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Digital Humanities - Introduction: Working with Data

Introducing Digital Humanities methods, practices and support at Exeter

Data visualisation

Working with data, whether networks of individual correspondents, tables of historical financial transactions, literary references, or results from archaeological surveys, can often require interpretation visually. There are a number of toolkits that can deal with specific or general types of data, and these can uncover patterns in your data that would be difficult to infer without digital tools.

D3: Data-Driven Documents
D3.js is a JavaScript library for manipulating documents based on data. D3 helps you bring data to life using HTML, SVG, and CSS. D3’s emphasis on web standards gives you the full capabilities of modern browsers without tying yourself to a proprietary framework, combining powerful visualization components and a data-driven approach to DOM manipulation.

Data cleaning

When working with data, it is almost always necessary to spend a good portion of time cleaning and standardizing that data for analysis or presentation. This is especially true when re-purposing data created by others (always ensure you have permission and give due credit). Useful resources for this work include:

  • OpenRefine (formerly Google Refine) is a powerful tool for working with messy data: cleaning it; transforming it from one format into another; and extending it with web services and external data.
  • Authority Lists: wherever possible you should use existing standards and commonly used authority files in order to create interoperable data. For example, VIAF: The Virtual International Authority File and Geonames for people and place identifiers.

Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science/Humanities

There are still many tasks that cannot easily be performed by computers, and especially in the Humanities, the creation of usable research data often involves human intervention, even if on a basic level. Crowdsourcing can often create or enhance research data by asking participants to make judgements about the properties of artefacts, by deciphering handwriting or by interpreting basic information.

The most popular crowdsourcing platform is Zooniverse, which has a variety of projects that you can get directly involved and engaged with, from transcribing ships' logs to understand old weather, to deciphering ancient manuscripts and military field reports.

Mapping and GIS

Geospatial technologies, which include application-based GIS systems, webmapping, and spatial network analysis, are used to define spatial relationships, both in relative terms and in with regards to their absolute position on the planet's surface.


  • The ability to compare independently produced datasets; offer topographical, environmental and political context; produce compelling and informative visualizations at a range of scales
  • Potentially relate a historically remote period or even fictional events to the user's experiential knowledge (e.g. 'Sherlock Holmes' London').
  • The interactive nature of digital media also allow for a much greater range of complexity to be managed, manipulated and viewed than is possible with paper maps.

Specific challenges

  • The need to reduce complex real-world phenomena into simplified sets of abstract symbols
  • The application of spherical co-ordinate systems to a planet that does not perfectly conform to them
  • The projection of 3-dimensional data onto a planar surface (whether a printed map or a computer monitor)

In addition to these, the Digital Humanities considers such approaches as they apply to humanistic questions - how can they be used with incomplete, uncertain, contested and conflicting data? How might qualitative attributes such as emotional or political sentiment be captured? And how do we present results in a manner that conveys our conclusions, without eliminating important nuances, to an audience that may be unfamiliar with them?

The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the future of humanities scholarship (e-book)

The Spatial Humanities aims to re-orient--and perhaps revolutionize--humanities scholarship by critically engaging the technology and specifically directing it to the subject matter of the humanities. To this end, the contributors explore the potential of spatial methods such as text-based geographical analysis, multimedia GIS, animated maps, deep contingency, deep mapping, and the geo-spatial semantic web.

Toward Spatial Humanities: Historical GIS and Spatial History (e-book)

Describing a wide variety of applications, the essays in this volume highlight the methodological and substantive implications of a spatial approach to history. They illustrate how the use of GIS is changing our understanding of the geographies of the past and has become the basis for new ways to study history.

A Primer of GIS: Fundamental Geographic and Cartographic Concepts, Second Edition (journal)

This accessible text prepares students to understand and work with geographic information systems (GIS), offering a detailed introduction to essential theories, concepts, and skills.

Deep Maps and Spatial Narratives (e-book)

Deep maps are finely detailed, multimedia depictions of a place and the people, buildings, objects, flora, and fauna that exist within it and which are inseparable from the activities of everyday life. The essays in this book investigate deep mapping and the spatial narratives that stem from it.

Mapping Space, Sense, and Movement in Florence (e-book)

Case studies in the use of Geographical Information Systems and spatial methods, applied to a specific region.

Spatial Technology and Archaeology

This book examines spatial databases; the acquisition and compilation of data; the analytical compilation of data; the analytical functionality of GIS; and the creation and utilization of critical foundation data layers such as the Digital Elevation Model (DEM). The ways in which GIS can most usefully facilitate archaeological analysis and interpretation are then explored particularly as a tool for the management of archaeological resources.

Data management

Data management is the development of processes and procedures to suit a project's, or an organisation’s data requirements; processes and procedures are supported by an infrastructure, to protect and organise information assets. The concept emerged in the 1980s following the move from sequential processing to random access processing. Data management encompasses the detailed consideration of the following areas: database systems, masterdata and metadata management, quality control, integration definition, warehousing, transformation, governance and architecture. A Data Management Framework (DMF) is a system of thinking which allows a user of the Framework to correctly view data related concepts, and such frameworks are often applied in data management.


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