The digital project that I chose to reverse engineer was the Mapping Occupation project By Gregory Downs and Scott Nesbit. This project in the Digital Humanities,
“captures the regions where the United States Army could effectively act as an occupying force in the Reconstruction South… it presents the basic nuts-and-bolts facts about the Army’s presence, movements that are central to understanding the occupation of the South.”(1)
When entering the website, one is faced with a large map on the right and a navigational/information bar on the left. There are two options for exploring the data and information presented. The first method is exploratory, allowing the viewer to freely zoom in and out on the large exploratory map that fills 80% of the screen, adjusting displayed information relative to date. Information that can be adjusted includes total troops, cavalry, black troops, zones of access, occupation to railroads, and voting data. This approach allows for a free examination of the data. The second approach is more structured than the first, featuring a narrative map through the site. This approach tells a story of army occupation from near the end of the war to past the 1870’s, allowing for an analysis of the data, drawing on the components of politics and culture to add contrast.
When the website was describing how its data and analysis were conducted, there seem to have been two inquiries. The first was data collection information that would form the backbone of the website such as location, number and time that US troops occupied certain areas. These data were collected via the final monthly military reports made by the military. When information was unavailable for a particular month, data from other reports were made in the particular time period; conflicts were resolved by use of the most detailed report. Likely sources for error and a more detailed decryption of data compilation are available on the website.
The second inquiry was a little more complex to conduct as it involved defining the likely zones of occupation and access. Extrapolating from the data given via the troop’s station, these zones were calculated. Occupation zones were found by using a distance that a unit Calvary or infantry could travel in a day’s walk or 6-hour train ride. Zones of access were formed by “places from which freedmen might reasonably travel to a military outpost.”(2) These, however, were more constrained as the former slaves could only travel by foot without owning houses and train access being restrained. All the data are available for download on the website.
My main annoyance with the website is its separation of numerical data and narrative data. The Map does a nice job featuring the large amounts numerical data visually; however, I find myself getting annoyed when attempting to learn about a specific location. When I try to click on particular troop stations, it would be functional and user-friendly if an info window would appear to provide troop numbers and maybe even a short blurb on the current situation. For example, what’s that one unit of some 5,000+ men doing in the middle of the Ocean in the gulf of Guinea? Instead, if I wish to discover more on the narrative front I need to read through the long paragraphs featuring white text on a black backroad, making it difficult to read extended time on a computer. This issue brings me to my secondary annoyance: the black and white color scheme becomes difficult to navigate after a few minutes. A white/grayscale with sparing amounts of black would have been more appealing.
In summary, I found the website informative and can see its value under the right circumstances, say a civil war analysis or for information on racial tensions in the post-war US. The website could use some fine-tuning in map navigation and interface, however, I’m just nitpicking, in the end, it provided an interesting interface trough which to study the US troop occupation of the south.