Tag Archives: network analysis

Lessons from a Google Fusion Table Graph

Armed with new and improved service record data, last night I set out to create a new network graph in Gephi, to see whether just new data would help to mitigate some of last time’s problems.

To be frank, Gephi beat me. My graph is so small, and my screen is so small, and the zoom function in the graph window is so bad (at least, I couldn’t figure it out) that I couldn’t really see my graph in order to draw any conclusions. All my data imported correctly, though, so I knew there was hope.

I turned instead to Google Fusion Tables, an experimental data visualization app from Google. Unfortunately, it appears that the data tables work completely differently from Gephi’s, so I did have to do some reformatting. (This isn’t a huge problem for a graph with only 34 edges, but it would be a pain for something bigger.)

Google Fusion Tables

For this small network graph, Google Fusion Tables seemed to have worked out very well. The graph itself is clear and easily readable, and it’s a relatively simple proposition to remove nodes and see what happens. Fewer options for manipulating the data mean that the graph renders quickly. It’s also nice to be able to hover over a node and see the attached edges highlighted.

Google Fusion Tables does do a few annoying things, which may be able to be disabled. It would be nice if the nodes were able to be moved to a specific location for ease of reading (as is, you can pull a node to a general area, but it won’t stay exactly where you put it). Also, it would be nice if the graph would hold still! It seems like some element of the graph is always moving all the time.

More options for edges would be helpful too. I’d like to be able to see the edge labels that are in my chart, and I’d also like to be able to click on an edge for more data, just like you can see the highlighted edges when you hover over a node.

Observations about the Graph

I’ve been doing some reading up about social network graphs in this book. But this network I’ve created is not actually a social network: there are not any connections that can accurately be predicted by network theory. Why? Because this set of data is about concurrent service, not something that the men themselves control (for the most part).

So how then is this helpful?

First, even though new connections cannot be posited, the graph does show the high degree of connectedness between some of the officers. Thomas Macdonough, for instance, has multiple connections to many people. The same is true for David Porter. Macdonough and Porter have some shared connections, but they also have some unique connections. Hopefully, seeing the connected officers through the eyes of Porter and Macdonough may yield information about them.

Second, once I do get the social networks mapped out, it will be interesting to compare the two graphs, seeing whether the connections established shipboard continue into correspondence. It seems unlikely that officers would write directly to each other without previous personal connections, and concurrent service seems the most likely place for that connection to have occurred.

The comparison will be a little tricky, because it will involve networks that evolve over time. In order to create these networks, I’ll probably have to move back over to Gephi. Maybe by then I’ll have figured it out a little more.

Mapping the service of just the Preble’s Boys connections to each other shows only an incomplete picture of their records. So the next step will be to add in connections to other officers, especially highly prominent officers such as Thomas Truxtun and John Rodgers. After that, mapping out squadron service will be the next step in establishing these formal connections.


The question I’ve been asked before about this sort of network is: how is this more helpful than a spreadsheet? The value here is how easy it is to remove nodes and see the resulting changes in the network. You can’t really do that with a spreadsheet. As the networks get more complex, and they have to change over time, visualization is going to be much more helpful than a spreadsheet.


As always, I’d welcome any insights on my network thoughts!


Omeka Development Plan

In their book Digital HistoryA Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the WebDan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig advocate that digital historians should have a well-defined plan for their websites before they start. So I thought I’d share my ideas about Preble’s Boys here, and perhaps get some feedback from others about the plan.


First off, the inspiration. I was inspired to do this project by thinking about how naval officers of the nineteenth century acted, specifically to what extent they acted in concert with their official orders or whether they tended to be influenced by each other. One pressing question was this: How much did they really interact with each other?  I don’t have the primary sources to do this sort of investigation at this point (tracking down all the officers’ papers is going to be quite an undertaking). When I looked for secondary sources that might address the question, I remembered Fletcher Pratt’s 1950 book Preble’s Boys.

Preble’s Boys is an entertaining read, written very much in an old-school narrative style that has a certain charm. But the stories Pratt tells are often speculative or at least unverified (he explicitly states that he doesn’t think bibliographies belong in books), so his conclusions about the cohesion of this group of naval officers are open to dispute. In addition, the maps and diagrams in the book, though charmingly drawn, are not that helpful in explaining ship movement (since they are static).

Second, the purpose. My purpose with this project, then, is to essentially reinvigorate Pratt’s book using interactive web technology. I don’t plan to use Pratt’s actual words, but I’m going to use his framework to create a digital exhibit about these men.

Third, the goals.

I have several goals, which take the form of phases of the project.

1. Create a digital exhibition that provides an introduction to the group Preble’s Boys, their ships, and the battles they were in. (That’s the phase I’m working on right now.) This introduction isn’t intended as a scholarly treatment of any of these men or their activities, though it is intended to be a little more scholarly than Pratt’s original (cited sources and all that). It’s merely for basic education. However, even this basic treatment benefits from the web medium. I’d like to use Neatline to recast battle maps and ship diagrams as interactive rather than static. Even this small change will enhance existing scholarship about the  19th-c. navy. This phase’s audience is primarily the general public. (I’d love to do animations of the battle diagrams, too, but I’m not an animator. If anyone would like to collaborate, give me a shout-out.)

2. Document the connections between Preble’s Boys using network analysis. This phase will help to interrogate Pratt’s claims of connections between the men linked to Edward Preble. This phase will take some time, as I will have to build the network from the ground up. In other words, I’ll have to track down the primary sources. I’m also not quite sure how to measure connections here. (I’m sure I’ll write more about this later.) Once I get the network going, I’ll publish it to the website. This phase will help historians like me see just how influential Edward Preble was in shaping the early navy. (Or maybe it will show that someone else was influential. I don’t know.)

3. Provide digital copies of the papers of these men, as well as other relevant primary sources. The work of getting digital copies of the sources will hopefully occur in concert with phase 2. Getting permission to post them online and creating a decent archive framework may be the bigger issue (Omeka’s going to help with the framework). But in the end, I would like Preble’s Boys to be a sort of compendium of information about these officers.


So that’s the plan. Comments, questions, suggestions, prohibitions, exhortations welcome!