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Data Analysis and Social Inquiry Lab

Data Across the Curriculum

Students in Monty Roper’s anthropology and global development studies classes gain practical experience in fieldwork, data analysis, and ways to deal effectively with clients when they act as consultants for both local organizations in Grinnell and internationally in an agricultural village in Costa Rica. The clients they work with get free research which is presented to them both in the form of an oral consultation and in a written report.

For a global development studies/anthropology seminar, students prepare research plans during the first half of the semester and then travel to a rural agricultural community in Costa Rica to spend the two weeks of spring break collecting data which is then analyzed and written up during the remaining weeks of the semester. The first year of the project, the class conducted an in-depth community development diagnostic. Since then, they have investigated a variety of rural development issues, mainly focusing on tourism, women’s empowerment, and organizational issues and agricultural projects of the town’s two cooperatives.

In Grinnell, Roper works with Susan Sanning, director of service and social innovation, to identify and explore possible collaborations with community partners who have research needs. In the past, for example:

  • Mid-Iowa Community Action (MICA) was interested in knowing why families dropped out of their Family Development and Self-Sufficiency Program (FaDSS) before their benefits were fully used,
  • Drake Library was interested in what kinds of programming would best serve the town’s “tween” population, and
  • A hair salon wanted to find out whether it was economically viable to invest in special hair care products and services for black customers.

Ideally, positive change occurs because of the class’ research.

Grinnell students Dillon Fischer ’13 and Sarah Burnell ’13 interviewed graduates of Grinnell High School who had gone on to attend college about their preparedness for college academics. According to the GHS principal, these findings led the school to revise its minimum writing standards, making them more challenging.

The local after-school youth program, Galaxy, requested a study on donor perceptions and desires and subsequently used the results to write a successful grant proposal for support.

This year’s class is planning to do more follow-ups on previous projects to ascertain longer-term results.

See more story and photos.

Visualizing Mass Communications and State Institutions in Wartime China (1937-45)

In China, the study of history has always gone hand-in-hand with the study of geography. When studying China’s modern history, however, focus has shifted toward large-scale processes, such as revolution, and large-scale sociological transformations, such as changing class relations. More recently, however, some historians are starting to bring geography back in. Pathbreaking endeavors such as the China Historical GIS project and Harvard University WorldMap platform-based ChinaMap allow researchers to visualize the transformation of China across space and time. The result has been a new understanding of China and Chinese history highlighting the spatial distribution of ethnic and linguistic diversity, economic development, elite networks, and state institutions. One exciting result of this new understanding is that it allows students and researchers alike to visualize large-scale processes across time periods, which can in turn lead to new questions about how different places might have experienced the same era or event. Through the use of spatial approaches, we are challenged to rethink the applicability of national historical narratives to local human landscapes.

As a teacher and researcher of East Asian history, much of what I do focuses on how media, institutions, and person-to-person networks have connected the modern Chinese state to populations both inside and outside of China. Working in tandem with DASIL, I have begun to build and visualize datasets which describe how the “connective tissue” of state-building looked during the period of China’s War of Resistance to Japan (1937-1945)—a period of intense destruction and dislocation which some historians have also described as key period of modernization. This data is drawn from two editions of The China Handbook: a publication of the Chinese Ministry of Information released in 1943 and again in 1946. I discovered this publication quite by happenstance while searching the Grinnell College Library collections for local gazetteer data related to the period of China’s Republican Era (1911-1949). The value of The China Handbook is that it provides comprehensive provincial and urban data for a number of indicators of state development; here we (myself and DASIL’s outstanding post-bac fellow, Bonnie Brooks ’15) have focused on data concerning communications, education, and health care. To be fair, and as admitted by The China Handbook’s original editor, Hollington K. Tong, this data is not exhaustive, nor is it necessarily reliable given the rapidity of changes brought about by war and resulting partition of China into competing political zones. It does, however, represent at least a starting point for visualizing what China’s wartime states looked like “on the ground,” viewed through the lens of communications and other institutional infrastructure.

