Data visualization and scholarly publishing: Scalar

Scalar is a University of Southern California and Alliance for Networking Visual Culture project that aims to create a platform for the creation and management of scholarly documents in a visually appealing and modular way. The main draw to Scalar is its use of a  multimedia, multiplatform approach to data visualization.

A good example of born-digital, Scalar provides scholars with the tools to create unique and personalized presentations of their work in a format that is from online and for online. 

The basics

As a scholarly platform, Scala is naturally intended for members of institutions like universities and museums. In order to prevent overload of their system or general abuse by people who are simply interested but not for scholarly purposes, a registration code is necessary. As a result, it wasn’t possible to test the platform as it doesn’t seem to be monitored as much as one would hope. Still, someday my registration code will come.

That said, as a born digital platform, Scalar does have online tutorials and overviews of their platform. 

A registered user that has received their registration code in a timely manner would be able to perform some fairly robust digital data presentation feats with Scalar thanks to its scholar-oriented programming. The most important of these are the importation of products from YouTube/Vimeo/etc. and the ability to utilize multiple types of formats like Adobe Illustrator, PDFs, and so forth. In general, the formats and functional programs that scholars use frequently. 

Scalar is also fairly compatible with a wide range of web standards that utilize HTML5 when needed and presenting information in a way that can be coded in a portable, intelligible way that can be carried over to other platforms that utilize these standards. This carries over to the front-end and API, which both forego proprietary, walled-off code, for an extremely functional and forgiving interface that allows both live interface with other platforms, but also code that can be understood by users of other platforms. 

The API, advertised as an Open API, provides the user with a means of presenting their works on their own website and for sharing it in a way that can be modified and posted on other platforms and websites. This is unique in the world of scholarly platforms as most are walled-off and opaque when it comes to code and functional interface with other platforms. You know who I’m talking about. 

As far as crafting your work goes, Scalar has clearly made an effort to open up the system to the kind of visualization and functionality that is oriented toward the modern visually appealing, born-digital work that has been increasingly common. Prior to Scalar, hand-coding or using a proprietary, closed source platform was the norm, or scholars were presented with a low-tech and low-functionality platform. In either case, scholars were stuck.

Here, in Scalar, the user is given the ability to index reams of data and feed them into visualizations. Data can be tabbed to a specific page or can be global. A page can draw from both its native data and the global data, allowing for uncomplicated management of contextually sensitive data that requires an approach from its own base in order to keep it well-organized. The visualization from there is simple plug-and-play, using multiple types of visualizations like charts, webs, and tables.

A scholar will be able to create a multiple-page, visually robust document, but it can then be presented for one of the most important aspects of scholarly writing: review.

Scalar is different from a lot of platforms in that it gives readers and reviewers the ability to comment and offer feedback in numerous ways and on numerous pages with little fuss. The feedback capability is a core function and can be disabled for release of the final, reviewed and edited product. 

Impressions

As I only had access to online documentation, it is hard to make an honest assessment of the functionality within the system. On the other hand, it provides a fine selection of presentations that use Scalar, including Seth Rogoff’s The Nature of Dreams (http://scalar.usc.edu/anvc/the-nature-of-dreams/index).

As a platform for scholars, Scalar gives a lot of deference to the needs of scholars, and as such it models a good deal of important best practices for this kind of platform and interface. The most important of these, data and narrative organization, is a core consideration. An open API and portability are vital, and scholars should endeavor to make sure they present their information in a way that can be moved and molded to numerous platforms: most scholars are not limiting themselves to a single platform, so platforms like Scalar should play fair with other platforms (even if those platforms don’t play well with others). Scholars should look for—and demand—open APIs and intelligible code that can interface with other platforms.

As far as data and visualization, Scalar gives the scholar an ability to massively sculpt data landscapes that are otherwise hard to condense. Here, Scalar models another best practice, and that’s giving the scholar multiple levels of visualization and portability within the platform. It also helps break the scholar free of the classic digital visualization standard of simplicity under siloed data presentation. There is no need here to force all data into one bucket, there are multiple approaches to the data management and multiple data buckets are available, along with a global one.

Finally, Scalar opens up the scholarly world to a truth that’s necessary to acknowledge: publishing and data presentation are increasingly going to be “born digital” and it is vital to learn how to create such functional documents. Instead of relying on just classic presentation or proprietary platforms, Scalar gives scholars the ability to functionally interface with the classic and the digital, all starting from a digital base.

Criticisms of the platform are few for me, chief among them being the difficulty in access. For a platform that endeavors to not wall off the data and presentation, access should be much easier. Again, waiting for that registration code. Another criticism is the subtle suggestion that classic methods of publishing will be supplanted by this type of platform. Both, digital and classic articles, will be the norm for at least another generation. Within years, most digital standards will be obsolete. It is better, then, to work from a belief that you are modeling best practices while offering the best available platform in the current digital era. 

Otherwise, Scalar is a solid 7/10 for me.

3 Replies to “Data visualization and scholarly publishing: Scalar”

  1. Thank you for this post!

    Scholars’ work is becoming increasingly more digitally-based. Therefore, I agree with you when you state that it is “vital to learn how to create such functional documents”. As this is the case, it is imperative to have the knowledge and skill to access the tools to create “unique and personalized presentations in a format that is from online and for online”. Likewise, the sites ability to utilize multiple types of formats like Adobe Illustrator and PDFs is groundbreaking. Scholars will have access to a site that presents their information in a new way, provides the opportunity for commenting and feedback, as well as means of sharing their work in a way that can be modified in other spaces. This will make publishing scholarly works a more creative, intricate, shared (and, I assume, easier) process.

  2. Thanks for this great overview on Scalar AJ. I think you really outlined the many ways that historians and digital humanitarians can use Scalar as a medium for their work. I actually have used Scalar before for a class Oral History project and was thrilled with the sites capabilities. I would say there is a small learning curve, but once you get familiar with how Scalar works it makes designing an interactive site simple enough. The site my class made was able to include audio, video, text, images, and digital maps (http://scalar.usc.edu/works/the-third-alternative/index) and Scalar is definitely a platform i would recommend to others interested in the digital story telling and the digital humanities.

  3. A great post! And yes, I’m sure your code will arrive someday. I hope mine does, too. Your observation about the increasing amount of scholarly work being born-digital is apt. The same can be said about peer-reviewed scholarship, though there is a whole world of debate over whether peer-reviewed scholarship is worth as much to the powers that be as born-digital content. I won’t wade into this for the moment.

    Nevertheless, Scalar seems like a very useful too. Yet the point about it being self-limiting and somewhat exclusive is well taken. This is the case with a lot of digital history tools. This seems to speak just as much, if not more so, to the issue of under-resourced centers of learning as to the fact that tools for producing digital content for the academy and for other audiences is, relatively speaking, in its infancy. There are countless more tools to develop and improve upon.

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