Up here in St Andrews we are in the process of exploring several routes to visualize the vast amount of commodity data that have been extracted from the historical archives by our colleagues from the University of Edinburgh.
Research in environmental history can be an open-ended process where research questions are formed and refined as part of working with the available data (i.e. historic documents). Our goal is therefore the development of visualization concepts that will reveal a range of temporal, geographic and content-related perspectives on the commodity data, and that will highlight different conceptual angles and relations within the data. Such “interlinked” visualization perspectives can provide an overview of the entire dataset and, at the same time, act as probes to explore certain aspects of the commodity data in more detail. Using this approach we aim to support more open-ended explorations of the commodity data as well as providing easy access to specific documents of interest.
Our design process so far has been driven by discussions with Jim and Colin, paper sketches to iterate on certain visualization ideas and some literature research on information visualization and digital humanities.
Discussions with Jim and Colin revealed that the temporal and geographic aspects of the data are central to their research but always in close combination with commodity types and their relations to each other. This resulted in several paper sketches, as you can see below, to explore how these particular aspects could be visually expressed and augmented with interactive features.
We also created (static) computational sketches (shown below) based on samples from the actual database. At the same time, our collaborators from EDINA created an interface to the database that allowed interrogating the data through textual queries and list views.
Both these approaches allowed use to explore the character of the data and potential visualization challenges that this introduces.
The implementation of a web-based visualization prototype that combines the ideas from our early design explorations is currently in full swing. This prototype is based on the popular visualization library d3.js. We are closely collaborating with the teams from Toronto and Edinburgh on iterating its design and implementation.
Moving from questions and the interests of researchers in environmental history to interactive visualizations which support digging into data with fluid and commodity oriented inquiries is a process on continual refinement and the exploration of small and large interaction research questions.