Below the level of national boundaries, modern China is divided into numerous separate administrative units known as provinces. However, the number of provinces has changed with time and successive governments, which poses a challenge for those seeking to visualize data at the province level for eras during which the number of these units was larger than it is today — as was the case during the latter half of the Republican Era, which witnessed a proliferation of efforts to tame China’s restive and geopolitically fragile borders through the process of province-building. A key part of Bonnie’s contribution, then — the results of which will hopefully be used and refined by other researchers working at the intersection of geographic information systems (GIS) and modern Chinese history — was the creation of new shapefiles corresponding to each province that existed during the 1937-1945 period. The resulting maps are thus entirely new creations, and will hopefully serve to help bridge the current gap which lies between geospatial research on imperial China and research on contemporary China after Mao.  The shapefiles are available for download in DASIL’s Downloadable Data section.

For the map:

  • The Contents button() will display all layers. Unclick the checkbox next to the layer name to hide the layer. To view the legend, click on the “Show Legend” icon () below the layer name.
  • To examine other variables, find the “Change Style” button () below the layer name you wish to view, then select the desired variable from the “Choose an attribute to show” drop-down menu. You may alter the map with colors, symbols or size. You may also alter variables (e.g. normalize variables by population).
  • Click on an individual Chinese province to see available data.
  • The shapefiles featured in the map are available for download on the DASIL website.

Read more at DASIL.

Life-Changing Discoveries

Toby Baratta ’17 arrived at Grinnell intending to focus mainly on Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies, and political science.

“Then I took computer science,” Baratta says. “It totally changed my life.”

Since her introductory class in functional problem-solving, Baratta has immersed herself in research projects. She has done a Mentored Independent Project (MIP) in computer science, and a Mentored Advanced Project (MAP) in the math and statistics department analyzing trends in data used for mapping student success.

Baratta’s second MAP, which builds on the MIP she did in the summer after her first year, has her working with Jerod Weinman, associate professor of computer science, on historical map processing.

Weinman and fellow researchers recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation to help fund the project, aimed at unlocking the stories of “politics, people, and progress” that reside in the historical and print map collections of libraries and museums.

Publishing readable, searchable, and properly linked digital content from hard documents is a matter for intrepid computer scientists. Baratta is pinning down data related to locations and names of rivers and lakes from 19th-century maps.

Boon to Researchers

“A computer can’t read a map itself; it just gets an image and doesn’t know what any of the data is,” Baratta says. “So first you have to get the computer to find and read the text.”

The next step, she says, is to “use it with historical information regarding geographical name changes to map it onto the actual geographical existence of today.”

Teaching the computer to see that chronological progression and to make the information searchable via the Web would open new vistas of research for scientists and policymakers. “A biological or environmental scientist could see how a lake or river has shifted or completely disappeared over time,” Baratta says.

“From an anthropological or sociological point of view,” she explains, “you could look at how people have moved, how a community has moved, and whether there are patterns of how society is moving away from rivers now that we have different technological advances.”

Skills in Demand

When not in classes and doing research, Baratta works for Information Technology Services as technology consultant administrator and is Web manager for the Data Analysis and Social Inquiry Lab (DASIL). She also mentors math and computer science classes.

Baratta spent last summer at Google, where she was invited to intern after presenting research at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. She has already accepted an internship next summer at Microsoft.

Even if an attractive job offer in industry comes her way, she says she’ll opt for grad school. “I like research. I want to get a Ph.D. in machine learning, specifically,” Baratta says, adding, “I don’t know enough yet for what I really want to do.”

Finding Her Passion

Her goal is to work in an organization using data science research and computer science methods to stop human trafficking and other crimes. “There’s a lot of research in computer science that’s really exciting and could be applied to solving these things educationally or through tracking and response,” she says.

In addition to everything else she does, Baratta is a responder with Grinnell Advocates, and she manages the Stonewall Resource Center that supports LGBTQ communities. Her schedule demands good time management. “I go to bed at 10:30 every night and get up at 8:00,” Baratta says. “I know where I’m going to be and what the plan is.

