Network visualizations at times are difficult to comprehend. From a theoretical standpoint, they make sense: Show links between and among different data to understand how and why they are connected. But the jumble of lines that results from network visualizations may suggest only that the relationships are complicated. Scholar Scott Weingart, who argues that “networks are great,” also has outlined a number of problems with them, including that they can be “deceitful.”1
In an introductory course in digital public humanities, we used a web-based application called Palladio. Developed at Stanford University, Palladio grew out of work done for the Mapping the Republic of Letters project.
Using Palladio is easy: Copy and paste data from a spreadsheet, or upload files in CSV or other tabular format, and then choose what and how to see the data. The result is presented as a network visualization.
This is where the value of a network visualization has to be considered. Not all visualizations, as Weingart suggests, create appropriate meaning. I ran into this problem while looking at some of the visualizations of data drawn from the Library of Congress collection “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938.” Some of the visualizations did not seem to offer much information. For example, a visualization linking interviewers with the type of work (house, field, or undetermined) performed by the former slaves did not seem to illuminate much of anything. Granted, part of the problem is explained by my inexperience with networks and with this specific digital humanities tool.
However, other visualizations led to formulation of additional questions about the meaning of the data. That, after all, is the point of a network visualization and of the outputs from other digital humanities tools. For example, in examining a network visualization of frequently occurring words from interviews with former slaves in Alabama, differences are observed between female and male subjects. This should prompt the researcher to dig deeper into why the differences exist. The visualization is not the answer, but the spark for a line of further research.
Palladio network visualizations may be exported as SVG graphics or JSON files, although the readability of the graphics left much to be desired. (Note: On a Macintosh computer, Palladio was not usable in the Firefox browser because certain functions could not be seen. Safari worked well.)
1. Scott Weingert, “Networks Demystified 8: When Networks are Inappropriate,” The Scottbot Irregular, published November 5, 2013, accessed October 22, 2016, http://www.scottbot.net/HIAL/index.html@p=39600.html.