Midterm: Digital Harlem

Digital Harlem (Shane White): http://digitalharlem.org/

General Analysis: A Descriptive Review of the Digital Harlem Project

To begin, the Digital Harlem project asks a series of questions. What was the everyday life like for a black New Yorker? How do specific events from 1915-1930 Harlem relate to each other spatially and time-wise? That emphasis on daily life in the time period of the Harlem Renaissance demonstrates their argument that the daily lives of the members of the Harlem community, while in some ways very different from ours, was in as many others quite similar. Through that argument, they further humanize the people of Harlem by connecting the events of our lives to those of our own then subtly overlaying them with a spatial model. That model uniquely portrays that connection, which pushes the academic body of information about Harlem forward.
Within the model, their chosen visualizations displayed present information in a spatial manner force users to create connections and patterns between events; this presentation of information feels more telling than simply reading the information off of an archive. The interactivity, namely, the user’s ability to search for people, places, and events and overlay the results on the map allows the user to discover surprising connections and therefore make unexpected conclusions about life in Harlem. Furthermore, upon arriving on the webpage, users are presented with a “Welcome” pop-up box briefly explaining the purpose of the project. The project also displays its content in pop-up boxes, when the user clicks on the people, places, or events to learn about them. Because of the pop-up boxes the primary page never disappears, which makes navigating the project intuitive. Thus, the user organizes the pop-up boxes to personally maintain order when searching through the project, which makes the project interactive.
That interactivity helps to immerse the user in Harlem through the front-end technology used in the project. In particular, its design allows the users to choose the information that the map shows and further makes the user choose the degree of depth of the display. A user could display icons indicating locations in which burglaries happened from 1915-1930, or they could instead find information on a particular burglary. Again, the interactivity allows the user to personalize their display. On the back-end, the map refers to a database of events, people, and places in Harlem. Those people and places all arrived from research done by the developers from periodicals and other primary documents cited by the developers. Citations provide justification for all claims made within the project allowing for easy use of the project in alternative settings.
This manipulability of the project supports the perspective Shane White’s colleague and team as a whole as stated in the title of Robertson’s, a co-creator of the Digital Harlem project, article [1] on the topic: “The Digital Harlem project is a research tool.” The project succeeds as a research tool, but because of that success, the project acts as a means to perform other research and therefore loses some of the self reflection necessary for a Digital Humanities project. A project as a means ignores the focus on process over product, which again contradicts some of the basic necessities of a digital humanities project. Within the project, they chose to portray particular information, but without emphasis on reflection, they do not justify that display. Instead the user must justify that portrayal in any application, the project’s greatest failure.

Usability: Navigation, Accessibility, Design, and Interactivity

This category allows us to evaluate the project in terms of the user’s interaction with it. In that way, this category represents front-end interaction. How intuitive and pleasing is navigating the project? Navigating the Digital Harlem project is impressively easy. We located every node that we had interest in quickly and easily found any extra information on that node. While we did not find the google maps design particularly pleasing, we found it was a natural extension of the familiar service. They could add more features such as edges between the nodes, but all projects inevitably can. Overall, we give them a solid 8/10. They formed their argument with their display but did nothing surprising enough to warrant citing their style.

Persuasion: Research Question, Academic Value, Credibility, Biases, and Originality

Persuasion addresses the likelihood that we would use the information they provided us with in an argument of our own. Much like how usability represented the front-end, persuasion somewhat represents the back-end but less so. Persuasion accounts for all information going into the project before display and then the interpretation after display. How persuasive is their argument based on where their information came from and how they used it? They cite all of the sources that they use and received funding from multiple groups for their project, so they had academic support to create credibility. We trusted their information, which drove us to explore the specifics of some of their cases of thievery, manslaughter, and church going. However, as addressed above, the project lacks both self reflection and a focus on process. We may access the information but the reasoning behind the display is left as an exercise for the reader. Because of that choice, we can only give persuasion a 7/10. We still find their information well justified, but it takes our own interpretation to find biases within the information.

Personal Significance: Accounting for Personal Biases

In any review, we must account for personal bias. This point reigns especially true for criticism in academia in fields other than our own. For math majors, the history of Harlem feels somewhat distant, but we thoroughly appreciated and connected with their argument. Although, we also defined their argument, so we may simply support our interpretation already encumbered by confirmation bias. Regardless, the mapping of a disadvantaged group’s home and graphical display of their daily lives interested us. We always like to learn about disadvantaged groups, but people often discuss groups at a distance. Even within this analysis, we mainly refer to robberies and murders without acknowledging the actual daily lives of the people. The other information formed a more human realm for Harlem. We would even like to see mappings of our own areas to watch how the mappings would represent our daily lives. Overall, we give it a 9/10 for personal significance, which may suggest an inflation of our other scores.

Our overall score averages usability and persuasion and adds one tenth of personal significance, so our overall score is 8.4/11. Usability and persuasion are of equal importance, but personal significance inevitably comes into play. Our scoring system reflects that relationship.

[1] Stephen Robertson; Digital Mapping as a Research Tool: Digital Harlem: Everyday Life, 1915–1930. Am Hist Rev 2016; 121 (1): 156-166. doi: 10.1093/ahr/121.1.156

Alex Black and Jean Beecher