Sunday, 21 February 2016

learning coding as a digital newbie historian

Over the past few weeks, I've been following two sets of coding tutorials designed for beginners that might be useful for the historian.

It took me a couple of weekends to get through the latter, and I finally achieved this result, with a little more tweaking and reading the Leaflet tutorials to work out how to layer more than one map on top of each other:

locations of United English delegates, 1799-1801, plotted on Green's 1794 map of Manchester & MapBoxStudio map

What's been my experience of following these tutorials?

Good points: 
Tutorials are great because they do show growing awareness that people like me - i.e. digital 'newbies' are attempting to learn coding and visualisation and analysis techniques without a background in any coding. We also do it 'in our spare time', as we can't afford to take a year out to sit and learn, say, Python or Javascript, from the basics. It's the same with both proprietary and open-source software like ArcGIS and QGIS - I've tried to learn to use both, but starting from the beginnings using an undergraduate Geography module coursebook in my case proved too time-consuming and indeed challenging, when I've got so many other 'traditional History' things to do.

The tutorials are great - and both Adam's programming historian tutorial and the NYPL tutorial take you step by step through everything you need to do a specific task.

However, therein lies the quandry for such tutorials that take you through making something. People like me probably fall into difficulties when instructions in some tutorials aren't clear - i.e. telling you to insert a line of code without showing exactly where it should go. We don't understand the whole language of the code, so attempting to do something different causes problems.

Tutorial writers - Please show all steps of the code in a picture or a video, rather than leaving it to us to work out what the end result looks like! So when you've instructed, 'Take out the middle bit of that code you've just copied, and replace the first half of it with this...', we want to see what that looks like. This especially seems to be the case regarding indents in Python, which is where some of the participants in the IHR workshop stumbled.

I also get confused when they skip over the *reasons* why all the steps are necessary or what they actually do. It's like learning a foreign language by learning set phrases but without going through all the grammar or explaining the parts in the sentence that are grammar. This makes it hard to change the code to fit what you want to do. So you might learn 'Ich möchte einen Apfel', but then don't know how to say 'I don't want an orange' in the same language.

Most tutorials use a case study or set piece to work on, but often when you then want to adapt it to your own work (in my case historical maps and geographical data), and it's then when you come into problems. For example, I successfully completed the NYPL tutorial, which uses historic Bogota as its case study, and (testimony to how good it is), I also managed to do the same with my 19th century Manchester maps and data. However, it only showed me how to have separate layers of basemaps, like so:

But I wanted to know how to have both maps showing at the same time (i.e. the 1794 map layered on top of the contemporary map), and the instructions didn't do this. So I then had to appeal to twitter, and kind digital geographers pointed me to the right section on the Leaflet helppages. It then took another half hour of experimentation until I'd got the code right (moving the 1794 map from being a basemap to an overlay).

Here are the webpages and services used in the mapping:

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Enclosure, commons and the meaning of place and privatisation

Two articles serendipitously appeared this week after my IHR seminar paper on Monday.

First, this article by Bradley Garrett about contemporary disputes in Lancaster over 'common' land:

Some quick observations:
  1. My students should read this article when we study 17th and 18th century enclosure riots so that I can show them that such events weren't odd and purely historical, but still have resonance and indeed share the same sentiments and tactics
  2. Indeed, those tactics seem awfully familiar to a historian of rural protest: 'In addition to filing an application for three well-trodden footpaths across the wood to be officially recognised, a council document records that “local people took exception” to the No Trespassing signs and “they disappeared”. Those signs that remained were subversively mutilated'.
  3.  A quote from the article about the company who are going to build on the land in Lancaster: 'The firm owns more than 30 properties in England, and had submitted an informal planning proposal in 2010 to build housing in Freeman’s Wood. According to John Angus, director of Lancaster arts organisation StoreyG2, the lodging of that proposal means:

“this scrubby patch of land has direct links to global economic, political and social networks”.

This statement chimes exactly with what I was arguing on Monday about Doreen Massey and David Featherstone's arguments about how local people defending local places could be connected to multi-scalar layers of space - from the local to the global at points in time. And even if they are defending the place for very localist reasons, they are still taking part in a wider struggle informed or in this case shaped by global structures, which, Massey argues, have a very uneven geography determined by the power of capital.

The other article is by Mark Hailwood on the Many Headed Monster Blog (and indeed echoes a comment on the Guardian article btl) about the complex history and meaning of enclosure:

Historians of enclosure will warn any more idealistic land campaigner that the popular view of the 'common' (to quote the Guardian article, 'common – a place formally defined as “pertaining or belonging equally to an entire community, nation or culture”') wasn't quite so rosy in practice. There was never such a thing as purely 'common' land in early modern Britain - it always belonged to private owners, but commoners were those people who had customary rights to use it for grazing, gleaning, etc.

Not everyone was a commoner; not everyone (certainly not an 'entire community, nation') had those customary rights.

So although it's fascinating that the protesters in Lancaster have put up a sign with the verse well known to enclosure-riots (and historians) 'They hang the man and flog the woman / That steals the goose from off the common / But let the greater villain loose / That steals the common from the goose', it somewhat gives the impression that it applied to all poor and working people, when it didn't historically.

As Andy Wood has defined, place was custom because it was defined by customary rights, and therefore the people who belonged to that place were those who were also defined by those rights. Enclosure was the process of the main landowners taking away those rights and monopolising the economic and social uses of the land, but the variety of landholding practices and processes (copyhold, various sorts of leases etc) often meant that enclosure was not resisted and indeed was applied for by commoners.There's links to some excellent studies of early modern land rights and enclosure on Mark's page, and he notes how commoners could and did switch sides mid-disputes. So although resistance to enclosure - and particularly the stopping up of footpaths - was significant, it was not total, and it certainly wasn't a complete story of 'property owners versus the common people' that perhaps the more popular view of enclosure likes to think it was.

See also Peter Linebaugh, Stop Thief! The Commons, Enclosure and Resistance

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

more social and spatial theory: David Harvey and beyond

I gave a paper at Keith Flett's Socialist History seminar at the IHR on 8 February. I've put the theoretical musings about space and time developed for that paper on my Protest History website: 

It considers Theodore Koditschek, David Harvey, Doreen Massey and David Featherstone. Thoughts probably unfinished and still developing....

The podcast should be up on the IHR website soon.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

my talk at the Digital History seminar, IHR, 2/2/16

Here is the link to the video of my talk on the Political Meetings Mapper project with the British Library at the Digital History seminar, IHR, 2 February -

I'm next speaking at the IHR at the Socialist History seminar on Monday 8 February.