Google Earth: Platform for Academic Scholarship?

This report was included in today’s Wired News from the Chronicle of Higher Education. The University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab, home of William and Mary’s own Rob Nelson, has produced a powerful tool to provide new insights into historical voting data.

Earlier this year scholars at the University of Richmond unveiled an innovative Web site that displays county-by-county election data from U.S. presidential elections since 1840. Now their project’s been Googled. In an effort to get more exposure for their data just in time for election day, the university’s Digital Scholarship Lab spent the past few months working with Google engineers to embed the data into Google Maps and Google Earth. The results are now part of Google’s election Web site. In a statement released today, Rick Klau, a manager on Google’s Elections team said, the company hoped other universities would use the Google Earth platform “to share information and make a complex collection of data structures more easily accessible.” The Richmond scholars had already developed maps with features similar to those of Google Earth, which lets users scroll around maps of the U.S., zooming in on any address to see relevant data about the locations. In fact, the Google version has less information for now, since researchers only had time to load in election data going back to 1980. But Andrew Torget, director of the Digital Scholarship Lab, said in an interview this week that the goal of the partnership was to get the information in front of a wider audience. “It was an opportunity to put out this digital scholarship on the biggest digital platform there is, Google.” As more scholars try similar map-based data projects, should they use Google as a platform? Or are there benefits to building home-grown interfaces instead? –Jeffrey R. Young