Timelines and Ethics

Hello again! As promised, I’m back this week with a discussion about ethics and portraying history.

Timelines are a really great way to put a lot of information into an easily understandable linear format. They can help us visually portray trends as well as changes and progress. Timelines, however, also can be very misleading. To demonstrate this, I have a meme:

Do not use this for a world history exam!

I have no comment on the historical accuracy of this video. While it does cover actual historical events, its primary purpose is humor and entertainment. What I do want to comment on is how fast the narrator has to speak to cover everything and that he resorts to witty remarks to encapsulate entire chunks of time. Even though this isn’t something like Timelinejs, it is going over a timeline of events, and when covering a large swath of time, you lose a lot of nuance. For the purposes of this video, that’s okay, it’s supposed to be funny and while you can learn from it, that isn’t its primary goal.

When you’re using a timeline for educational purposes, however, you have to be more careful. This is especially true if you’re covering a history of violence or colonialism. Timelines are a neat and streamlined way to express information, and, as such, have been used to erase the stories of the less powerful. The ethical concerns with timelines are the same ethical concerns with writing any history, they are only exaggerated by the necessary brevity of any explanation on a timeline.

TimelineJS, for example, doesn’t have a strict character-limit on their platform, but they do advise to keep descriptions brief. This is because anything too wordy would be hard to follow on a timeline. TimelineJS also recommends keeping timelines below 20 events. People can get easily overwhelmed by a timeline with a lot of events to cycle through, not to mention that loading takes longer the more information to put in.

At the end of the day, timelines can reinforce dominant narratives or they can work against them. The TimelineJS recommendations are just that, recommendations. History, especially the history of violence or colonialism, demands context. If you feel you need more than twenty slides to do something justice, then take up that challenge!

See you all in two weeks and have a Happy Fall Break!

DHC Weekly 9/18- Asking more of Wikipedia

Who remembers being told by teachers that Wikipedia is not a reliable source? I sure do, but how do we begin to address the biases and problems with Wikipedia?

This week’s blog post is a response to the Disrupt Wikipedia event that took place in Butler Library on Monday. The panel discussion on Wikipedia was moderated by Columbia’s Wikipedian-in-Residence, Darold Cuba, with special guests Sherry Antione of Afrocrowd and Merrilee Proffitt who wrote “Leveraging Wikipedia: Connection Communities of Knowledge.”

What I found so wonderful about the panel was its candid discussion of Wikipedia, its failures and its successes. Wikipedia has become huge since its launch in 2001. There’s a lot of room for really radical work to be done with this platform. For one thing, it’s open-source. As much as academics have traditionally scoffed at its usage, there is something to be said for Wikipedia’s reach. Not everyone has access to libraries full of peer-reviewed resources on any topic imaginable. Wikipedia also has entries in 304 languages, making it more accessible than even the most conscientious academic journal. This all being said, with great power comes great responsibility and there are real problems of representation in the world of Wikipedia.

“This is the new encyclopedia for the world’s history and the world’s knowledge,” explained Sherry Antione, “all history and all human knowledge should be by all people.”

“All history and all human knowledge should be by all people.”

But that’s simply not the case for Wikipedia as it exists right now. Antione works for an organization called Afrocrowd, which seeks to improve the number of people of African descent editing and even reading Wikipedia.

Right now only 9% of Wikipedia editors are cis-women and only 1% are trans-women. The other 90% are men and though we don’t have the statistics on race, anecdotally, the situation isn’t great. Wikipedia doesn’t even track the races of its editors, which has its own baggage. Our own Wikipedian-in-Residence, Meredith Wisner, presented on Wikipedia and representation.

Meredith Wisner, Barnard Art and Architecture Librarian and Wikipedian-In-Residence

These issues with representation have effects on what topics are covered on Wikipedia and how. Only 18% of biographies on Wikipedia are of women. “There are gaps so large on Wikipedia that I think you could drive a truck through it,” explained Merrilee Proffitt. This isn’t just a problem in Wikipedia, however, it’s a reflection of a much broader issue. “Wikipedia may have gaps and biases, but so do our libraries, so do publishing industries,” she reminded us.

Like our libraries and our publishing industries, the solution isn’t to cut off any association with the site, allowing the biases and gaps to remain. The way to fix Wikipedia is just simply to fix it. “It’s forgotten in many ways that you can edit Wikipedia,” Proffitt said.

