“I saw the brown leaves dropping from their tree:” Data visualization and Great War memory
Margaret Postgate Cole‘s poem “The Falling Leaves” uses imagery of the dead of the Great War falling like brown leaves, like snowflakes blotting out a noon sun. Written in November 1915, the poem provided a bit of inspiration for this Remembrance Day reflection on the men of the 8th Queen’s in 2020 and the use of data and maps in thinking about their lives and deaths.
When we think of data, usually massive spreadsheets or text files come to mind. There’s a lot of stuff to sift through, but they’re generally not formats that provoke a visceral response. Maps, timelines, and other data visualizations attempt to take these datasets and put them into methods that are easier for us to conceptualize and digest. In this way they are rhetorical, they are designed with a particular goal in mind, using data gathered and selected in such a way to achieve the desired outcome such as a narrative or argument.
Using the impressive amount of data that Team Peirs member Lizzie Hobbs has compiled over the last two years, I wanted to find a way to find a larger story from the records of the individual men. Of the approximately 1,200 records, about half currently have a known place of burial or memorialization. Remembrance is an ongoing theme for our project, so I decided to try to build a map that visualized the places of final rest and eternal memory for these men, and juxtapose it with the known hometowns.
From the records, 501 men had a known hometown, and another 650 had a known place of burial or memorialization (not all men have both locations recorded). Doing some data cleanup to normalize the names of the towns and cemeteries, I was able to convert map locations to latitude and longitude and incorporate them into a mapping library called Leaflet. Many of the maps we’ve created that simplify the creation process using web-based interfaces (StoryMapJS and ArcGIS Story Maps), but Leaflet requires a bit of coding knowledge. On the up side, it allows us to do some more sophisticated mapping techniques such as clustering, so it was a useful learning experience that can be applied to other Peirs mapping projects.
As I wrote code, Googled solutions to errors, and refreshed each iteration of the map, the numbers and names of the men kept appearing, a digital memorial, and a reminder of where they came from. Overall, it’s a rather simple map, but hopefully it helps to help us realize that the data is more than numbers and text, it’s derived from the lives of men of all ages, from a wide geographic range of the United Kingdom, and many of them died only a few hundred miles from where they were born, had families, lived their lives. Data visualizations should elicit a response on some level, if they are done well.
Beyond mapping, I’m intrigued by data visualizations created on the Flourish platform; these often have interesting animations to show the change in data over time. What the map of hometowns and places of burial and memorialization does well is connect you to the lives of the men in space, but it doesn’t give a good understanding of when their deaths happened. When this data was known, it allowed for the creation of an animated bar chart, marking the date of a soldier’s death. As time passes, and the numbers grow based on the engagements the 8th Queen’s was in, for a moment you can empathize with the weight of command, that your men, your lambs, fell like leaves year after year.
Digital Humanities is analysis, interpretation, and presentation of research done in such a way as to engage an audience with a particular goal in mind. At its best, I believe that DH can invoke empathy, inspire action, and at the very least, make us think about things a bit differently. And that sort of reflection should not only come from the audience, but also the ones who are building these sorts of visualizations. The creation of these visualizations, ultimately, serves as my own act of memorialization, and my hope is that your interaction with them allows you to pause and remember as well, to take time to view the falling leaves, in all their beauty and uniqueness, to reflect upon the cycle of life and death, destruction and renewal.