A thorough evaluation of a spatial humanities project (2)

Part Two: Two-Dimensional Map Based Project

A Cutting-Edge Second Look at the Battle of Gettysburg of the Smithsonian Online Magazine (Smithsonian Magazine, 2013)

 A Cutting-Edge Second Look at the Battle of Gettysburg is an interactive spatial history project carried out for the Smithsonian online magazine by a team led by Historical Geographical Information Systems (HGIS) pioneer Anne Kelly Knowles. The project is a follow on from her breakthrough research work on the seminal battle which she published in a 2008 essay entitled What Could Lee See at Gettysburg? While the intended audience of that research and essay was the academic community, the Smithsonian project is aimed at the general public. Despite this, the research was carried out with the same rigorous methodological approaches and standards of the earlier research and has true academic value.

Technical overview

The interactive map is an Esri Story Map built using ArcGIS and embedded in the standard magazine format utilising an <iFrame> tag. The map itself is a javascript application delivered utilising Dojo and uses a combination HTML, CSS and graphical elements. It also contains a number of embedded panoramic views of the battle field that are static images of three-dimensional models which can be panned left or right.

Layout and description.

Annotations are placed to the left of a timeline consisting of three days; 1st June to 3rd June 1863 during which the battle took place. This timeline is segmented into fifteen clickable markers representing key events. Each marker corresponds to an individual annotation and an interactive (pan and zoom) map which is displayed on the right.

The Interactive Map of the Gettysburg battle field (Smithsonian Magazine)

The annotations consist of a title, date and time, description and some textual information in the form of a narrative. In addition, every annotation has a link to a PDF file containing sources including a bibliography, maps and atlases, as well as the digital data utilised. Six panoramic views of what was visible by commanders in the field are also included amongst the annotations.

Panoramic simulated view of what Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard’s vista could have been from Cemetery Hill

The maps themselves have very detailed information relating to infantry, artillery, and cavalry positions with directional arrows indicating movements and symbols for skirmishes. Each brigade marker is annotated with the commanding officer’s name on mouse over. The map has a drop down legend from where a contemporary satellite image or a historical map can be chosen as the base map.

The Interactive Map of Gettysburg battle field showing a contemporary satellite image (Smithsonian Magazine)

The historical map is based on the 1863 terrain researched from various historical maps, including Bachelder’s 1876 troop movement maps, which were combined with present-day digital data. The same techniques applied by Knowles in her 2008 research were utilised to produce the most salient feature of the maps, the “viewsheds”.

A ‘viewshed’ showing which terrain it was possible to see from the vantage point indicated by the eye symbol. The shading in dark gray indicates areas hidden from view.

Created with ArcGIS software, these viewsheds indicate what a particular commanders could see, and could not see, from his vantage point at a decisive moments during the battle. (Smithsonian 2013) What is not visible to the commander is shaded dark gray, whereas the areas visible remain unshaded. It was these sight lines which showed what General Robert E. Lee could not see during the engagements which advanced the appreciation of what HGIS could bring to historical research. (Journal of Empire Studies)

User experience

The article and map published in June 2013 already look dated and cluttered compared to other more recent projects of this kind with equally complex data such as Stanford University’s Arrest of Italian Jews 1943-45. Its most obvious flaw on the Smithsonian website relate to its absolute dimensions of 1072 X 700px. With the dimensions specified in pixels the map is not responsive and therefore not suitable for mobile devices. The absolute pixel dimensions also make the map difficult to use on most desktop monitors, for example, the time line markers are grouped very close together and due to their small size are not user-friendly. A full screen option would have made the map much more user friendly. It required an examination of the source code to discover that the map also resides on the Esri server and is capable of being shared, embedded, and view at full screen at this address: https://storymaps.esri.com/stories/2013/gettysburg/

The Ersi hosted map is responsive to a degree, but becomes problematic at resolutions less then 750px in width.

The static nature of the project is disappointing and there is nothing in its presentation which would be out of place on a website built ten years earlier. The key element missing is motion, particularly considering the nature of the topic which focuses on events unfolded in time through motion in a landscape. However, this could have possibly been beyond the scope of the project and perhaps beyond the technology of the 2013.

Access

In keeping with the commissioning body’s ethos the project is freely available and the intended audience is the general public . However, there is a distinct lack of practices which are becoming common in digital humanities projects of this kind, such as a commitment to open licenses (usually Creative Commons) and utilising opensource technology in conjunction with opendata. The means of presentation and technologies used in this project are all proprietary and mostly copyright of Esri whose technologies dominate HGIS research in the USA. However, the ArcGIS Story Map platform produced by Esri has a limited function version which is free for non-commercial use. (Story Map website)

Conclusion

The project is one which offers historians, and non-specialists alike, new ways to view a seminal event of American History. As with the original 2008 project, new insights as to why certain decisions, which seemed inexplicable for so long, might have been made are explored by examining what could or could not be known by those taking part for whom visual reconnaissance was still the most important form of intelligence.

What lets down the project more than anything else is the restrictive and cluttered interface which is neither attractive nor user friendly. The contemporary expectations of most internet users today are formed within the context of a hyper graphical and visually stimulating environment. There is no reason why work which has been done with such integrity and has so much to offer in terms of knowledge, insights, and engagement, should not also engage with those expectations and be visually attractive and user friendly.

Works cited:

‘A Cutting-Edge Second Look at the Battle of Gettysburg’. Smithsonian, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/A-Cutting-Edge-Second-Look-at-the-Battle-of-Gettysburg-1-180947921/. 2013. Accessed 22 Nov. 2017.

Story Maps http://storymaps.arcgis.com/en/. Accessed 23 Nov. 2017.

‘Looking at the Battle of Gettysburg Through Robert E. Lee’s Eyes’. Smithsonian, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/looking-at-the-battle-of-gettysburg-through-robert-e-lees-eyes-136851113/. 2012. Accessed 22 Nov. 2017.

‘What Could Lee See at Gettysburg?’ Journal of Empire Studies, 20 Sept. 2013, http://empirestudies.com/2013/09/20/what-could-lee-see-at-gettysburg/.

 

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