Bob Marley, Google Maps, and A First Attempt at Hands-On Digital History

Bob Marley, Google Maps, and A First Attempt at Hands-On Digital History

I can only imagine that what I have experienced the past few days is a microcosm of what digital historians go through for years when working on a digital history project.

First, I struggled to decide on a digital approach (mapping, text mining, etc.). Next, I struggled to find a digital tool that I wanted to work with — Google My Maps, Google Fusion Tables, StoryMap JS, etc. Finally, I kept switching back and forth between topic ideas. What would work best with mapping? What history do I know well enough to convey digitally? What am I really trying to say here? Are my results actually conveying a history, or just plotting points on a map?

Needless to say, the whole process was extremely frustrating, and has me feeling (and I’m just being honest, here) that digital history, for me personally, might be too much of an uphill battle to engage with at this point in my career. All in all, it took me days to make a project that is not nearly as historically communicative as an article on the same topic would be. However, I am very pleased with how interactive it is, and I imagine that an article would not reach or entertain nearly as many people. In the end, I’ll continue to give this course an honest go, trying to learn as much as I can about digital tools in the hope that something, somewhere, will ‘click’ and make sense to me.

Choosing an Approach

Text mining is not my thing. There’s too much data to input, and all of the textual sources I have are PDFs, which don’t always play nicely with text mining software. Timelines are very cool, but I struggled to find timeline tools that seemed easy enough to work with for a first attempt.

Ultimately, mapping made the most sense for me. Maps are fun and cool to look at, and I thought that creating a map would produce a way for users to travel the globe in a click. Furthermore, I find it interesting to trace the journeys of historical actors as they move. Whether athletes from team to team, generals from battle to battle, or animals from habitat to habitat, spatial movement is a cool thing to follow.

Choosing a Specific Tool

Once I set my sights on mapping, I tried to decide between OpenStreetMap, StoryMapJS, or Google’s My Maps. OpenStreet was too confusing for me. I didn’t quite grasp how I could use it effectively, and I quickly gave up on it. StoryMap had some great options, or so it seemed. I loved the idea of making a gigapixel experience. But it seemed like way too much work to figure out in a short time span. The StoryMap mapping option sounded good, but ended up just looking like a powerpoint. I tried and tried and tried, and yet I could not figure out a way to use StoryMap for anything other than a slide presentation:

Capture storymap

Due simply to ease of use and understanding, I settled on Google My Maps. The next issue was coming up with a story I could tell.

Research Topic

My research topic at UCF has mostly been geared toward sport — sport and identity, sport and urban dislocation, etc. So naturally, I began this project with the intention of revealing something about sport. The objective this week was to make an honest attempt at engaging with a digital tool, and preferably in the field we work in. I’m hoping to do my project in this class either on sport stadia or UCF history, depending on which archives yield the best returns. However, at this stage in the game, I’m not ready to begin on either of those projects.

So all I tried to do this week was get my hands dirty and see what’s out there. I figured it would be best if I focused on a topic that I already know really well. That way, I wouldn’t need to conduct too much research, and I could focus on the tools themselves by drawing from information I already have.

My first thought was Central Florida sport — I know that, I’ve conducted research on it, so why not? The only issue is that it doesn’t really lend itself to mapping, at least in any way I could think of. Besides, I wanted something that was more global.

I moved on to an idea about MVP’s (Most Valuable Players) in American professional sport history. I wondered if there might be something in pinpointing where MVP’s had their origins. I decided to look at three major American sporting leagues — NBA, NFL, and MLB — to plot where league MVP’s had come from. I guess my hope was that I would see some sort of interesting trend or grouping that could tell me something. I got pretty far in that project:

Capture MVP Origins

But then I realized I wasn’t really saying anything, or at least it didn’t feel like it. “Okay,” I thought, “so a lot of football players come from Texas and Florida. Is that supposed to be news?”

I decided to jump ship, but I didn’t know what to. And that’s when I remembered Bob.


