Geography. Bring to mind ragged pull-down maps that snapped shut at the least touch, or wouldn’t budge for anything? Well, where have you been, so to speak?
Not too long ago, geography was thought to be a dying discipline. Now, thanks to ever expanding geospatial and data gathering technologies, geography is back stronger than ever and offers new routes to explore previously uncharted areas of history.
I have always loved maps and nautical charts. In a class on maps at the New York Public Library I studied antiquarian maps dating to the 16th century. I also learned about the latest geographic information systems(GIS), which gather, analyze, and display all types of geographical data. One web application that uses GIS effectively for historical research is Social Explorer.
Billing itself as “an award-winning web application that changes the way we interact with data using maps and reports,” Social Explorer enables users of all ability levels to visualize and analyze data and demographic information in US Census reports from 1790 to 2010. With Social Explorer, researchers can aggregate all types of data from those reports, such as race, income, and literacy, and merge that data to create interactive custom maps from the national down to the street level. Those maps can then be converted into reports, which in turn can be exported to Excel spreadsheets.
The website lists content of more than 40 billion data elements, 335,000 variables and more than 18,000 interactive maps from 1790 to 2010; US Census reports from the same periods and annual updates from the American Community Survey; InfoGroup data on US religious congregations for 2009, including point maps of congregation locations; the Religious Congregations and Membership Study from 1980 to 2000; and carbon emissions data for 2002 from the Vulcan Project.
Launched in 2003 and available by subscription since 2007, Social Explorer claims to be “the busiest demographics site on the net today with users from around the world creating over 10 million maps since 2008.” In 2010 it partnered with Oxford University Press.
The site says it enables users to “visualize data through user-friendly maps allowing unparalleled exploration of demographic and social change over time, revealing the patterns buried in raw numbers.” To test their claims I followed their online tutorials using data from the 1930 U.S. Census, since I am collaborating on that for our class Pastmapper assignment.
For contextual background, I first went to the US Census Bureau’s history page.
At the Through the Decades drop down menu I checked out some Fast Facts for the 1930s. Here I learned Scotch Tape was invented in 1930, Al Capone was convicted of income tax evasion in 1931, Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover in the 1932 presidential election, Jesse Owens won four gold medals during the 1936 Summer Olympics, and Amelia Earhart disappeared while flying solo around the world in 1937.
At the Overview section for 1930, I learned that from passage of the Fifteenth Census Act June 18, 1929, to Census Day April 1, 1930, the stock market crashed on Wall Street setting off the Great Depression and making collection of unemployment data from the 1930 Census critical.
In “Straight Down Christopher Street,” Christine Boyer writes that Greenwich Village’s bohemian culture suffered from that economic crisis and resulting unemployment. While the neighborhood remained demographically eclectic, development of the previous era came to a standstill.
So, how would this history appear in Social Explorer’s interface?
As the help pages explain, Social Explorer consists of two main sections, maps and reports. At the map home page initial view, I clicked the find button on the top tool bar and entered “Christopher Street, New York, NY.” From dropdown menus on the right, I chose the 1930 Census Tract and population density. The resulting map revealed a high population density level, what you might expect. Next I chose native/foreign born, which can be broken down further only by % white foreign or native born. I chose foreign.
Next I chose unemployment and % unemployed male, then female. Interestingly, the map showed a higher unemployment level for men, presumably because men’s jobs were more impacted by the economic crisis than women’s. Next, a comparison of maps for % fully unemployed whites and blacks showed whites with higher unemployment levels, possibly for reasons similar to the gender disparity. Then I compared literacy rates for blacks and white, both of which seemed pretty high for the decade, but not surprising for the neighborhood.
Next I tried to map the same data but from the 1940 Census Tract, which provides a more detailed map, including street names. Education data rather than literacy rates are measured, and employment and education numbers are broken down in much greater detail in the 1940 Census, but do not factor race, ethnicity or foreign versus native born. In each of these maps the user can click the zoom-in, zoom-out and pan tools above the map to gain wider viewing perspective and compare data from a particular street to state and national statistics.
I then created two simple slideshows viewable through an institutional subscription such as New York University. From here I can create a report, export that report to Excel, and in Excel create charts to illustrate the census data graphically as well as geographically. Citations are available for all reports and maps, and slideshows can be exported to PowerPoint. Lastly, Social Explorer offers several teaching modules on a variety of subjects as examples for teachers.
Social Explorer’s creators say it “replaces printed volumes spanning 22 decades of census data with easy-to-use, interactive online tools and easy-to-compare data all in one place.” From my maps class I learned how important a sense of size and dimension are to fully understand the documentation contained in maps. Digital “pan and scan” tools cannot fully depict these characteristics of maps. Furthermore, while the application offers both free and institutional subscription access, free access is very limited.
That said, Social Explorer introduced me to many very useful tools in this application. I also gained greater appreciation for the historical contexts and complexities behind the creation of census reports and for the challenges of examining the data they contain.
Christine Boyer, ed. “Straight Down Christopher Street,” in Rick Beard and Leslie Berlowitz, eds. Greenwich Village: Culture and Counterculture (1993), 36-53.