Palimpsest Methodologies Day

The Palimpsest Methodologies Day, which took place on 13th May 2014,  was an opportunity for the project team to meet and share ideas with our wonderful advisory board, whose experience and expertise spans the wide range of academic and technical areas needed to help guide our multidisciplinary research. It was a chance for us to discuss past projects and methodological approaches, as well as to reflect on how Palimpsest is developing so far.

The afternoon began with brief presentations from the project team, covering the background to the project and the literary tasks and aims (James L), the gazetteer and textmining challenges (Bea), the mapping and database aspects (James R), social media and communications (Nicola) and finally the creation of data visualisations (Uta and David). Slides from these sessions will be available soon via our forthcoming Publications and Presentations page.

The introductions to the Palimpsest project and project team was followed by presentations by the advisory board, many of whom will soon themselves appear as guest bloggers on this blog:

Screenshot of map selector in Walking Through Time App

Screenshot of map selector in Walking Through Time App

Chris Speed (Edinburgh College of Art) discussed the concept of  “Temporal Ubiquity”: the notion that many times and places co-exist. Many of Chris’s projects have played with this idea, such as Walking Through Time which allows you to explore old maps of Edinburgh as you walk through the modern world and so experience both time periods. Chris added: “I wish I had put the Abercrombie plans into that app – a utopian future that never actually happened”. He went on to explain the ways in which technologies are supplementing our mobile temporal consciousness: we can follow long-dead people on Twitter, we can re-experience our own earlier lives through tools like TimeHop, and send messages to our future selves. All of these aspects create temporal ubiquity and provide new ways to open up and explore time and place.

David Cooper (Manchester Metropolitan University) spoke about his work as a literary geographer. David’s interest in this area began with his research on post war writers descriptions of the Lake District. Of particular interest to David is the ways in which the burden of the past affects contemporary authors, and he explores this in terms of issues of spatial intertextuality and imaginative embedding. David was involved with the digital humanities project, Mapping the Lakes, which  reapplied urban studies of literary place to rural topography, micromapping works by Thomas Gray and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This included an attempt to map authors’ emotional responses to landscapes and raised the issue of what we are doing when we attempt to map subjective emotional qualities. Finally, David emphasized the need to consider how we can convey the multisensory aspects of literary works.

Jonathan Hope (University of Strathclyde) described his research on the Visualising English Print 1470-1800 project as part of the Text Creation Partnership, a collaborative venture between universities who have been creating a corpus of works input as text (rather than just page images). From 1st January 2015, they will start making freely available the Early English Books Online texts, which range from 1450-1700. The TCP project will then move on to Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) although these present more complex copyright challenges. But it’s one thing to have the texts – what do you do with them? The team Jonathan works with is creating new tools and methodologies for working with these texts. Jonathan also raised questions for the Palimpsest team around the multidimensional nature of the data we are considering and stressed the need to enable the exploration of their intricate relations without flattening their complexity.

Jason Dykes (City University London) raised five areas of reflection for the project team to consider:

  1. Location – designing for legibility and comparison.
  2. Representation – you don’t need precision for qualitative narratives.
  3. Annotation – test as spatial information, the words are the map!
  4. Connection – maps that tell (spatial) stories.
  5. Collection – explore content through visualisation.

In discussing these areas Jason raised examples of work he and his colleagues have done at the giCentre at City University London that offer clever and playful takes on each of these dimensions.

Screenshot of the Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-61

Screenshot of the Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-61 built by Axis Maps Dr Vincent Brown’s African Rebellion Project, Harvard University.

David Heyman (Axis Maps) talked about the difference between map making and cartography, a difference which he defined as “the purposeful design of maps”. He talked about the importance of communicating a message to an audience and what that means for map design. For instance, in interactive cartography that means ensuring we design features that define functionality, communicate it to the user, and contextualise the thematic display.

Miguel Nacenta (University of St Andrews) described several ways in which meaningful distortions in visualisations can help to communicate the information shown.  FatFonts, which he created with Uta Hinrichs (on our visualisation team) and Sheelagh Carpendale, is a type face that provides a hybrid of the symbolic and the visual, by using a thickness of ink that is in proportion to the number being represented. These fonts are designed to highlight numerical changes and cluster numbers in a multilevel way to give you a sense of scale and meaning when you glance at a visualisation. Another of Miguel’s projects called Transmogrifiers enables users to interact with and transform a map to allow a new view of the information – as did the Jonson and Ward 1862 atlas, which showed rivers’ lengths juxtaposed in order to make visible a comparative sense of their scale.

The 1862 Johnson and Ward Map or Chart of the World's Mountains and Rivers - Geographicus. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The 1862 Johnson and Ward Map or Chart of the World’s Mountains and Rivers – Geographicus. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Ewan Klein (University of Edinburgh) closed the presentations with a discussion of vernacular geography – the sense of place reflected in ordinary people’s language, which reflects a vagueness in semantics, that is often not acknowledged. The Natural Neighbourhood Questionnaire included two questions: what is your postcode and where do you live. The answers suggested that there was no clear boundary between or shared definition of neighbourhoods, with a heatmap version of the responses making visible a number of in-between places and showing Leith over represented territorially, perhaps  partly due to streets such as Leith Walk , which despite their name stretch beyond Leith itself.

The day concluded with very useful discussions of future challenges and opportunities for the Palimpsest project – as well as some fantastic and inspiring resources, which will feed into our work over the coming months.

As a thank you to our advisory board, and as introduction to Edinburgh’s rich literary past, many of us followed the Methodologies Day with a literary walking tour of the city, finding out all about both some of our best known literary figures and some of their less well-known peers and inspirations for their characters. Thanks to a serendipitous accident of timing this included sighting one of Edinburgh’s most prominent present day writers, Ian Rankin, who was conveniently standing outside the very pub our guide had just mentioned as a favourite of his!

Resources and projects highlighted during the day:

– Nicola Osborne and Miranda Anderson

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