Neat things you can do with Neatline

I have spent a large portion of my worktime this term looking at mapping tools and ways of visually representing different kinds of geographic data. We used ArcGIS for creating a map of Bede’s England (you can read more about it here) and that worked really well for the purposes of the project: it allowed to denote different types of objects (e.g., a town, a monastery, etc.) with different symbols and link pages that alluded to those places and gave a clear visual representation of the objects. However, as much as I love ArcGIS (I think it’s really cool!), one can imagine wanting to do certain things with maps that it’s not perfect for.

This term I started working on the Carleton Guide to Medieval Rome to which students who go on the Carleton Rome OCS program contribute pictures and stories about different monuments and places in the Medieval city. The goal is for site visitors to be able to go on a particular “walk” and, while on that walk, learn about the pieces of the Medieval Rome they encounter along the way. So I have started looking for a platform that might be better suited for this goal than ArcGIS and found a really nifty one – Neatline, an exhibit builder that uses Omeka items to create interactive stories including timelines, pictures and georeferenced historical maps (I’ll explain what that means below). I have only started playing around with it but have already discovered a wide array of really great tools.

First, you can use actual historical maps (scanned images of old maps, that is) to overlay the basemap. That is a fantastic visual way of integrating the ancient or Medieval city into a modern one – and bring a historic map back to life! I used an 1830 map of Rome from David Rumsey map collection above (“1830 is not Medieval!” you might astutely observe. You are totally right – I picked this one as an example mostly because I liked how it looked). To do that, I had to georeference the map – a fancy term for identifying several common points on both maps – using a very straightforward online tool called MapWarper and then exported it to Neatline.

Then I added a couple of objects onto the map – in the screenshot above you can see the Temple of Hadrian, or Hadrianeum. I first created a new item in Omeka and then imported it into the Neatline exhibit – you can import all items with a certain tag which will be handy if a lot of images need to be added. Neatline places the point on the map for you if you include the coordinates in the metadata – that part turned out much more confusing than it sounds, however. It turns out that the coordinates need to be in a very specific format, WKT (or well-known text). Wikipedia told me that the format for a point is POINT(# #). Unexpectedly, when I entered the lat and long numbers, Neatline placed the temple of Hadrian…in the ocean off the west coast of Africa. After some frustratingly futile googling, I found out that the coordinate WKT uses coordinates in a coordinate system called Pseudo-Mercator, and the lat and long values need to be flipped (I’m still puzzled by all of that).

In addition to adding points on the map, you can also add lines and geometric shapes. Lines of different colors and points could be used to represent different walks across the Medieval city of Rome – I’m excited to try that and see how it turns out!


Time Management, or the Eternal Struggle

It is no secret to anyone who has spent any amount of time at Carleton that life here is busy. Classes, workstudy, sports, rehearsals, volunteering, research and occasional sleep combine in elaborate ways which can make anyone dizzy and make planning ahead and keeping track of all the commitments almost impossible. I remember thinking when I was applying to be a DHA last year: “This job is so awesome! I get to schedule my own hours – that means I can just work on the projects whenever I have free time”. I was only partially right. The job is indeed awesome, except there is no free time. As weeks go by, the term gradually turns into an avaricious time-sucking wormhole – and finding time to work becomes a struggle, sometimes (almost) making me wish I had a set schedule.

My job as a DHA made me realize how inept I am at organizing my time. I can finally feel that I’m slowly but steadily getting better. Here’s what I’ve learned (by many a trial and many an error):

  • Having a planner is very useful and marking the hours I expect to have to work on DH projects at the beginning of each week definitely helps.
  • Even though there are no official hours, it’s good to set hours for myself as if there were, and adhere to the schedule as much as possible – if there’s a conflict in my schedule for that week, I can deviate from it.
  • Project logs are great! Better still if they are detailed and well-written. It has happened to me many times that I would jot down a quick note to myself about what I still need to do for a project or think that it’s so obvious that writing anything down is completely unnecessary. Unsurprisingly, next time I sat down to work on the project I’d be totally lost because I would no longer remember my own thought process. So yes, write down as much as possible.
  • Try not to put off until tomorrow what can be done today. Sounds simple but is surprisingly effective.

In this way my work as a DHA has inspired me to start an uphill battle with absent-mindedness and procrastination. It will be a long and tough one. But I have hope.

All things Bede

As of this moment, I’ve been a member of the Digital Humanities team for seven sometimes challenging, frequently exhilarating and always rewarding weeks. I’ve learned a whole lot – from how to write good documentation to using tools like Omeka and ArcGIS to valuable cultural lessons such as being introduced to the 60’s Batman show.

I spent a good portion of my time this term focusing on the Bede Project which aims at creating an online commentary to the Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Venerable Bede. Three Carleton professors – Rob Hardy, Austin Mason, and Bill North – are collaborating on this project. Once finished, it is going to be part of Dickinson College Commentaries. I started working on this project over a year ago and since then have grown fond of Bede and his clear if occasionally funky Medieval Latin.

This term I’ve been focusing on two aspects of the project – vocabulary lemmatization and mapping. Lemmatization is a fancy word for mapping every inflected word form to its dictionary form, or lemma. Most of it was done automatically using a lemmatizer script, so what was left for Bard and me to do was to fill in the words for which the lemma for some reason wasn’t found. That would happen either when the inflected form was ambiguous, in which case I went back to Bede’s text to figure out which of the umpteen possible things it meant, or because the word wasn’t found in the word list the lemmatizer pulled data from (that would be true for Medieval Latin vocabulary, names, or words that had an alternative spelling). While slightly monotonous, this is a great refresher for my rusty Latin, and there’s a fun problem-solving aspect to figuring out which of the many possible meanings a word has in any given context.

The other part of the project I was focusing on is collecting all the data necessary for creating an interactive map of Bede’s England. I created a spreadsheet with a list of all the places mentioned in Bede using Plumber’s index of place names and found coordinates of the corresponding modern places. This process had its own challenges: sometimes it would not be clear where a place mentioned by Bede was located. When that was the case, I engaged in extensive googling and searching through various commentaries to Bede’s text hoping to find a note on the corresponding modern location (sometimes the name mentioned in Bede and the modern English name of the place don’t sound at all alike – for instance, Verulamium is now called St. Alban’s). After that I verified the coordinates of each of the places and added links to Pleiades and/or PastScape for the locations that have an excavated medieval site. The spreadsheet was then uploaded to ArcGIS, resulting in the following map (pretty cool, right?):

The next step I will be focusing on is adding a layer with all the rivers.