In the past week I’ve had a lot of reasons to think about the computational thinking project I worked on between 2008 and 2012. My collaborator Ljubomir Perkovic and I went into it believing that computational thinking isn’t something that should be done by computer scientists in isolation but instead is something that is best done in context and significantly involving the people who know the field in which it’s being applied. We recruited a diverse set of people from a variety of disciplines to work with us, and seeing the great things they produced was one of the most satisfying things about that project.
In reflecting back on it I think the most beautiful work to come out of it wasn’t done by me or Ljubomir but instead by one of the historians on the project. Brian Boeck is a Russian historian at DePaul, and as a part of our project he worked to include exercises asking students to examine bias in history books. The talk he gave on his work is something I still try to show people, and if you’ve never seen it it’s worth the download and the 15 minutes it takes to watch. Brian produced some excellent work, and I’m happy I had a chance to be associated with it.
Today I saw a video that reminded me of our project and Brian’s work, although none of it is directly related to what we did. The video is a data visualization of the death toll of the Second World War. In a careful way the narrator steps you through various visualizations of the military and civilian losses of the war, adding photos and historical context where appropriate to understand certain aspects of the data. What’s impossible to convey is how moving the video is. To give just one example, on paper a number like 8.7 million Soviet soldiers sounds terrible but watching that number rapidly scroll up on a screen a thousand-person symbol at a time is horrific. You wouldn’t think that a bar graph could bring you to tears, but this video has several that did just that to me. In the end the message of the video is hopeful, so don’t let my description prevent you from taking the time to watch.
Thinking about all of this today has made me wonder what future things have yet to be created by people in history, cinema, or some other field who also happen to know about computing. The excitement of that prospect is precisely what I need to get me through the last tough week of the quarter.