Monday, June 12, 2006

An Experimental Interface

This whole week I'm at the Doing Digital History workshop sponsored by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. There's a great bunch of people, a lot of interesting sessions and good ideas flying around. In short, it's nerdvana for digital historians. One of the workshop activities is regular blogging so I will try to post something here at the end of each day.

The first activity today was to self-organize into small groups and study a number of different websites, talking them over together while surfing through them. In itself, that was an interesting activity; as Josh Greenberg noted, we rarely surf as a communal or conversational practice. My favorite site was HistoryWired at the Smithsonian, which has an admittedly experimental interface that uses something like a heatmap (aka treemap) to cross-classify 450 interesting objects from the 3 million the institution has. It takes a while to get used to the HistoryWired interface, and a number of the workshop participants found it to be too visually busy and resource-intensive for their taste. What I liked about it was that the more that I played with it, the more features I discovered. It is possible to zoom into a particular region of the collection, to explore classes of artifacts with a timeline, and to get an immediate visual sense of the overlap of particular categories. Given the roots of this kind of representation in data mining and visualization, I imagine that the interface would scale up quite nicely if it were used as the front-end for a very large collection of sources. Judging from the criticism of the workshop group, I suspect that this is not a successful way to present history to the general public, but it could be a very useful exploratory tool for some kinds of research.

Tags: | |