Monday, November 29, 2010

Imperial Russian Maps and the Digital Peasant Project

Take a look at what I've just found on Wikimedia.

Tambov governorate 1822

This is the Tambov Province of Imperial Russia, circa 1822.  What makes this remarkable, at least to me, is that this high-quality image is available online, easy to access and share.  If curiosity took me to wonder how far apart villages described in police reports were from each other in the Tambov Province, I can now easily look this information up for myself using superb digital tools.  Before finding these maps, I had to find an archive that contained a copy of the Russian atlas I needed (there were a few made during the Imperial period), then schedule time to actually visit the archive and then I had to sit down and either take pencil notes on paper or use my laptop to record my thoughts.  Usually I could not even think of taking a picture for my own use and the reproduction fees could often be exorbitant enough to prohibit any more than a few copies to be made.  Now- poof! - via the magic that is the Internet, I can download these images and make much more detailed observations in my own time.

Total EU Subsides
Recently I wrote on the Digital Humanities and the potential this new avenue of sources could bring to the study of History, in particular noting a specific project involving Russian peasants that would utilize written records to create an accessible and searchable archive.  Although I did not have a specific model for this database of information to take, I was recently inspired by a EU project to make publicly available data on the money spent on fishing vessel subsidies among the various member nations.  The result is, a website that has an interactive map giving the viewer a visual look at where and how EU money was spent, with additional details provided as to who received the money and for what specific purpose.

'Modernization' EU Subsidies
I love maps.  Even in digital form they immediately capture the imagination, giving shape and definition to spaces most of us probably will never visit.  Yet the underlying purpose of the map- to graphically display geographical knowledge with layers of additional meaning as provided by the cartographer- makes it one of the best tools for quick comprehension of data scattered over distances.  What makes the FishSubsidies map great is that I can easily see what areas command the most EU money in a given project area, be that modernization or construction of new vessels, as well as acquire a general feel for the importance of such money on local economies.  Without knowing specifics about the various nature of ports documented on the map, with a quick toggle of layers I can quickly grasp the 'industrial layout' of where certain industries related to fishing are concentrated.  Maps are simply superb tools for data comprehension and connection.

This brings me back to what I'm dubbing the Digital Peasant Project, by which I mean a concerned effort to document all available written resources dealing with the life of Peasants.  This is obviously a rather large field, so initial efforts could focus on well established records of, say, peasant disturbances noted in police or government reports as a starting point.  There would need to be a standard of notation, so that many people could contribute their specific knowledge or documented sources, and an online wiki or other easily modifiable and shareable resource in order to allow coordination and collectivization of materials.

Once the data begins to be collected, a similar mapping project akin to the FishSubsidies project could be implemented giving the viewer an easy to read visual map of various peasant trends.  Given enough data input one could dynamically view events such as peasant resistance to raising of labor obligations or the speed at which the post carried new edicts or news of foreign/domestic disputes.  The map would incorporate the ability to turn on/off multiple layers of data and a researcher could specify specific parameters of search and then view those results develop over time, much like watching a weather forecast map on tv or the internet.  This is the kind of power combining maps and databases of humanistic information could yield for future study.  To be sure, projects of this computational scope have been undertaken before yet the internet brings magnitudes greater ability to share and allow others to contribute to the project.

This is new territory for me- I am woefully inadequate at visualizing, at all, the programming needs to make the Digital Peasant Project possible.  But I do know about research and I have confidence that I could develop at least the beginnings of a standardization protocol for the potential data input.  This is something I think has tremendous potential and I would love to hear what others think about the idea.


  1. Have you looked at ArcGIS software?

  2. I have not- but I will certainly check it out. It wasn't until I began thinking of how to best communicate what I research that I thought, "Gee, wouldn't a map be nice?" So any recommendation is greatly appreciated because, as I said above, this is all new to me.