“I wasn’t like this in high school,” she says, “but I mean, once you find something you’re passionate about, it’s kind of easy to have energy behind it.”


Toby Baratta ’17, from Boca Raton, Fla., is a double major in computer science and political science with a concentration in statistics.


Statistics and Society

Undergraduate research tends to evoke images of either a library or a laboratory. The Data Analysis and Social Inquiry Lab (DASIL) offers students in social studies and the humanities something different. The lab has computers with statistical analysis programs that can help students and faculty understand trends in data and visually represent data in charts and graphs and on maps.

Grinnellians Helping Grinnellians

DASIL helps students and faculty analyze and visualize data on an individual basis and brings data analysis into the classroom. It also provides experiential learning for student tutors. “We do the students a disservice unless we make sure they have some level of technological understanding,” says Kathy Kamp, professor of anthropology and Earl D. Strong Professor of Social Studies. DASIL is a unique program in that it is staffed by undergraduates.

“When we’re not helping students,” says Beau Bressler ’16, a DASIL staffer, “we’re working on projects for faculty — usually gathering or organizing data.”

Last year, DASIL launched an independent website that hosts a number of data visualizations. Most of the visualizations make use of publicly available — usually government-collected — information.

One of the projects DASIL is taking on is an interactive map tracking land-holding, using historical records, in three Iowa townships in Poweshiek and Jasper counties.

An earlier major project DASIL was involved in was English professor James Lee’s Global Renaissance, an analysis of 25,000 texts from 1470 to 1700 using data mining techniques to visualize the specific language Shakespeare's England employed to describe different races and places across the globe before colonialism.

Learning by Teaching

Bressler has worked at DASIL for more than a year. During his time there, he has assisted students and professors and has done his own research for a Mentored Advanced Project (MAP). As an economics major, he works primarily on econometrics problems. The students who work with DASIL are fairly specialized, says Julia Bauder, social studies and data services librarian. “We try to have a student fluent in geographical information systems, an economics major who has taken econometrics, a mathematics major, and at least one person doing qualitative research and able to use NVivo qualitative analysis software.”

“Sometimes people come and they know what they want to research and what they’re trying to do, but they don’t know the software or don’t know what variables to use,” says Bressler. “I plan on going into research, so being exposed to other students’ research prepares me to do a broader array of research.” In the spring semester, Bressler helped Ope Awe ’15 analyze data for a MAP to determine what factors in a developing country influence entrepreneurship.

“DASIL is a place you can come and learn to work with data,” says Bressler. “Working with people — especially when they’re other students who know how to work with data — can make statistics easier to understand.”

Beau Bressler ’16 is an economics major from San Diego, Calif.

Successful World Coups 1946-2012

As a post-baccalaureate fellow at the Data Analysis and Social Inquiry Lab (DASIL), Adam Lauretig ’13 is making it easier for others to visualize complex datasets.

Lauretig was first introduced to the Polity IV project — run by the Center for Systemic Peace — in Danielle Lussier’s political science course Democratization and the Politics of Regime Change.

Using data from the project, he’s created an interactive map illustrating successful coups d'état that occurred from 1946 to 2012. “This particular map would be useful for anyone interested in political instability or development, since it makes geographic trends in coups visible in ways that might not be apparent simply by looking at a spreadsheet, he says. “For example, the high frequency of coups in South America becomes clear, as does the fact that by the end of the Cold War, coups became less frequent.”

The map allows you to select a year or range of years to see which countries had coups during that time, or to “play” the map to view the year-to-year changes in where they coups occur. The map, Lauretig says, “does not indicate the length of the resulting regime, seeking instead to visualize frequency.”

“The most interesting part of the project was noticing trends in the data and learning more about what ArcGIS (our mapping software) could do,” says Lauretig, “I was working alone, and the data had to be put together by hand: matching coups with the shapefile (an image of the country linked to tabular data) for the country where they occurred.  What stood out to me was how a country that underwent one coup was likely to undergo another, and they often occurred within a decade of each other, suggesting that instability begets instability.”

