” and sometimes as “Swiss Jew”. His nationalities are interchangeable based on his academic performance. After nearly a century, the biased judgement of one’s nationality based on one’s performance remains the same. Özil, one of the most famous professional football players in the past five years, explicitly expressed the discrimination he experienced during his time playing for the German national football team. Writing this post provided me an opportunity to really get to know a player’s life trajectory, to try to understand why some players struggle to “fit in” the society even they are no different from other players besides their outlook. This process eventually helped me to make a decision on my project: studying players with immigrant backgrounds who play for the German national football team.

After settling in on the topic, I start to think about how can I make the knowledge I learned from the previous semester applicable for my own project. In my last post, I briefly mentioned that using mapping tools could help depict players’ heritage in a more intuitional way. After a few weeks of thinking, I finalized my research project Vision Document where I describe various aspects of this project, including project description, outcomes, functionality, Audience, etc. This project depicts and summarizes the personal profile of the players who played for the German national football team in the World Cup since 1990, with a specific focus on football players who have immigrant backgrounds. The end result of this project will be a website where audience could learn about the national football team members from 1990 to 2018, and read narratives of certain players, such as Özil, Boateng, etc. This research will ideally address and challenge the notion of an “un-German” national team, as multicultural identity has long been and will continue to be part of the team. As part of my doctoral dissertation “The German Football Team and National Identity,” this project will serve as the foundational function of presenting historical facts.

At the end of this blog post, I would like to say that writing blogs is beneficial for me in terms of figuring out what I want to present and how I could present my ideas. This writing process encourages me to consistently ask myself what my research interests are and how I could turn them into a presentable project with the help of the technologies I acquired through last semester. I am looking forward to working on this project and hopefully present the final website before the summer comes to Michigan.