New Tools for Political Scholars

Google Earth: Platform for Academic Scholarship?

This report was included in today’s Wired News from the Chronicle of Higher Education. The University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab, home of William and Mary’s own Rob Nelson, has produced a powerful tool to provide new insights into historical voting data.

Earlier this year scholars at the University of Richmond unveiled an innovative Web site that displays county-by-county election data from U.S. presidential elections since 1840. Now their project’s been Googled. In an effort to get more exposure for their data just in time for election day, the university’s Digital Scholarship Lab spent the past few months working with Google engineers to embed the data into Google Maps and Google Earth. The results are now part of Google’s election Web site. In a statement released today, Rick Klau, a manager on Google’s Elections team said, the company hoped other universities would use the Google Earth platform “to share information and make a complex collection of data structures more easily accessible.” The Richmond scholars had already developed maps with features similar to those of Google Earth, which lets users scroll around maps of the U.S., zooming in on any address to see relevant data about the locations. In fact, the Google version has less information for now, since researchers only had time to load in election data going back to 1980. But Andrew Torget, director of the Digital Scholarship Lab, said in an interview this week that the goal of the partnership was to get the information in front of a wider audience. “It was an opportunity to put out this digital scholarship on the biggest digital platform there is, Google.” As more scholars try similar map-based data projects, should they use Google as a platform? Or are there benefits to building home-grown interfaces instead? –Jeffrey R. Young

It’s the Network Stupid

Technology Review: How Obama Really Did It

In 1992, Carville said, ‘It’s the economy, stupid,'” Trippi says, recalling the exhortation of Bill Clinton’s campaign manager, James Carville. “This year, it was the network, stupid!

You have an entire generation of folks under age 25 no longer using
e-mails, not even using Facebook; a majority are using text messaging,”
All says. “I get Obama’s text messages, and every one is exactly what
it should be. It is never pointless, it is always worth reading, and it
has an action for you to take. You can have hundreds of recipients on a
text message. You have hundreds of people trying to change the world in
160 characters or less. What’s the SMS strategy for John McCain? None.”

One of the ongoing questions that I have about Web 2.0 applications is the extent to which they can contribute to solving real problems.   I wonder if our students understand that Facebook, mySpace, and the other sites that they use so effectively in their social lives have such enormous potential in the real world.  This article in the MIT Technology Review provides an extended treatment of how the basic tools of social networking can be tailored to meet the specific goals of a political campain–fundraising, canvassing, and communication.  “MyBo”, the Barack Obama networking site enrolled over a million members and is credited with raising record amounts of cash and delivering key primary wins that were essential to gaining the nomination.

MyBo offered a pretty amazing set of specific campaigning tools.  Powerful database queries allowed members to “slice and dice the geographic microdata” in ways that were previously only accessible to technically sophisticated political consultants.  The site, developed by Blue State Digital with the assistance of Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes, represented “the ultimate online political machine.”  The power of the site comes from the integration of a suite of individual tools that had been tested in the earlier campaign of Howard Dean, into a coherent whole.

It’s long article, but well worth reading.  Like so many of the others, it challenges us to wonder how we might tap into this same kind of communicative power in ways that quickly leave our bloated CMS software behind.  It also challenges us to rethink what it means to be liberally educated in the 21st century–can a person being truly literate without understanding the potential impact on our culture of these commuity building and activiation tools?