Bob Marley and My Reggae Roots

Not a lot of people know this about me, but for a long period of my life I was extremely interested in the career of Reggae musician Bob Marley. In fact, I was certifiably obsessed with Reggae music in general. I collected CDs and albums of every Reggae artist I could. As I got older and more into reading, I read a lot of books on Bob and other Reggae artists, and on the genre itself. When that got too “secondary,” I started reading magazines in my school’s library — original magazines printed in the 1970s and 80s that detailed Reggae and Jamaican culture. That grew into an interest in Jamaican and Caribbean history, which led to an interest in Rastafari religion and history, which in turn grew into an interest in Ethiopian and African history. In fact, when I first came to UCF, I was trying to decide whether to do a project on the Pacific Islands or on the Caribbean islands. Dr. Lester (who was my first professor at UCF) may even remember that my initial meeting with her was about the possibility of doing a history of Afrocentric Caribbean culture for my thesis.

Anyway, the point is that I already know a lot about Bob Marley, and the story of his life leading up to his first studio album seemed like something I could feasibly plot, describe, and incorporate with photos, videos, and text. It seemed like an ideal way, at least at this early stage in my digital history career, to convey a particular history in a spatial, interactive, and mostly non-textual way.

It took quite a while to make — I had to create information boxes, look up exact addresses to be sure of where my pinpoints needed to go, and then find relevant images and videos, but it ultimately was very fun and engaging.

Capture bob edits on map


The resulting project is indeed an interactive map. Users can click across the map, or follow the map legend, and read bits about Bob’s childhood, early career, and eventual success as a studio artist. However, fitting the history into small text boxes leaves out so much of the nuance. I often found myself getting frustrated because I know the history, and I know that this project leaves so many of the good parts out. However, with mapping I found it’s more important to convey the spatial and non-textual elements. I was able to create something that is undoubtedly more entertaining than any article could be. As such, perhaps this kind of project could supplement an article, or be used as an introduction to an article that stimulates interest. As a stand-alone, it’s simply a fun and engaging way to explore the first years of Bob’s career and music — and that’s okay.

I hope you all enjoy it! And remember, I’m still learning, so be easy on me here…



Capture Bob Marley A Reggae Journey

Reading with Algorithms: An Introduction to Topic Modeling, Text Mining, and Distant Reading

Reading with Algorithms: An Introduction to Topic Modeling, Text Mining, and Distant Reading


Gone our the days when those in the humanities could say “no” to math. Algorithms, statistics, and other mathematical tools can change the way people convey and interpret the humanities.

Mathematics, in conjunction with computer coding and programming, allows humanities scholars to “zoom out” of a sample subset–say, every written word of William Shakespeare, for example–and draw conclusions about the broader themes, interpretations, and aspects of that sample. Continuing with the example, such a zooming out could reveal how often Shakespeare focused on sexuality, poverty, monarchy, etc.

So the question is — what would something like that tell us? How would we be better off knowing the frequency with which Shakespeare discussed the British crown?

This is where there seems to be some contention among scholars. On the one side are those who swear by the numbers. Exactitude, these scholars say, yield concrete answers to difficult questions. On the opposite end of the spectrum are those who see statistical approaches as overly assuming. How, these scholars ask, can numbers reveal nuance?


The quantitative approach is nothing new — and I should be clear here to point out that the topic of discussion today is not the “quantitative approach” as historians know it. Yes, the approaches discussed here draw from numbers, but the quantitative approach generally results in a number: X amount of slaves on the Transatlantic slave trade, X number of Native Americans present in the New World before European exploration, etc.

However, using mathematics–especially algorithms and computer coding and programming–to reveal textual trends is relatively new. The results in these approaches are not always number-focused, but rather text-focused. How often was the word “X” used by a certain history journal over the course of its existence? How often did Union soldiers discuss “death” in their letters? What issues did Churchill discuss in his speeches? Yes, numbers are inherently a part of this approach, but the driving focus is on the text.