About the Map

The map: Successful World Coups 1946-2012

The Polity IV codebook defines a coup d'état as “a forceful seizure of executive authority and office by a dissident/opposition faction within the country’s ruling or political elites that results in a substantial change in the executive leadership and the policies of the prior regime.” In a successful coup “authority must be exercised by new executive for at least one month.” 

Data compiled by:

  • Adam Lauretig '13.

GIS shapefiles created by:

  • Nils B. Weidmann,
  • Doreen Kuse, and
  • Kristian Skrede Gleditsch.

Data sources/Works cited:

  • Marshall, Monty G., Donna Ramsey Marshall. 2013. Coups d'Etat 1946-2013. Center for Systemic Peace.
  • Weidmann, Nils B., Doreen Kuse, and Kristian Skrede Gleditsch. 2010. The Geography of the International System: The CShapes Dataset. International Interactions 36 (1).

Peer Mentoring Hours

Get Help with Data Visualization and Analysis at DASIL (ARH 130)

Grinnell’s Data Analysis and Social Inquiry Lab (DASIL) helps students and faculty members integrate data analysis into research and classroom work. In addition to software training and data-set preparation, the lab also provides experiential learning for student tutors; facilitates faculty workshops; helps students collect and analyze data; and offers classroom assistance including exercises, instruction assistance, and student workshops

Probing the Boundaries of Historical Sources & Narratives.

For ten weeks during the summer of 2013, Meg Rudy '14 and Isaiah Tyree '15 examined archival documents related to Professor Paul Lacson’s research on the Dakota peoples during the mid-nineteenth century. His work examines the history of the Dakota Indian diaspora out of Minnesota after the Dakota-US War of 1862 into Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Canada (Saskatchewan and Manitoba). As part of that project, Meg and Isaiah mined the correspondence of Protestant missionaries for sources that shed light on the role of written documents in the political, religious, and economic life of Dakota Indian communities within Minnesota. As part of this MAP, Meg, Isaiah, and Professor Lacson spent three weeks in Minnesota commuting from their dorms at the University of Minnesota to the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS). Each day, Meg and Isaiah hauled their laptops and digital cameras to MHS and photographed hundreds of documents related to the Dakota Indian incorporation of the written word. Using Omeka, a web-based publishing platform, Meg and Isaiah produced a digital library of high resolution photographs that introduces researchers to significance of the written word in Dakota communities during the mid-nineteenth century, just prior to the Dakota diaspora out of Minnesota. For now, Professor Lacson is the main audience for their library, but in the future Lacson will work with MAP students to build on the solid foundation laid by Meg and Isaiah to make the digital library available to the general public.

The methodological possibilities of digital media also informs the work of Professor of History Sarah Purcell ’92, who worked with three MAP students in the summer of 2013 on projects that explored the connections between the Digital Humanities and scholarship on the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction. These summer projects all show the promise of digital research methods in history and digital forms of presenting historical research:

  • An interactive website that charts Iowa casualties at the Battle of Shiloh to refute previous received wisdom about the progress of the battle
  • A social network analysis that visually maps the intersections between attendees at Know Nothing Party conventions and the Republican Party conventions in the 1850s to show how one party influenced the other
  • A geographical analysis of Iowa railroad development that maps the growth of the Chicago & Northwestern line and its relationship to transcontinental lines

The group of four worked through recent debates about digital methods and how history and the Digital Humanities could best intersect. Professor Purcell uses digital tools, including database analysis and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping, in her research on Civil War funerals, and she has published in on-line journals. In addition to discussions about the theories and methods of digital work in history, Purcell’s students explored a variety of software applications that can aid in historical analysis.

