One of the most important lessons I learned this semester was the vital importance of protecting the integrity and originality of historical evidence. It wasn’t that I had not valued this aspect of historical research before, but this class opened my eyes to the hidden dangers and avenues in which data manipulation can have a significant impact on the way we perceive research. I am now much more confident not only in my abilities to recognize these errors in data collection, but to utilize the tools available to me to prevent such manipulation. When I say manipulation, I do not mean data handling with a malicious intent (although the existence of such “research” methods certainly do exist). Instead, I have learned the value of recognizing the process in which we, as digital scholars, must handle historical data – with as much care as we would a real-world artifact. Data is not as sound as it may appear, its fragility (especially in sets that measure beyond our capacity for close analysis) is as corruptible in the wrong hands as it is in the right ones.
This leads us, as researchers, to process the way in which we analyze such data sets, and make note of our influence on the final product. One of my favorite terms I learned this semester was “derived data” because its implementation into the fields of history and digital humanities may be understated in how we come across “new” information. As a humanities major, perception and interpretation have always been a particular focus of mine and when entering the quantitative realm of digital scholarship, it seemed that these methods would no longer be necessary when studying simplified analytics. While I learned this could not be farther from the truth, I also found it fascinating that as much effort should be put into studying our processes of historical and digital research as into the project itself. I believe there is no better way to prove this fact than the construction and culmination of this portfolio. I have always bore a great disconnect with academic literature and it’s lethargic pacing in regards to proving an argument. While academic literature is still boring, I do have a greater appreciation for the effort scholars make in detailing their process of historical research. I suppose I would ask myself when constructing an academic argument how future researchers would analyze my work and if I would do them any favors by explaining my own thought process.
This brings me back to the concept of “derived data” and how it affects our perception of historical research. We have literally thousands of years of historical research that has been collected and is now being transposed into the digital realm. As historical scholars it is first our main priority to preserve these findings for their future use. That future use is our second priority in how we present these findings for the rest of the world. We looked at many websites, archives, and digital media this semester – all of which was presented in a manner that best suited the purpose of the author. It is a not so subtle realization that the information we absorb is from another person’s ideology of how that information should be transferred to us. Data points are placed on a chart for us to visualize and better comprehend, but the simple fact that chart exists is proof we have bought into a molded idea of how that data should be understood. Derived data encompasses not only logical assumptions we can make about a particular data set (this would be metadata, specifically) but its presentation and subsequent absorption into the minds of other researchers.
I thought about this process of historical research quite a bit when revising my visualization project. The activity I chose to revise was my Week 14 data set detailing the Washington’s Enslaved Peoples in 1799. Originally when I did this project, I just created a data set for the enslaved peoples in the Mansion House. and only looked at name, age, and owner. My revised edition now includes records of enslaved peoples in Muddy Hole, River Farm, Dogue Run, and the Union Farm. I also added the profession of those that were specialized for a particular trade and their current work status. My original visualization in Flourish did not turn out as I had planned and I had to make adjustments within the data set to fit the visualization software. Recalling this process reminded me of data manipulation for the accommodation of visualization. It is the responsibility of the researcher to respect the integrity of the data and find ways to present it in its truest form, not to whittle away and mold it to fit into our own form of comprehension. My newest visualization attempts to better support the data set and shift its focus from accommodation to proper reflection.
I made these visualizations in Tableau. In the first visualization, I show how many enslaved peoples are at each of the Washingtons’ estates and farms, and how many of those are owned by George versus Martha. I believe this visualization compares nicely how each farm is supported by each owner, while also telling just how many slaves the Washingtons’ owned. In the second visualization I show the work status of all the Washingtons’ enslaved people. The highlighted “Null” column shows all those without given comments about their status. It was surprising to me how many children were owned by the Washingtons (easily 1/3 of all the Washingtons’ slaves were children). The final visualization shows how many of the Washington’s slaves were specialized in a particular trade. It would be interesting to see this data set after about 5 years and see how much would have changed.
As I close out my senior year and look to the future, I hope to continue to work in the digital humanities either as a digital scholar or specialist in data analytics. I believe the tools I gained in this class and others have made me more aware of the troubles that may lie in data research that are so often and easily overlooked. The future of digital humanities is bright and I hope to join in the discussion as our technological world moves ever forward. I am also excited by the prospect digital means of research can mean to fields looking to expand their research horizons. History has always been a favorite subject of mind and to be given the chance to explore this field through the computational lens was a fascinating experience. I can see nothing but good things ahead when I think of the skills I have learned in relation to digital, historical, and analytical ways of thinking.