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Content Matters Interview: An Interview with David McClure of the Neatline Project

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In this installment of the Content Matters interview series of the National Digital Stewardship Alliance Content Working Group we’re featuring an interview with David McClure, a Web Applications Specialist on the R&D team at the Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia. David is working on the Omeka + Neatline project and pursuing research projects that explore the idea that software can be used as a tool to inform, extend, and advance traditional lines of inquiry in literary theory and aesthetics.

David McClure
David McClure

David was a big part of our Why Digital Maps Can Reboot Cultural History panel at the South By Southwest 2013 conference and brings a unique background to his work with digital maps and cultural heritage.

Butch: Tell us briefly about what the Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia Library does and the philosophy behind it.

David: The Scholars’ Lab is a digital humanities center at the University of Virginia Library. The lab was formed in 2006 by combining three longstanding departments into one – an electronic text center, a team of GIS and social science data specialists, and a research computing service from UVa’s central IT division. Now, we’re a two-part organization: We have a public-services team that does classroom teaching, project consulting, and runs a high-end computing lab, and a research and development group that builds digital humanities software behind the scenes. I’m one of the engineers in the R&D outfit.

We build new software like Neatline, assist with faculty projects, and provide general consultation services about digital research methods. There’s also a big focus on maintaining active research profiles on an individual basis – on top of the regularly-scheduled projects, Scholars’ Lab staff devote 20% of their time to completely independent research efforts. These have been extremely productive over the course of the last few years, resulting in major projects like Blacklight and Neatline.

The Scholar's Lab. Photo Credit: David McClure
The Scholar’s Lab. Photo Credit: Jeremy Boggs

We’re also really committed to the ongoing effort to rethink graduate education in the humanities. We’re currently in the second year of the Praxis Program, a fellowship that brings together a group of six graduate students for a year-long bootcamp that teaches the skills needed to build collaborative digital projects – programing, design, usability testing, communications, project management, etc.

Butch: Tell us briefly about your background and how you ended up at the Scholar’s Lab.

David: I have a sort of zig-zagging academic background. I went to a specialized math and science boarding academy for high school, but then went to Yale and majored in the “Humanities,” an interdisciplinary program that combines literary studies, philosophy, and intellectual history.

I started programming sort of by accident at the end of college, and fell completely in love with it. It was a perfect combination of math and literature – artistic and analytical at the same time. After graduating in 2009, I realized that there was a whole community of people in the digital humanities with the same combination of interests. I shifted into full-time work as an independent developer after about a year, built a couple side projects, and had the good fortune of joining the group here at the Scholars’ Lab in spring of 2011.

The Neatline tool in action.
The Neatline tool in action.

Butch: Talk about the Neatline project. How is Neatline different from other mapping projects that work to make historic mapping materials more accessible?

David: In the past, digital maps have often been used as purely analytical tools – a lot of work has focused on creating automatic visualizations of large historical data sets that are too big to reason about without the aid of the computer. Those approaches are incredibly effective, but they’re also a departure from how humanists are used to thinking about concept of place– as something contextual and subjective, a shifting landscape that means different things to different people at different times.

Neatline is interested in offering a qualitative complement to the quantitative methodologies. We’re trying to build a set of tools that make it possible to create really interpretive maps that are capable of representing narrative progression, uncertainty, and change over time.

Butch: How have the technologies of digital mapping changed over the past five years? How have those changes affected the work you do?

David: Actually, I’d argue that a lot of the core technologies we’re using to build web-based mapping applications haven’t changed that much in the last five years – but that they’re going to change a lot in the next five years. A lot of the libraries and components that we use in projects like Neatline are pretty established codebases that first emerged in the mid-2000′s. A lot of those projects are getting towards the end of their life-cycles, which opens up space for new approaches. For example, we’ve been really excited to watch the early stages of development on OpenLayers 3.0, which we’ll integrate into Neatline as soon as it gets to a stable release.

Also, although it’s not specific to geospatial programming, I think one of the big stories from the last couple years is the explosive growth of the JavaScript ecosystem, which has become an incredibly vibrant space. Some of the smartest developers in the world are writing JavaScript, and they’ve produced some really sophisticated tooling that makes it possible to build complex applications in the browser that can do things that would have been limited to desktop applications in the past. I don’t think we’re anywhere close to exhausting the new possibilities that this opens up.

Looking forward, I think a big paradigmatic shift is the move to 3D representations of terrain on the web (like Google Earth, but implemented natively in the browser). There are lots of interesting ideas that open up once you have access to the vertical axis – I’m excited to get my hands dirty with it.

Butch: Where are the current gaps in terms of tools and services to help digital storytellers do their work with maps? What are some tools, approaches or initiatives that might remake the future landscape of digital mapping?

A screenshot of one of the Jedediah Hotchkiss maps in the Neatline tool.
A screenshot of one of the Jedediah Hotchkiss maps in the Neatline tool.

David: Thinking back on the last couple months of work on Neatline, two things come to mind. First, I think that existing tools for drawing visual annotations on maps are less sophisticated than what’s available in other domains. When you look at old hand-drawn maps, there’s often an incredibly intricate level of interpretive illustration that’s layered on top of the basic geography – the map is a canvas, not just a spatial grid. Most digital map-making frameworks, though, expose a pretty simplistic set of annotation tools – points, lines, polygons, etc.

In the current release of Neatline we’ve made it possible to take SVG vector graphics created in programs like Adobe Photoshop and Inkscape – which make it easy to create really complex, smooth geometries – and import them directly into Neatline and drag them out to a specific size and orientation on the digital map. (I wrote about this recently on our blog). This is a big step forward, but we can still do better – I’d like to see really powerful vector editing tools integrated directly into the spatial environment.

Second, I’d argue that spatial “storytelling” is still an unsolved problem in many ways. It’s easy to show where things are on maps, but how do you represent the kinds of progressions and movements that make stories work? We’ve experimented with a lot of user-interface approaches to this problem (numbered labels, timelines, waypoints that point at specific objects or locations). But I’ve always felt that something was lacking.

I think part of the problem is that “stories” often have a kind of original, native existence as texts – stories tend to be spoken or written, and there can be something disconcerting about trying to depart too dramatically from that basic format. We’ve been experimenting with new approaches that try to combine the narrative power of texts and the graphical interactivity of digital maps. We’re currently working on a project called “Neatline Editions” that will make it possible to link individual paragraphs, sentences, and words in a text document with objects and locations on a map.

Butch: In NDIIPP we’ve started to think more about “access” as a driver for the preservation of digital materials. To what extent do preservation considerations come into play with the work that you do? How does the provision of enhanced access support the long-term preservation of digital geospatial information?

David: I tend to think of preservation and access as two sides of the same coin – each validates and reinforces the importance of the other. In fact, Neatline emerged from a positive feedback loop between the two. Back in 2009, the Scholars’ Lab had just finished building a new portal website that made it easier for library users to search for geospatial holdings. Once that foundational work was in place, though, the question became: What do youdo once you find these materials? How do you make sense of them? How do you make arguments about them? Show them to other people? Mix and match them into new combinations?

Neatline was an effort to answer those kinds of questions, to make spatial materials accessible and actionable in new and interesting ways. When people do interesting things with the content, it builds a whole community of users committed to sustained, long-term preservation efforts.

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