Ben Schmidt, assistant professor of history at Northeastern University, has visualized the routes of 19th Century ships using publicly available data set from NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). The resulting image is a hauntingly beautiful image that outlines the continents and highlights the trade winds. It shows major ports, and even makes a strong visual case for the need for the Panama and Suez Canals.
For Schmidt, this was an exercise in working with datasets and its context to history and humanity.
Ship’s logs can illustrate what it might mean to build this historical expertise on a digital source base.
The data that Schmidt used was originally created by 19th Century oceanographer Lt. Matthew Fontaine Maury from ships’ logs. Maury was one of the first to take a large collection of “analogue” information and “digitize” it. Schmidt noted, in a blog post that Maury did this before the advent of computers.
…the essence of digitization is abstraction. Abstraction necessarily entails loss; but it also enables new connections by making things directly comparable that weren’t before.
Maury took the “analogue” stories and experiential nature of the ships logs and abstracted it to something that is useful as an aggregate set.
The whaling ship logbooks I’ve been looking at started as incredibly detailed, analogue, accounts of a voyage. They were written without any standard forms… They included, for example, hand-carved stamps made by the sailors themselves, saying whether a whale was seen, wounded, or killed…
The result of Maury’s work, though lacking its original humanistic richness, was now standardized and abstracted. They all can be viewed within a context of other entries. Maury had used the logs to chart ocean currents and track the migration patterns of whales. This lead to his advocacy for the Northwest Passage.
For further reading on the digitization and abstraction of data, visit Ben Schmidt’s blog, Sapping Attention.