One way we can better use data and/or research visualization in the humanities is by taking advantage of the advanced computation and visualization resources developed for science and industry, bringing these tools to bear on humanistic research questions. Many digital humanists don't realize that high performance computing and advanced visualization resources are available to them through the nation's Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE) network.
Our 1000 Words project at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) seeks to improve access to these resources by developing the software tools, skills, and knowledge base to allow humanities researchers to use visualization - specifically on high-resolution displays powered by supercomputers – to perform novel research.
Now you might be thinking, "If we humanists are just beginning to dip our toes into the waters of visualization, do we really need advanced visualization resources? What can we possibly do with supercomputers and ultra high-resolution displays?"
Surely, in many cases, a laptop will be more than enough to achieve the goals of a visualization project. But ask yourself: How many millions of documents can you store on your hard drive? How long will it take to download them? How long to search through them? How many photographs, documents, or images of cultural artifacts can fit on a single laptop screen? How much information can you overlay on a map or a timeline without running out of space?
These are the kinds of "big data" issues that are beginning to confront the humanities, thanks to our society's exponentially increasing production of and access to digital texts, images, music and video. As the humanities liaison for a major U.S. supercomputing center and visualization lab that serves the nation's science community, I am uniquely situated to help with these problems.
Scholars like Lev Manovich, whose "cultural analytics" research explores massive cultural data sets of visual material, and Franco Moretti, whose Literary Lab at Stanford is developing new techniques of "distant reading" to study the history of the novel, are pioneers in the field.
The first fruit of our 1000 Words project at TACC is the Massive Pixel Environment (MPE), whose initial development was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. MPE makes it possible for us to quickly create interactive visualizations for ultra-high resolution display walls in collaboration with humanities scholars.
While creating visualizations using MPE does require a bit of coding, it leverages the Processing programming language -- a language designed at the MIT Media Lab for teaching visual designers how to code. Learning to code visualizations in Processing is something that can be learned in a semester, rather than four years.
This brings me to the second point I'd like to make: to make better use of visualization we need to create more institutional opportunities for students and researchers in the humanities to gain experience working across disciplines. Good visualization requires not only scholarly domain expertise, but also technical/coding expertise and information design expertise (itself a multidisciplinary field). Our siloed departments and traditional publication-based incentive structures limit the potential of students and scholars to gain the kinds of experience they need to creatively apply visualization techniques in their explorations.
Please let me know your take on these issues in the comments below, and if you are a humanist working on a project that requires more CPU cycles, more memory, or more pixels than you have at your disposal, I'd love to hear from you!
Figure 2. Dr. Tanya Clement, using ProseVis in her office and at the TACC Vislab
Figure 3. Dr. Jason Baldridge interacting with a visualization of Civil War archives in his office and at the TACC Vislab