  • Connor Schake ’14 used an open-source software program called Time Map to create his analytical web map of the Battle of Shiloh.
  • Hayes Gardner ’15 did cutting edge social network analysis using a program called NodeXL to scrutinize the connections among political party meeting attendees in the 1850s.
  • Evan Ma ’14, who is continuing his research into the fall semester, is exploring various geographical analysis tools, including GIS, to analyze Iowa railroad development in the 1860s and 70s.

Purcell and her students learned that while they are no replacement for the wide array of more traditional primary sources that historians rely on (newspapers, regimental histories, railroad corporate reports, pamphlets, letter collections, etc.), digital tools can help researchers to find interesting answers to well-formed historical questions. Purcell and her students also came to value scholarly collaboration, as they learned from one another, from other faculty, librarians, and technical experts on campus, and even as they consulted online with historians and software experts located around the world.

Finally, moving from visual and spatial to audial culture, six students participated in a group MAP centered around Professor Kelly Maynard's current book project, Hearing Wagner in France. Designed to fill in historiographical and research holes between a PhD dissertation and a full-length monograph, the MAPs centered on three areas: recent historical scholarship on France at the fin-de-siècle, current literature on neurology and cultural critiques of music, and primary source research into the reception of Wagner in the French press, 1900-1914. In addition to preparing weekly reports and comprehensive annotated bibliographies on work in these areas, students developed seminar-length research projects of their own devising with exciting results (see below). Students will present their findings in on-campus venues during the fall semester of 2013 and have submitted their work to academic conferences and undergraduate publications across the country and in multiple academic disciplines. Stay tuned!

Colin Fry '14, Biochemistry and Neuroscience Concentration, assessed the current literature and applications of melodic intonation therapy (MIT) for the treatment of a number of neurological conditions including post-stroke non-fluent aphasia. Stemming from this research, Fry designed an experimental protocol for the use of such therapies for sufferers of schizophasia.

Victor Kyerematen '14, English, traced current scholarship addressing the influence of Wagner’s dramatic texts and practices on cinema in the early twentieth century. Taking up some of the major theorists and music critics of Wagner’s work including Hanslick. Nietzsche, and Adorno, Kyerematen suggested that both film scholars AND philosophers of music have inappropriately dismissed or underestimated the importance of expressive modes rooted in Aristotle and ancient Greek drama for explaining the impact of both Wagnerian and cinematic experiences.

Andrea Lakiotis '15, English and French and Arabic, worked on the pseudonymic books of music criticism published in the 1890s by the literary figure Henri Gauthier-Villars, under the guise of both Willy, a fictional male character, and l’Oeuvreuse, a fictional working class female usher at musical concerts. Lakiotis’s analysis revealed stark and unexpected differences in musical expertise, social attitudes, and treatment of Wagner in the voices of both authors. She also demonstrated significant shifts in the very practice of musical criticism through the fin-de-siècle.

Sami Rebein '14, History, worked on Max Nordau’s controversial 1890s book Degeneration, a critique of modern French society, arts and culture through the lens of medical diagnoses. She found that the major buzz in the book’s French reception did NOT center on the identity of the author (a German Jew) as one might expect in France at the end of the century. Instead, the book generated the most attention primarily in Catholic, philosophical, and scientific fields. Ultimately Rebein identified an important muddling of the supposed divide between science and religion in French thought at the fin-de-siècle.

Liz Sawka '15, History, concentrated upon the official separation of church and state in France in 1905, examining the treatment of the legislative process in key newspapers of the period in light of sharp tensions between religious and scientific authority. She did a comparative analysis of Socialist, Catholic, and Republican papers to determine to what extent and in what ways the legislative process was informed by extra-political debates among these three major constituencies of the Third Republic.

Chloe Yates '14, Political Science and French and Arabic, worked on the French literary figure Romain Rolland and the ways in which his cultural politics borrowed from and adapted Richard Wagner’s early political writings. Although Wagner’s influence in France declined markedly in the first decades of the twentieth century, ultimately Rolland’s approach served as an intellectual bridge to Russian cultural circles, where the heavily socialist leanings of Wagner’s works were reappropriated in a post-revolutionary context.