If there is any counter-argument against mine that textual/mathematical approaches are “relatively new,” it lies in the Index Thomisticus by Roberto Busa. Busa, an Italian Jesuit priest, began this project all the way back in the 1940s–his goal was to arrange the words of St. Thomas Aquinas in such a way as to allow scholars to interpret them based off of the frequency with which Aquinas discussed certain topics, and how individual words and correlating themes linked with others. As technology grew, so to did Busa’s project. Though Busa has since passed, the project exists now online, and Aquinas’ words can be searched and understood in over ten different languages.

Busa labeled his work as “textual informatics,” and his approaches have been adopted and adapted throughout the humanities.

Another term for this kind of work is “distant reading,” which journalist and author Kathryn Schulz defines as “understanding literature not by studying particular texts, but by aggregating and analyzing massive amounts of data.”

In other words, distant reading zooms out from the individual text, or collection of texts, all the way out to sample sizes far too large for any one human to read and interpret–say, 160,000 books or more–and interprets them in some way, shape, or form. For “distant readers,” understanding literature is more than just reading—it’s zooming out and analyzing sample sizes that are far too large for any one person to do on their own.

How can this happen? Again, using digital tools (at least now, not in Busa’s 1940s) to scan texts, identify word and term frequencies, create relations between words, form groups, and produce lists–or topics–for scholars to then interpret.

According to digital whizkid Scott Weingart (now the head of Carnegie Mellon’s digital humanities efforts), this approach, called “topic modeling…represents a class of computer programs that automagically extracts topics from texts.” However, according to Weingart, “It’s all text and no subtext…it’s a bridge, and often a helpful one.”

In other words, topic modeling and text mining assist the humanities in getting somewhere, but they are not the end-all, be-all.

(This is a good spot to define the difference between text mining and topic modeling — some good answers can be found here. Basically, “Text classification (text mining) is a form of supervised learning — the set of possible classes are known/defined in advance and don’t change” whereas “Topic modeling is a form of unsupervised learning (akin to clustering) — the set of possible topics are unknown apriori. They’re defined as part of generating the topic models. With a non-deterministic algorithm like LDA, you’ll get different topics each time you run the algorithm.”)

Schulz questions whether or not they are useful at all, at least in literary studies. “Literature is an artificial universe,” Schulz says, “and the written word, unlike the natural world, can’t be counted on to obey a set of laws.”


Perhaps Schulz is right, but can’t topic modeling, text mining, and other distant reading approaches assist in understanding overarching trends that the naked eye (and mind) simply cannot identify? Do these approaches reduce narratives to numbers, or do the numbers boost the narratives? I tend to lean toward the latter.

In my own work, I can see the benefit of applying text mining and/or topic modeling to find overarching trends in newspapers I research. How often to journalist discuss race, poverty, the built urban environment, and what can this tell me about the narrative I am working on?

If there is any reluctance on my part to engage with distant reading tools, it harkens back to the introduction — I tend to be one of those who says “no” to math. Not out of ignorance — it’s not a declaration. You’ll never hear me say, “death to Math!” except perhaps in my head during a GRE exam.

It’s just that I’m a bit frightened to engage with something so arduous and unfamiliar. And I’m not alone here.

But we as historians, humanitarians, and scholars in general need to embrace all approaches, and do our best to understand the nitty-gritty of numbers and distant reading. We might not think it will be useful to us. We might not want to “obey a set of laws” that make us feel overly numerated. But how will we know if we do not try to learn the method.

As Weingart says, “The model requires us to make meaning out of them, they require interpretation, and without fully understanding the underlying algorithm, one cannot hope to properly interpret the results.”


GIS, Spatial Turns, and the Wide World of Mapping Tools

GIS, Spatial Turns, and the Wide World of Mapping Tools

People use GIS (geographic information systems) technology everyday. Thanks to smart phones, getting to your friend’s new apartment or finding that new restaurant is easier than ever. But GIS technology does more than tell us how-to-get-where. For any group utilizing mass transportation, GIS can be used “to optimize…daily fleet movements.” Governments use GIS to develop “disaster decision support systems” in case of an emergency. Some even use GIS to find gold deposits in the Yukon.

