A mapping visualization project based on locations referenced in biographical texts.
Visualization Project Report
The following is a summary of the steps I took over the course of the visualization project. It will be useful for understanding the final output, and for anyone who wants to pick up where I left off.
This phase was focused on assembling the foundational data for the project: a list of locations references in the biography summaries along with their significance in the life of the individuals covered.
I read all the selected biography summaries and copied each location mentioned into a table along with its significance. To capture significance quickly but meaningful, I assigned each location one of five significant codes, depending on the role it played in the subjects’ life:
- (1) Born – Indicates the subject’s birthplace.
- (2) Study – Indicates a place where the subject studied, typically a monastery and often some distance from home.
- (3) Work – Indicates a place where the subject worked or made a professional contribution.
- (4) Influence – Indicates a remote influence on the subject’s life. This term catches a variety of kinds of influences (the referenced geographic origin of a school of thought or idea, the monastery that a master the subject encounters comes from, etc.) The subjects generally do not travel to these locations so locations tagged influence represent intellectual and political exchange rather than physical movement.
- (5) Travel – Indicates a place that the subject traveled to but generally did not reside permanently at.
Many of the biography summaries were surprisingly light on locations. Most neglected to mention the birthplace of the subject, almost all did not reference the subject’s death location, and many described important activities in the subjects’ life (studying under a master, erecting a temple, etc.) without specifying where the event took place. On several occasions, the summaries noted that the subject went to meditate in solitude in “the mountains” or “the wilderness,” which are not possible to associate with a specific location.
I also resolved a few minor technical issues at this stage. Several of the files covered the same subject (i.e. Milarepa) so I consolidated those entries and two of the summaries didn’t mention any locations at all so I omitted those. Several files also summarized biographies with multiple subject so I gave each one its own entry. I omitted references to locations in past lives from the visualized data set, as well as to non-physical locations.
Appendix I lists the files covered by this analysis.
This phase was focusing on associated as many of the extracted locations as possible with latitude/longitude coordinates, in preparation for visualizing the locations on a map. This phase included the following four major steps:
- (1) Cross-referencing the extracted location table with a coordinate database with consolidated location data drawn from Harvard’s Tibet Historical GIS data (https://www.fas.harvard.edu/~chgis/) and the location database provided by Treasury of Lives (http://treasuryoflives.org/), which together included over 1,000 historic Tibetan place names with their corresponding coordinates.
- (2) Running the locations through the Google Sheets Geocoding add-on (https://google-developers.appspot.com/maps/documentation/utils/geocoder/), which pulls coordinate data for the inputs from several databases.
- (3) Querying the Google Maps API Geocoder (https://google-developers.appspot.com/maps/documentation/utils/geocoder/) and Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page), which has a robust set of geographic data on historical locations, for coordinate data.
- (4) Deconflicting the results and checking the output for plausibility (examining coordinate data to see if the output is roughly in the right region, test-mapping the coordinates).
On some occasions, it was necessary to select a reasonable approximation of the coordinates (the town a monastery was in rather than the monastery itself) and to use coordinates for the modern-day successor of the historical location (renamed towns, etc.)
However, due to inconsistent spelling of Tibetan place names, limited historical coordinate information, the obscurity of some of the locations referenced (“Horse Tooth White Rock,” “Seng phug cave of the Wang valley,” etc.), and the reality that several of the locations referenced do not exist in the present and so will not appear in the contemporary coordinate sources, it was not possible to confidently assign coordinates to all the locations.
Of the 206 locations extracted from the biography summaries, I was able to correlate 153, or approximately 74%, with latitude and longitude coordinates.
Because these omissions were spread throughout (see Table) the biographies, it was necessary to decide whether to include subjects in the ultimate visualization if some or many of the locations associated with them could not be plotted. I ultimately erred on the side of inclusion and only omitted subjects from the visualization if (1) a large proportion of the locations associated with them were unmappable, (2) the remainder was entirely unrepresentative, or (3) all but one location in the series was unmappable, which would make it impossible to draw a line. Although this means that some plots are not as rich as the originally extracted data suggest, that’s also true more generally of the relationship between biography and summary, which seemed all the more reason to err on the side of inclusion.
Ultimately, of the 37 subjects covered by the summaries, it was necessary to exclude 6 that didn’t meet these criteria. 31 subjects were ultimately included.
Phase III: Visualization/Mapping
This phase was focusing on visualizing the location data in QGIS, an open source geographic information system package.
