Reposted from the Cardus After Hours blog (RIP).
Stanford University has conducted a fascinating data visualization project called Mapping the Republic of Letters. It looks at key historic intellectuals and the networks they maintained via letter writing long, long before digital communication was possible. This is an intriguing application of computer-based data mapping for social science and humanities work. For example, despite a presumed fascination with English democracy and tolerance, Voltaire's letter writing has almost no connection to England despite being prolific in many other circles.
This is yet another argument for the importance that the shapes of networks has for deeper understanding of dynamics, change, and connectivity. I've been working on network topography for approaching city building where I argue (along with others, happily) that the shapes of various networks are critical to understanding what they do and why in addition to being the best indicators we have of future performance—insight without prediction, so to speak. Applying this to areas in the humanities where the data sets are too large for single-human processing seems to be another valuable angle.
Below, see the respective networks of Locke in orange and Voltaire in blue (animated versions available on the website and YouTube).
You can view the project, video introduction and mapping approaches here.
Their approach is to take tens of thousands of letters and through the assistance of computers, begin to understand the dynamics of the connections in ways that are not possible without the assistance of analytical computing and the resulting visualizations:
Mapping the Republic of Letters has at its center a multidimensional data set which spans 300 years and nearly 100,000 letters. We use computing tools that help us to measure and analyze data quantitatively, though that will not take us to our goal. While we use software and computing techniques that were designed for scientific and statistical methods, we are seeking to develop computing tools to enhance humanistic methods, to help us to explore qualitative aspects of the Republic of Letters. The subject of our study and the nature of the material require it. The collections of correspondence and records of travel from this period are incomplete. Of that incomplete material only a fraction has been digitized and is available to us. Making connections and resolving ambiguities in the data is something that can only be done with the help of computing, but cannot be done by computing alone.