A review of Time Layered Cultural Map, a software ecosystem that allows humanities and social science researchers to create, find, analyze, visualize, and share digital maps, led by Hugh Craig and Bill Pascoe
Time Layered Cultural Map
Imogen Wegman, University of Tasmania
Hugh Craig and Bill Pascoe
The Time-Layered Cultural Map of Australia platform (TLCMap) is a software ecosystem that allows humanities and social science researchers to create, find, analyze, visualize, and share digital maps. TLCMap tools are modular and interoperable to meet a diverse range of needs across disciplines and media, from beginner to advanced. While there are well-developed stand-alone data archives for social and cultural research in Australia, the current TLCMap is unique in offering the means to visualize and interrogate spatiotemporal aspects of historical and cultural information, tailored specifically for the specialised requirements of the humanities.
This project, which started in 2019 and continues, emerged from the Centre for 21st Century Humanities at the University of Newcastle, Australia. The center previously hosted the creation of the digital component of the Colonial Frontier Massacre Map, which has been credited with changing Australians' view of their history. To provide a wide range of functionality without duplication, TLCMap integrates with existing platforms. Partners at Australian universities and elsewhere have developed enhancements and integrations of TLCMap for systems such as RO-Crate, Recogito, Heurist, Temporal Earth, and HuNI. Others have contributed manuals and knowledge for TLCMap’s use with new methods, including virtual reality (VR) and Indigenous mapping. Development, led by system architect Bill Pascoe, is guided by the maxim "no platform without a project, no project without a platform," and includes rapid prototyping and user experience testing to meet the project requirements of the chief investigators and other users.
A recent round of UX testing identified three main kinds of users: those with a well-defined project wanting to explore its spatio-temporal aspects, beginners wanting to investigate the possibilities of digital mapping, and experienced users of digital humanities resources seeking more capability and interoperability. The main disciplines we target, based on the interests of our current chief Investigator group, are architecture and built environment, history, Indigenous studies, linguistics, literary studies, and media studies, but the functionality of the platform in handling spatio-temporal data has appeal across the entirety of the humanities and social sciences.
TLCMap engages new audiences by serving humanities and social science researchers who are interested in using spatio-temporal data, but are held back by their lack of IT skills and the STEM focus of most systems. TLCMap has been funded by an Australian Research Council grant for 2019-20 (LE190100019) and an Australian Research Data Commons grant for 2021. The project is described in Paul L. Arthur et al., "Time-Layered Cultural Map of Australia," Proceedings of the Digital Humanities in the Nordic Countries 5th Conference, CEUR Workshop Proceedings, Riga, Latvia, 2020: 184-91.
In recent years, a sub-discipline of digital humanities has emerged to examine the meeting point between history and geography. “GeoHumanities,” as it is sometimes known, combines spatial sciences and humanities to find new explanations for the world around us. The Time-Layered Cultural Map of Australia (TLCMap) equips researchers to use these methods to identify structural problems, find solutions, and educate the wider public. The project’s scope is broad, with tools useful to many fields of research, but at its heart is belief in the power of collaborative research to understand historical and cultural circumstances that exist today. The list of projects reveals the power of such research to bring untold histories into the public light. The Colonial Frontier Massacres Map is one example that makes Australia’s violent colonial history intensely visible. By plotting deaths onto a modern map, they are transformed from abstract names and dates on lists into events that occurred on very familiar lands.
In the past, spatial methodologies required expensive software, training and advanced IT skills, all of which present a barrier to the time-poor and tech-hesitant humanities and social sciences (HASS) researcher. The team behind the TLCMap aim to “make it easier for humanities researchers to work with digital maps,” so they can pass on the benefits to a wider audience through publication of findings. The TLCMap further provides what the project calls, “a set of tools that work together for mapping Australian history and culture.” Some tools are restricted to Australian data, but others are not geographically limited.
This is a timely and necessary project that has the potential to introduce new skills to wider usage in HASS research. When the American Historical Association argued that “digital history… often represents a commitment to expanding what history is, and can do…,” they might have been writing directly about the potential of TLCMap. The “Complex Example” in the Beginners’ Guide demonstrates how creatively all the parts can link together. TLCMap should inspire digital humanities practitioners to explore new avenues with their data.
The team has built three tools — Quick Tools, Gazetteer and Spatiotemporal Metrics — and has connected projects from partner organisations. One tool visualizes change over time and another identifies place names in text, while third serves as an Australian place name gazetteer. As a spatial historian, I enjoyed playing with Quick Coordinates (part of Quick Tools), which allows the researcher to lay a map image over a modern map to create a spreadsheet of coordinates to use elsewhere. A simple brilliance underpins the structure of TLCMap — each of the tools uses the same file formats, so data can be run through different queries with ease and exported to other applications for further use.
Although the TLCMap team has attempted to create a toolset that can be used by any level of experience, and note that some tools may initially “take you a few hours to figure out,” I would hesitate to recommend it to a true beginner. Some of the tools are still in development, but the user guides and instructions tend towards a reliance on technical language that is not always self-apparent to the inexperienced user. Some tools do not provide full explanations — for example the buttons used to manipulate an image in Quick Coordinates are missing hover labels and are not explained on the Help page. These are not insurmountable issues but are worth highlighting as this project has strong pedagogical potential for higher-level teaching and teachers may need to provide supplementary explanations.
In an age of ever-increasing digitized and digital resources, many HASS researchers find themselves confronted with the problem of having too much data. Instead of seeing this as a problem, TLCMap is determined to encourage researchers to feel creative instead of overwhelmed.