The reality is that Wikipedia does lend itself to discursive practice. You can edit entries that have gaps or biases. Those edits can be edited by another user with something important to add. Importantly, these edits are logged. You can see how the representation of a topic has changed over time. There is an opportunity for us to make Wikipedia a source worth referencing, but to do that we need to edit. The problem of representation occurs when editing Wikipedia is put on a pedestal, something that only experts do. This isn’t true. Anyone can be a Wikipedia editor and everyone has something valuable to add, that’s the beauty of a platform as open as Wikipedia.

I wasn’t a Wikipedia editor before Monday, but I am now. It’s easy to sign up and you don’t have to create a whole new entry in your first week. Maybe start with a small edit on an entry that has a grammatical error. Or maybe add a section that was left out in the biography of a figure you know a little about. As Wisner explained in her presentation, “if you mess up, that’s okay, someone will come around and fix your mistake!”

This photo is featured on the event’s Wikipedia page and in it I’m editing a Wikipedia page, talk about meta.

This is all to say, “why not try?” I’m excited to explore more of what being a Wikipedia editor really means and I hope you all will look into it as well. The DHC has held Wikipedia Edit-a-Thons in the past and while being an editor is not a prerequisite in the slightest, it may save you some time if you come to one in the future!

Happy Editing!!!

DHC Weekly Blog 8/26: What you show matters!

Hello all! I’m not sure if you were all aware, but there are fires in the Amazon.

I’m Taylor, by the way. I’m the new post-baccalaureate fellow for the Digital Humanities Center with an introduction post to come soon. Before that, however, I want to talk about a subject near and dear to my heart: the Amazon Rainforest.

In this week’s blog post, I’m going to review two maps of the fires that I have seen on social media. One is from Business Insider and the other is from a British news site called Express. There is a lot of media coverage of these fires and, as such, I’d like to take the time to go over how important data visualization is in this coverage. Our previous fellow, Sylvia, made some great guides about mapping tools and I’d like to expand that conversation. Maps can fundamentally change the way that information is reported and interpreted. Remember, there is no such thing as a purely objective report.

SOURCE This looks… bad

Above is a map that I’ve seen circulating a lot over social media. It depicts South America with a large swath of red. There isn’t a caption to this image as it was originally from a video. When you look at this, it looks bad… really bad. The way the data is portrayed suggests that the fires in the rainforest are, actually, just one, catastrophically huge fire that threatens to consume the entire country. It opens eyes. It has a sense of urgency. People see this and are ready to get on a plane. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this sense of urgency, but the data is portraying a situation that is not the reality of Brazil right now.

SOURCE: The caption on Business Insider was “This map shows every fire that has started burning since August 13th across South America. Courtesy of Global Fire Watch”

When you see this map, it still looks bad. It still gives a sense of urgency; however, if you look at the caption and more closely at the map, you see that it is not just one big fire, but hundreds of little fires. Not only this, but the caption explains that these are all of the fires since August 13th. While the caption doesn’t say that some of these fires are now out, it does at least suggest this.

The difference in these maps is important. The map from Global Fire Watch and Business Insider portrays a situation that is much closer to reality. There is not one fire ravaging the Amazon, but many little fires. This data visualization is important because there are so many articles right now that are telling different stories. None of them are entirely wrong. They’re using different data and it’s confusing.

The situation in the Amazon is that there have been many fires this month. Many of which have been started intentionally for agricultural purposes. When you put up a map like the first one, people think it’s a natural disaster. It isn’t. What’s going on in the Amazon is human-led deforestation and, while tragic, it is no accident. We need to shift the conversation to why those fires are started in the first place and how to move towards sustainable development. Portraying these fires as accidental obscures the need for a candid conversation about business interests and how they impact the environment.

You may be thinking, “Wait, Taylor, this is all science stuff. What does that have to do with digital humanities?” And to that, I say, “everything.” While these maps may be portraying an environmental issue, what we learn from it is relevant to all disciplines. When you use maps for a project, know that you are responsible for how they are read. As previously mentioned, no map is free from bias or agenda. It’s easy in disciplines that aren’t “hard sciences” to get the brunt of the subjectivity critique, but the fact of the matter is that even “hard sciences” are subject to biases and should go about research carefully.

As researchers, in any discipline, it is important to realize the power of data visualization and to need to wield that power responsibly.