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My Digital Toolbox


March 23, 2015 by Susan Prillaman

Apparently taking the broadest definition of “tool” to mean anything that serves as a means, I selected Grass GIS, Viewshare, Yahoo! Pipes and Zotero to review for this assignment. A narrower definition, one where a tool is defined as a device or implement (or application) used to carry out a particular function, would eliminate all but Zotero from this list.

As described in DiRT Directory, GRASS GIS is free and open source software used for geospatial data management and analysis, image processing, graphics/maps production, spatial modeling, and visualization. Digging a bit deeper, I discovered GRASS (for Geographic Resources Analysis Support System) was developed by the U.S. Army – Construction Engineering Resource Lab (USA-CERL) for land management and environmental planning and is released under the GNU General Public License. After release 4.1 in 1995, USA-CERL terminated its involvement with the program which was subsequently picked up by a group at Baylor University. GRASS is currently used by academic and commercial institutions and by governmental agencies like NASA, NOAA, USDA, NPS, USGS and the U.S. Census Bureau.

Given its use by the above mentioned agencies, I have no doubt GRASS is a robust software package with all the functionality of a GIS. Perhaps I’ve spent too many years using ArcGIS by ESRI but using GRASS was not as “user friendly” as William Shatner promises in the army’s 1987 promotional video even with a graphical interface. Like any new tool, use breeds familiarity and ease but even with GIS experience, I didn’t find getting started with GRASS an easy proposition. Perhaps someone who has no preconceived notions about how it should operate and time to spend with the program’s documentation would have a better experience.

Looking for alternatives to GRASS and ArcGIS, I found several—both free open-source and commercial—suggested at QGIS with 31 “likes” tops the list well ahead of GRASS GIS with 12 and ArcGIS with only seven. A small sample to be sure but enough to lead me to suggest trying QGIS first. Another suggestion is to use Google Earth for simple mapping tasks. Using Google as a working platform for my capstone project, I’ve found it very easy to geo-reference a scanned map over an aerial view of Decatur Cemetery and to upload coordinates taken with a recreational GPS unit.

With the tagline “interfaces to our heritage,” my second tool, Viewshare, is described in DiRT Directory as a free web application for creating interfaces and visualizations of cultural heritage collections. It can create interactive maps, timelines, facets, tag clouds, histograms, and image galleries. The intended users of Viewshare are individuals managing and creating access to digital collections of cultural heritage materials. Viewshare accounts are free but must be requested through the Library of Congress.

Viewshare allows users to create dynamic views (e.g. charts, maps, image galleries, and timelines) from existing digital collections. These views may then be embedded into a webpage like Omeka. While many of the same visualizations are available through Omeka’s third-party plug-ins, Viewshare’s documentation says its widgets provide additional ways “to visually explore trends and patterns in the collection.”

Beyond superficial site-surfing, I have not used this digital application in the work we have performed to date. It is, however, something I plan to experiment with in preparing my exhibit and also perhaps my capstone project.

Yahoo! Pipesallows users to combine, filter, translate, and geocode data from RSS feeds, JSON, KML, or other similar formats, and power widgets/badges using that data” (DiRT Directory).

The YouTube tutorial makes setting up a “pipe” look so easy. You just drag and drop this box from a list, type in an URL, drag and drop this other box from a list, type in the terms you want to search for or exclude, connect them up with pipes to an “output” box, publish and voila! You have created a webpage filled with articles meeting your criteria. In practice, Yahoo! Pipes may be a powerful tool for collecting subject specific items from the web, but there is a lot more functionality—and complexity–than the introductory tutorial indicates. A proponent of having the right tool for the job, I found Google Alerts much easier to use, provided results from a wide range of sources without having to go looking for an RSS feed, and the data is delivered to my email account as frequently as I determine.

For the Atlanta Railway Corridor project, I created alerts for Atlanta and West Point Railroad, Atlanta Beltline, Louisville and Nashville Railroad, Seaboard Air Line, and Southern Railway. Southern Railway is an international business so after receiving news items for locations in India and Europe, I modified the alert to return only those items in Georgia. Making the change was simple: at the bottom of each results email are links to edit all alerts or only the one that generated that specific email.

DiRT Directory describes Zotero [zoh-TAIR-oh] as “a free, easy-to-use tool to help users collect, organize, cite, and share their research sources. Users can add PDFs, images, audio and video files, snapshots of web pages, and really anything else. Zotero automatically indexes the full-text content of their libraries, enabling them to find exactly what they’re looking for with just a few keystrokes.” All true although I have had difficulty adding PDFs. That said, Zotero is probably the most useful tool of the bunch. I think it exemplifies what I think of when I think of what a tool should be: its use is clear and you can pick it up and start using it effectively almost immediately. I like it so much I’ve begun using it to keep track of work-related and personal sites as well as for coursework. I can see where it would also be a great tool for collaboration yet I regret to say I haven’t populated anything to the class account.

On the negative side, I find the library file structure inflexible and keep trying to drag and drop Titles from one collection to another, unsuccessfully. There must be a more efficient way than copy and delete to move items around, but I have not found it.

Finally, I use three hold-in-the-hand digital tools, each with a particular use: a LiveScribe digital pen records and links together handwritten notes and audio for meeting or class notes, an Ectaco C-pen to scan text into a Word document to transcribe lengthy quotes, and a VuPoint Magic Wand for scanning images into a PDF or JPG file.


  1. chuber1 says:

    This was really interesting to read. I have to say that after reading your review about GRASS GIS I am rather frightened by it. This is namely because I find ArcGIS pretty hard to use ( I’ve only ever had a very basic crash course in it). What exactly was the issue with its useablity?
    I have to say I am definitely going to have to try and use Viewshare. It sounds like a really neat tool and I am especially interested in how it puts together interactive maps. This should be interesting to mess about with.
    I am also glas that you reviewed Yahoo!Pipes, even if it did not prove useful to you, namely as it presented me with another way in which to gather sources. I had not considered creating a feed for my research topics before, but I can see how this would be extremely useful. I will definitely need to consider how to employ this tool in my research strategy.

  2. Julie says:

    Susan, after reading your review, I went ahead and got an account from Viewshare. I am a very visually person, and I think history is best understood through sight and interactivity so I can’t wait to try it out. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Adina Langer says:

    Susan, I am exciting to see what you come up with RE Viewshare. I am also interested to hear more about your hand-held digital tools. The multifarious ways in which digital tools can interface with the ways we prefer to manipulate our environment is of interest to me.

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