Capture 60 minutes GIS Gold
Click to see how GIS is used to find gold, and learn about the environmental ramifications


But how do historians use GIS?

To answer this question, it’s necessary to first discuss the “spatial turn” in history. In short, the spatial turn, like most “turns” in history, is a movement among academics to shift approaches. For spatial historians, the shift involves an increased focus on the historical implications of space, place, and landscape. Spatial historians analyze the ways in which historical actors identify, define, interpret, and engage with space. The spatial turn inherently brought about an increased use of maps, which is where GIS comes in.


The capabilities of GIS allow historians to pinpoint their analyses on digital maps to convey history in a non-textual way. By using GIS, spatial historians not only allow learners to engage with digital tools themselves, but they often provide new insights to various histories. For example, spatial historian Anne Kelly Knowles uses GIS technology to show how Nazis strategically placed concentration camps close to industrial centers to use prisoners as a labor soure.

Anne Kelly Knowles' Holocaust Map of Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia: The crosses represent concentration and labor camps, the blue hues represent centers of steel production, and red hues represent centers of machine-tool production.
Anne Kelly Knowles’ Holocaust Map of Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia: The crosses represent concentration and labor camps, the blue hues represent centers of steel production, and red hues represent centers of machine-tool production.

Jumping continents and traveling backward through time, Knowles introduces new insights on the American Civil War as well. Using GIS technology, Knowles is able to reveal what Robert E. Lee could see from his vantage points during the Battle of Gettysburg. Knowles’ findings reopen discussions on Lee’s decisions during the battle, sending waves through the historiography.

Anne Kelly Knowles' map of Gettysburg from the vantage point of Robert E. Lee: The tan areas reveal what Lee could see before and during the battle, which is much more than historians previously noted
Anne Kelly Knowles’ map of Gettysburg from the vantage point of Robert E. Lee: The tan areas reveal what Lee could see before and during the battle, which is much more than historians previously noted

Historians like Knowles use their historical understanding of space, coupled with modern GIS technology, to reinterpret history. In fact, GIS is so prominent in spatial history that some historians wonder if it may be the future of digital history as a whole.

It is true that GIS allows historians to create digital mediums for exploring historical spaces, but claiming that it is the foremost digital approach to history may be a bit of an overstep.


The reality is that not all historical mapping projects use GIS, and not all have to. GIS is useful in certain projects, such as those cited above, but GIS is also criticized for occasionally “promoting positivism, ignoring complexities, and disregarding uncertainties.” The exact nature of GIS projects, which require precise coordinates, runs the risk of over-exacting the often nuanced aspects of historical events. Assuming that precision inherently brings about certainty is incorrect. 

So do mapping projects have to use GIS? Can the spatial turn incorporate historical works that analyze space without latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates? Can space still be “an explicit part of historical analysis” without using exact locations?


For my own sake, I hope that not every spatial project uses GIS. The reality is that I do not know how to use GIS. Furthermore, I do not know whether my research surrounding sport stadia will yield specific GIS coordinates. Stadiums themselves are fixated, and as such would be easy to pinpoint. But what about urban dislocation as a result of the stadiums? Are coordinates relating to where individuals move after stadium construction as readily available? If not, my project will have to use mapping and imaging in a different way.

Richard White, discussing the Stanford Spatial History Project (SSHP), noted that “Religious spaces – like libraries, art galleries, sports arenas and graveyards – are more than locations or buildings. They represent a particular lived experience.” The question is how can I convey the particular lived experience brought about by sport arenas?

Many historians have discussed the geographical implications of sport, but seemingly none have utilized digital mapping to convey their spatial interpretations. Despite White’s inclusion of “sport arenas” in his argument and the abundance of stadiums and arenas–and controversies surrounding them–close to Stanford, none of SSHP’s projects deal with sport arenas.

The combination of a lack of digital and GIS know-how on my part, and a lack of readily available examples to learn from, make me feel as though I’ll have an uphill battle utilizing digital tools to engage with spatial history and sport stadia.

However, one possibility jumps out at me.

