Project Reviews

Critical Habitat
Created and maintained by The Spatial History Project at the Bill Lane Center for the American West, Stanford University.

In Critical Habitat, one of the projects comprising the larger Spatial History Project, "Principal Investigator" Jon Christensen uses digital tools to "[investigate] the relationship between people and the environment in the American West at different spatial and temporal scales" (Project Description). Drawing heavily from scientific findings, Christensen examines how human policies and actions affect the world around them, as well as the other organisms that also inhabit it. The Critical Habitat project is itself comprised of six sub-projects authored by Christensen and a handful of other researchers, each of which focuses on a more specific topic or issue within the general subject of the complex relationship between humans and their ecosystems in California history. As the project is very much a work in progress (to date, it presents substantial content for only three of its six sub-projects), this review focuses on the three parts of the overall project that do contain significant information and/or findings.

Before discussing individual parts of Critical Habitat, however, a few words about the project as a whole might be appropriate. The structure of the main page is fairly simple and straightforward. At the top right side of the page is a link to the "Principal Investigator's" brief profile, with various lists of links on the left to other parts of the larger Spatial History Project (which may confuse unfamiliar users). The main page offers a one-sentence "Description" of the project as a whole before presenting a series of one-sentence descriptions each sub-project. Near the bottom of the page are seven thumbnails which direct users to four research projects (containing visualizations and discussions) and three manipulable images with brief descriptions (these visualizations are included within the sub-projects). On the whole, then, the project is sparse in terms of explanatory content (information about the origins of the project, its authors, why the project exists, what value it contributes as a whole, how the different sub-projects each contribute to the whole, why each sub-project was chosen as a subject of study, and so forth).

The component confusingly entitled "On the Wings of the Butterfly" under the main "Description" and "Critical Habitat" in the thumbnail section appears to be the core of the project. The sub-project stems from Christensen's dissertation-in-progress and uses findings from research done on the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve (on Stanford's campus) to dissect the relationship between preservation efforts and the Bat checkerspot butterfly's declining population numbers. Using the scientific findings to compile one static chart and two interactive visualizations, Christensen and Gabriel Shields-Estrada reveal how preservation efforts actually appear to have caused populations of the butterfly to become extinct, for prohibitions on grazing disrupted habitat conditions essential for the butterfly's survival. Although insightful and convincing, the project is a brief one that is short on discussion and analysis (the abstract is nearly as long as the rest of the text combined) and offers users no access to the sources used to formulate the visualizations. It is, in effect, something of a scholarly journal article presented online with a couple of innovative images included to make it "digital."

Another sub-project, "Bay Area Conservation and Development," by Christensen and Carrie Denning, uses GIS (Geographic Information System) to examine the history of conservation and suburban development in Silicon Valley. The project ultimately produces a "counterfactual map" (based on data derived from "conserved parcel shapefiles provided by the GreenInfo Network" (Historical Overview)) to assess what would have become of conserved lands in Silicon Valley had they been developed. The authors ultimately conclude that "development in these preserved acres would have occurred slowly and at a low density, if at all" because of the land's topography (Description). The authors present three figures (one static set of charts, one static map, and one interactive map) to buttress their discussions and analyses (which are more substantial than that of "Critical Habitat"). Like the previous sub-project, this one is also presented in the traditional scholarly journal-style, complete with endnotes (a total of ten) and rather than offering users access to their evidence, the authors simply direct them to the GreenInfo Network homepage.

In the third project, Christensen and Moritz Sudhof examine the patterns of scientists and their patterns of research in California, and how those patterns shaped historical knowledge of California's ecosystems. Although this research is still in progress, initial findings (based on data compiled from the California Consortium of Herbaria) suggest that "a disproportionate amount of the specimen were collected near highways, suggesting that infrastructure has played a significant role in determining which areas of California and which plants have received the careful attention of botanists" (Abstract). To date, the sub-project contains three figures (two static maps and one static graph) which trace botanical specimen acquisition and location over time. As it is not yet complete, the text of the journal-style project is largely suggestive, descriptive, and hypothetical. The initial findings, however, are insightful, convincing and fascinating. Again, however, a dearth of references to sources and lack of access to data highlights the limitations of this project as far as digital scholarship goes.

A fourth research sub-project is inexplicably included only in the thumbnail section of the main page, but not under the main "Description" section. Authored by four individuals from the History Department and Classics Department at Stanford, "A Spatial Approach to California Botanists" uses five figures (all static images) to "track the careers of four prominent figures [botanists, ecologists, and surveyors] from the early 20th century to the present, in order to visualize changing methodologies of collection, collaboration, and publication" in California (Abstract). Their visualizations enable users to see the patterns of their subjects' scientific studies, but deeper explanations of the images and their implications might have made the project more useful for non-specialists.

Although not stated explicitly, Critical Habitat is a project aimed more at scholars than at general users. The complexity of the authors' prose, shortages of description and analysis at times, the project's narrow focus on specific regions and specific issues (it is short on discussions of "big-picture" relevance), and the project's overall lack of cohesion and direction can render it difficult to follow. Indeed, the project might be best described as a digital equivalent of a printed volume of essays. At some times, it even feels like more of a research tool (one for scholars to consult for maps and charts derived from data, for instance) than a unified piece of digital scholarship. It clearly makes strong use of the visualization dimension of the digital history movement (which is ultimately what the Spatial History Project is all about), but it does not harness the potential of user engagement and interconnectivity (a project's links within itself and beyond).

Ultimately, though, Critical Habitat is a project that shows great promise. It highlights some of the scholarly potential offered by modern technology, as its utilization of GIS provides users with insightful visualizations of historical developments relating to humans and their impact on habitats in California. The fact that it is still a young project holds out the hope that Christensen and his colleagues will utilize more of the many available digital tools to further strengthen what is an already valuable collection of research projects. Visualization is great, but it is only one of the many prospects afforded by existing technology.

Adam R. Hodge
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Reviewed: February 2011