Blog Post

Intro post and GeoJSON project

Intro post and GeoJSON project

Hello HASTAC community! After a semester of DH involvement without any documentation to show for it, HASTAC blogging is definitely at the top of my New Year’s Resolutions list. But for now, here’s my intro post, and a little bit about a recent project.

My name is Tim Foster, graduate student in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN. I’m also a graduate affiliate at Vanderbilt’s Center for Second Language Studies (CSLS), my HASTAC sponsor. Among my interests are early modern Spanish and Spanish American literature and culture, Spanish and Portuguese language learning, and the Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James) pilgrimage. At the CSLS we have several working groups for DH tools where we come together to discuss, try out, tinker, and make mistakes together. We’ve worked with several interactive geospatial tools (Neatline, GeoJSON), some data visualization tools (Gephi) as well as TEI, where we’re currently experimenting with a collaborative group encoding of a corpus of texts along with a group from our campus library.

Recently I was invited to present as part of a panel to show fellow graduate students what kinds of projects were possible in the Digital Humanities. I was grateful for the invite as well as a deadline to make substantial progress on a backburner project. Here’s a little background to the project. As a scholar interested in the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage towards the shrine of St. James in northwestern Spain, as I walked four different paths in the last five years I became interested in the popular response to modern pilgrimage. I started collecting photos of what I call “folk shrines” or makeshift monuments, signs, or objects placed in public view left by locals or pilgrims that seem to dialogue with the meaning of the pilgrimage experience. These may range from graffiti, to commemorative plaques of pilgrims who died on the route, to roadside aid stations, to homemade statues of saint iconography.

If I was going to do anything with this great data (more than 50 “folk shrines”, I first had to organize it, and that’s where interactive mapping came in. I started by painstakingly locating each object geographically with latitude and longitude (next time I’ll bring a GPS camera!). After experimenting with GeoJSON in our CSLS working group, I decided to use and expand the code template that my HASTAC mentor had written to get us started. GeoJSON (from Wikipedia) is an “open standard format for encoding collections of simple geographical features along with their non-spatial attributes using JavaScript Object Notation” (JSON). The basic input needed to make a useable map were latitude/longitude coordinates, image/website URLs (I uploaded my photos to a photosharing site), and descriptions of each point/shrine. We’re embedding the map in HTML using a MapBox basemap.

I've posted a few screenshots of my project (it's currently not publicly hosted) to give you an idea of how my project looks. Each point, color coded by pilgrimage route, represents a folk shrine, and you can click on a shrine to bring up a box showing a photo of the shrine and a short description. Aside from attractive presentation for conference papers, this interactive map can be used for research and teaching purposes. Already, I’ve begun to analyze patterns in the data, such as differences in the shrines between routes, differences as you get closer to the destination, and the absence of shrines in rural areas (cities with population greater than 100,000 are marked in yellow).

I’m really excited about the concept of the map in teaching, because at Vanderbilt we have a May term course where students walk portions of the pilgrimage. Next summer, we're planning to have students do a similar project based on significant sites they find of personal, historic, or some other importance.

This brings up my final point. We aren't sure for the Camino course if we're going to use GeoJSON for the project, or something more basic like Google Maps. I was in the process of finishing my GeoJSON project for a presentation this fall, I noticed that Google Maps had recently updated its "My Maps" feature to have a lot of the same functionality as what I was doing with GeoJSON. For example, you can easily tag points on a map and have a text box come up with title, description, photo, and multimedia links. You can also create lines, and even map layers that can be turned off and on, depending on what you want to see. That map can then be saved and shared with others as a link.

 I think there are a few advantages and disadvantages of each medium. For example with Google Maps, the burden of learning the technology is easier, and it's already hosted and shareable so you don't have to worry about a server. However, the points do have advertisements on them (you can remove them, but it gets tedious), and Google Maps lacks some of the functionality of GeoJSON, such as use of historical base maps, map animation, etc.

I had to do this project over again, I might honestly do it using Google Maps, but at the same time it has been a great learning experiment to tinker with code in a new fairly easy-to-use format (GeoJSON).

What do you think? What are the advantages to toughing it out at the code level and using something easier like Google?

Thanks for reading, and I hope to talk more in 2015.


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