In my research, I have some planning documents about the positioning, design, and structure of the Orlando Arena. Likewise, I have numerous examples from newspaper sources that show how Orlandoans defined the arena as a space for elites, shielded by “lush gardens” and “fountains” from the “crime-riddled” Parramore neighborhood.

The original Orlando Arena: Note the strategic layout of gardens and fountains. These are referenced by local media and citizens as ways to
The original Orlando Arena: Note the strategic layout of gardens and fountains. These are referenced by local media and citizens as ways to “shield patrons from the neighborhood” of Parramore

Perhaps there is some way I can use photographs, maps, and discourse to convey my interpretation that the stadium is used as a fulcrum for identity construction and exclusion.


In his article, White claims that the SSHP could not be possible without collaboration. White says that “The scholars involved in the Spatial History Project can write books by themselves, but they cannot do a spatial history project on the scale they desire alone: we lack the knowledge, the craft, and ultimately the time.”

Sound familiar?

Last week I proposed the idea of collaborating on a project together as a class, or at least in larger groups. People in class looked at me like I had ten heads. This is fair, considering that we all want to do our own research and work toward completing our theses while pursuing our individual passions. In fact, I myself was adamant at the beginning of the semester that individual projects were best.

However, the more I read articles like those of Ayers and White, and listen to those in our department like French and Lester, the more I wonder: what do I hope to get out of this semester, and how might collaboration enable me to learn more?

Consider this concluding segment of today’s blog post a last-ditch plea to the class to consider collaborating on a project together — not one that any of us proposed individually during our flash-pitches, because it’s inherently unfair that four of us work for a semester to complete the thesis project of one. Rather, let’s come up with something feasible together. Why not a project that uses mapping, GIS, spatial theory, and digital tools to convey a history of UCF? All the archives are right on our campus, as are the experts and the storage capabilities (RICHES might like a project like that — Dr. Lester mentioned that they don’t yet have much on UCF).

My fear is that working individually, though helping each of us chip away at the goal of completing a thesis, will limit the overall quality of our projects and the amount of digital know-how we can gain from working together.

With that being said, I am okay to work alone — I’ll be able to turn out a decent digital project (I hope) and it will give me an opportunity to explore more of the spatial elements of my thesis. The same, I think, will be true for all of our projects.

However, if we broke into two or three groups, we could collaborate more (as Ayers, White, and others urge us to do) and come up with better projects.

Think about it.



What’s Out There

As you all know, I hope my project can convey urban displacement caused by sport arenas by using digital mapping technology.

In an effort to see what’s out there, I’ve perused the World Wide Web and found the following:

Hosted by UC Berkeley, the “Urban Displacement Project” displays gentrification and urban displacement in the San Francisco Bay Area. For my purposes, the project reveals how in-depth such a project can be (there is a quite a bit on how they got all their data) and so it both provides me with a road map and also makes me stop and think — Okay, is this idea feasible to do, in a semester, and on my own?

Capture Urban Displacement

Digital Harlem is a collaborative effort between four Australian historians who set out to map everyday life in Harlem, NYC between 1915 and 1930. Drawing mainly from governmental and newspaper archives, Digital Harlem is a lot like RICHES MI (stay with me here) in that it positions a map at the center, with a search tool to the side, and searches will yield pinpoints on the map that in turn yield historical information, which can be engaged with further if the user so chooses. Again, this shows the possibilities of what my project can do while emphasizing the collaborative effort that is necessary on a lot of these projects.

Capture Digital Harlem

Similar projects to Digital Harlem:

“PhilaPlace,” Historical Society of Pennsylvania,

Capture PhilaPlace

“MediaNola,” Tulane University,

Capture MediaNola

In closing, I’m hoping that all of us in class looking at mapping can get together and collaborate on one project or another. I’m beginning to feel that “united we stand…” and that perhaps a lot of our project ideas are a bit too big to take on by ourselves. Hopefully in class we can decide on one or two projects (even if one of them is not mine) and work together on it so that we’re creating quality works like the aforementioned.