I assigned a number to each location in one table and then plotted 112 lines illustrating the journey each subject took through a sequence of locations; for example, the route from their birthplace to the monastery they studied in to the places they traveled to. If the subject studied in Lhasa and then traveled to New Delhi, I would create an entry in the line database indicating that a line should connect Lhasa at point 3 to New Delhi at point 5, and then repeated the process for each line.
I generally plotted the sequence of locations traversed by a given subject as a series as a progression of connected lines (born-study-travel-work-travel) with the exception of “influences,” which are connected to the proceeding entry (so influences encountered in the proximity of a period of studying at a location are drawn in connection with that location).
One of the limitations of this approach is that the first entry in the sequence doesn’t have a representation of significance, only each of the following ones. For example, a line drawn between a point indicating birth to a point indicating a place of study would be associated with “study.” As far as I can tell, there’s no ready method that I can use to overcome this limitation.
Another challenge presented by this approach is that the PointConnector plugin I used also truncates the imported data down to the unique ids of each end of the line (excluding the data about the significance of the connection and which subject was associated with it) so I used QGIS’s Join tool to cross-reference the data sets and bring those associations back into the Line layer. I then labeled each line with the subject in question. I also used several cross-table VLOOKUPs to keep the data in sync across data sets.
As a final step, I produced and exported several different versions of the map to illustrate the output at different levels of zoom and in different areas. This is a summary of the maps I output:
Color Code: Born [White], Study [Blue], Work [Green], Influence [Red], Travel [Orange]
- Significance (Color-Coded) Wide View
- Significance (Color-Coded) Mid View
- Significance (Color-Coded) Narrow View I
- Significance (Color-Coded) Narrow View II
- Significance No Terrain
- NoSignificance Mid View
- NoSignificance Mid View (No Names)
Reflections and Caveats
- Density of International Interactions Even with a relatively small sample size, I think the map is effective at capturing some of the cosmopolitan interactions of the covered era in Tibetan history. As expected, many of the subjects have extensive travels to and influences from Nepal, India, and Kashmir. But it’s also notable (and expected) that the highest density of study, travel, influence, and travel occur in southern Tibet.
- Emphasis on Middle of Subjects’ Lives Although they depict a chronological progression of places visited, the lines more accurately capture the middle of most subjects’ lives than their full expanse. This is because, as mentioned previously, it was not possible to visualize the significance of the first point in the sequence, birth location is missing for many subjects (which means that the lines begin with events that are well into their lives), and death location is missing for virtually all subjects. While it is natural to read the lines as capturing the full progression of a life, they’re more accurately read as a schematic snapshot of some significant events and activities. That said, on many occasions, the lines capture the general progression of the subjects’ lives well.
File Names of Summaries Analyzed
- A brief biography of Buton Rinchen Drub
- Biography of Like An Illusion
- Chos Smra ba’i dge slong blo bzang chos kyi rgyal mtshan gyi spyod tshul gsal bar ston pa nor bu’i phreng ba (=Nor bu’i phreng ba)
- Falling Off the Roof of the World- The Autobiography of the Venerable Lama Dudjom Dorjee
- Fearless in Tibet; the life of the mystic Tertön Sogyal
- Galun Zhuan
- Himalayan Hermitess- The Life of a Tibetan Buddhist Nun
- Masters of Meditation and Miracles
- Poluonai Zhuan
- Precious Essence
- Rdo-rin Bandi-tai rnam thar
- Rosary of White Lotuses
- Sky Dancer
- The Autobiography of Jamgon Kongtrul
- The Biography of Pha jo sgom Zhig po
- The divine madman- the sublime life and songs of Drukpa Kunley (1455 – 1529)
- The Fugitive Lives of the Sixth Dalai Lama
- The Lamp That Enlightens Narrow Minds- Life and Times of// //a Realized Tibetan Master, Khyentse Chökyi Wangchug
- The Life and Works of Shardza Tashi Gyeltsen
- The Life of Longchenpa- The Omniscient Dharma King of the Vast Expanse
- The Life of Shabkar
- The Life of Yol mo ‘dzin nor bu
- The spiritual biography of Marpa, the translator
- Tibet’s great yogī Milarepa- a biography from the Tibetan
- When a Woman Becomes a Religious Dynasty- The Samding Dorje Phagmo of Tibet
- Biography of Milarepa Archie
- Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo_Kelsang
- Jan Willis biographies-Xiaobai
- Life of Milarepa Garrett
- MA Biography of Dudjom Dorjee zhouyang (duplicate)
- Marpa Biography Summary by India (duplicate)
- Play of the Omniscient Samyak
- Yichen Wang DL5 17th c
- Yolmo Tenzin Norbu 1598-1644 abstract_Heimann
- Yunzheng Chen – Biography of Choying Dorje Abstract & Summary