Veneta Haralampieva writes:
In case you haven’t read my previous blog post, my name is Veneta Haralampieva. I am a recent graduate from the Computer Science Department of the University of Manchester and I have spent the past seven weeks working on application aiming to visualise aspects of the life of Jeff Nuttall (1933–2004), one of the most prominent figures in the British cultural life of several decades ago.
Let me give you a brief overview of the project I have been working on. The main idea behind it was finding a new, exciting way to showcase the extent of the international collaboration between Jeff Nuttall and other artists at that time. Douglas Field from English and American Studies in the University, alongside with Louise Lever, Sean Bechhofer and several other people from the Computer Science Department and the University of Manchester Library came up with the idea to use a graph to illustrate this. They needed someone to create this application and this is where I came in. My work involved developing a graph – think of it as a mind map – which shows all the items in the Jeff Nuttall archive, like letters, poems, cut ups, etc., and their authors. So if you picture this as a mind map, you would have a circle for an item, let’s say a letter, which is connected via a line to its author and to Jeff Nuttall of course, our main figure. Quite simple, isn’t it? What’s exciting about this, is that you could very quickly identify close friends and collaborators of Jeff by looking at how many letters or postcards they have sent him: just look at how many circles an author is connected to! And of course you could hover over each circle to find out more about each item; for example, you can see its title, the date it was produced, where it was sent from, etc. (Fig. 1)
Fig. 1: Screen-shot of the Jeff Nuttall Digital Map.
However, this is only one way to visualise this information. There are many more which can be used to demonstrate the relationships between Nuttall’s friends and collaborators. Another way to do this is using a chord diagram (Fig. 2). If you don’t know what these are don’t worry: it’s nothing too complicated. It simply has all the artists lined out in a circle. The connections between them are again influenced by the items they have created. For example, if two people have corresponded by letter, there will be a line connecting them. It might sound a bit boring at first, however, this visualisation very quickly starts to become a wonderful mesh of lines, trying to capture the complicated relationships between over one hundred people.
Fig. 2: Screen-shot of the Jeff Nuttall Digital Map: chord diagram.
I am the person who created this application with lots of help from members of the University and the John Rylands Library, without whose help none of this would have been possible. It has been extremely challenging, exciting and something which I have never done before. My main goal was to try and capture some bits and pieces of the life of this amazing artist. Working on this project has made me realise how technology is able to help us peer into the life of this great man, whom we can never meet, and see just a fraction of his relationships. However, I would like you to remember that there were several hundred items in this archive only and yet we see such a rich network. This goes to show how much impact Jeff had on the lives of other people. For the rest of us humble individuals it serves as a reminder that we all touch other people’s lives.
And before I conclude I would like to share some boring but useful technical tips for anyone out there wishing to build a similar application. Data, data, data!!! This is truly crucial for the creation of such an application. You need to have the information in a structured format, preferably one that would be easy to incorporate into a web application (JSON, CSV, etc). I cannot stress enough how important well-structured data is for any visualisation work.
As for the specific technologies used in the Jeff Nuttall app, it was built using a variation of the MEAN stack. If you don’t know what it is don’t worry 🙂 I will briefly explain what we used. The app we had relied on was AngularJS and D3, frameworks that centre around building the beautiful app you see in your browser. For the server side the app used NodeJS and ExpressJS and the information the app needed is stored in a graph database called Neo4J (it can stored the data in a mind map like format). 🙂
Finally, as we have covered the techy (boring) side of things it is time to conclude this post and I would like to leave you with this: How would a graph of your life look like? Imagine all your emails, pictures, social media activity all represented like this. I cannot even begin to comprehend the extent of this!
Jeff Nuttall (1933-2004) was a Lancastrian artist and poet, jazz musician, critic, social commentator, novelist, actor and influential teacher. He was a major figure in the worldwide network of radical, avant-garde literature and art that challenged mainstream culture in the 1960s and 1970s. His role in counter culture is the subject of a major exhibition at the John Rylands Library, Off Beat: Jeff Nuttall and the International Underground which runs from 8 September until 5 March 2017.
The exhibition includes a digital table where visitors can explore, amongst other things, The Jeff Nuttall Digital Map. For readers who are unable to visit in person you can access the map here.