Project Reflection: stereomap

Instead of boring you with every inane detail of my project, this post will weave a narrative of the most important trials, tribulations, and things I learned from constructing my project: stereomap, a site devoted to geocoding animated stereographs.


Trial 1: Overcoming a Dead End

Many (or should I say the few?) of you who read this blog outside of the students in the class might be thinking “hey, isn’t that the guy that was doing that project of mapping unbuilt spaces in Washington, D.C.?” Yes, you are right, it was me but shortly into starting the project I discovered a number of distressing details that made me switch my topic. First, it turns out the Histories of the National Mall site is in the process of doing a number of explorations on my very subject and will be releasing them sometime soon. To make matters worse, I learned the National Building Museum did an exhibit called “Unbuilt Washington” in 2011 and created an online map for it detailing the unbuilt spaces. My exact project idea! This was my lowest point in this process, I had no clue where to go from here.


Enter: the Stereograminator

Having attended a MITH digital dialogue earlier this year, I learned about the Stereogranimator, a tool from NYPL labs for animating stereographs and it came back to me when I was racking my brain for a new project idea. In an “MTV Cops” moment I thought, “wouldn’t it be cool if you could take these animated stereograms and map them in the style of HistoryPin?” These images typically feature a distinct location and could benefit from the context of geographic space. I chose NYC for the ease of using the over 3,000 stereographs focused on the city and held by the NYPL. With my crisis averted by deciding to create a map and website to fulfill this project idea, I started figuring out the logistics of its implementation.

Trial 2: You Can Map GIFs, Right?

While there is a glut of mapping software out there, few handle animated GIFs well in their information boxes, often cutting off images, making them static again, or not displaying the images at all. Finding a tool that overcame these challenges became my top priority in making this project feasible. Along with my main goal, I hoped to find an easy-to-use, mobile friendly, free, and still decently attractive interface. Looking through many map options (Google My Maps, Mapbox, OpenStreetMap, CartoDB, WorldMap, Scribble Maps, and on and on), I finally found one that actually would work: ZeeMaps. While not gaining full points on the attractive interface scale, this site fulfilled the rest of my requirements mentioned above. In finding the right mapping service, I learned a lot about evaluation of digital tools, compromise, and to understand practical limitations. With this crucial element decided, I started building the map and the website to host it.

stereomap in action, GIFception!
Trial 3: Building Diversity

As I began constructing my site and its elements, I started to learn more about the collections themselves. It was difficult to create a diverse mix of selected points due to the biases towards certain subjects and areas. If historians were to look at the collection as a documentary example of the late 19th to early 20th century, then it could summed up as a white man wearing a bowler hat in lower Manhattan.

While lower Manhattan was a cultural center then as it is today, the collection overlooks important segments of the Black population in Harlem and other parts of the city. Even in stereographs focused outside of New York City where Blacks are subjects, they are depicted in racist ways as minstrel characters. Women and the lower classes were also seldom depicted other than to emphasize their need of saving from destitution. These characteristics made it difficult for me to create a wide ranging selection of subjects, however, it drove home the point of the photographers’ biases and the frequent inadequacy of the documentary record.

Trial 4: Becoming a Bot

As I was building, I also was promoting the site at the same time. Taking an idea from the Trevor Owens, I decided to “curate in the open” and publicly share each image I made and considered using as I went. This was both to generate interest and to aggregate all the links to use in the project. I chose Twitter as my main sharing platform because I already had an account (although not too many followers) and all my tweets were open to the public. Overall, judging from my Twitter analytics, my tweets were mainly seen by my followers but some of them did seem interested. Some of them seemed disturbed:

He’s normally a nice guy.

I realized that Twitter may not have been the best platform for this part of my project. In sending out multiple tweets in rapid succession, it seemed to my followers that I was becoming a bot, taking over their timelines like the bots of conviction we read about earlier this semester. Certainly some were alright with this, but I’m sure many did not appreciate having these images forced upon them. Perhaps a more image focused site like tumblr would have served this purpose better. Whether or not I chose the right social media platform, I do believe the effort was worthwhile and drew more attention to my project than simply keeping it behind closed doors until a big reveal in the end.


From all my trials I learned how to weigh options, choose between resources, and create a deliverable product. In the end, I overcame my trials and created a usable website that met the goals I set when beginning this journey. Thank you, dear reader, for following along with me throughout the semester and in this post. I hope you take a look at the site and send me your thoughts.


NEH & The NYPL – Creating “What’s on the Menu?”

The financial assistance to support the proliferation of digital media has been aided through grants from agencies like the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). In its Digital Humanities Start-Up Grants guidelines, the NEH provides specific details of how a proposed grant should be written. The NEH provides Level I grants of up to $25,000 for digital media projects that are in development stages, and Level II grants between $25,000-$50,000 for more advanced projects to be immediately launched. The grant application guidelines provide specifics for what each application should comprise. In the Narrative Section IV, institutions applying need to inform the NEH how their project will enhance the humanities through innovation, place their project in the environment of existing programs with similar missions, give historical background to their project, a detailed work plan, staffing requirements, and how the final product will be disseminated to the public.  The New York Public Library’s “What’s on the Menu?” crowdsourcing tool is an example of a successful grant application to the NEH. The NEH provides on its website the narrative portion of the NYPL application to give other institutions a sense of what a successful application contains.

The NYPL’s application follows the guidelines of the NEH as written. The Enhancing the Humanities Through Innovation section highlights the opportunities for cultural history contained in ephemera like a menu. This section explains the difficulty in transcribing a document as unique as a menu and why crowdsourcing it could make it an achievable task. This section also hints at the potential integration of “What’s on the Menu?” with the Library’s “NYC Historical GIS,” a crowdsourcing project using the Library’s collection of maps. In conjunction, these two projects “suggest a radical evolution of the very idea of a public library: a library that is not only used, but built by the public.” The data produced through crowdsourcing has exciting potential for revising the history of New York City through its cuisine. The application emphasizes that the data created by the public would not exist for its own sake, but would be able to be manipulated and used for a wide variety of purposes.

The next section of the application, Environmental Scan, surveys similar crowdsourcing projects across the web. The application explains the advances “What’s on the Menu?” would make, extending crowdsourcing to a new type of document, integrating the data produced into the library infrastructure, and using the appeal of food as a means of tapping into public interest. This section highlights already successful examples of crowdsourcing such as the Jeremy Bentham Transcription Initiative. The History and Duration section explains the origins of the menu collection at the NYPL, dating from 1900, to recent actions taken to digitize and make accessible the collection.

The remaining sections of the application’s Narrative give more concrete details of the project. The Work Plan explains how the NEH funds will be used in developing the website. The Staff section provides the key team members and their roles in the project. And the Final Product and Dissemination section gives a narrative overview of what the beta version of the website will do, and how “What’s on the Menu?” will be publicized. In sum, the NYPL’s application closely follows the guidelines set by the NEH. I feel this is a successful example of a cultural institution articulating its vision for a digital media project to further disseminate and engage the public with its holdings.

Now that we have been exposed to the final “What’s on the Menu?” website as a class practicum, seeing the guidelines and application of the NYPL for funding from the NEH, and from reading Brown on the methodology of communicating website design, how do you now evaluate this website? Do you feel the NYPL achieves the vision it set forth in its application? Did they successfully follow the guidelines given by the NEH? Does it apply the website design principles of Brown and deliver a user-friendly experience? Let me know what you think.