USAboundaries v0.3.0 released

I’ve recently published version 0.3.0 of my USAboundaries R package to CRAN. USAboundaries provides access to spatial data for U.S. counties, states, cities, congressional districts, and zip codes. Of course you can easily get contemporary boundaries from lots of places, but this package lets you specify dates and get the locations for historical county and state boundaries as well as city locations.

This version of the package has a number of new features. It has jumped on the Simple Features bandwagon, so now all boundary data is returned as an sf object. This version also includes updated shapefiles from the U.S. Census for contemporary data, as well as new centroids for Zipcode Tabulation Areas and historical city populations courtesy of Erik Steiner’s project from CESTA.

I’m especially glad that the package has added a new author: Jordan Bratt, a PhD student at George Mason and a collaborator on Mapping Early American Elections. Jordan added functionality to the package that lets users get projections from the State Plane Coordinate System, so that they can make locally accurate maps at the level of the state or below.

The package has a new website thanks to pkgdown. You can read the full release notes at the package website.

Pick the title for my digital history textbook

In my first semester teaching one of my department’s graduate methods courses in digital history, I realized that there was not a lot good material for teaching computer programming and data analysis in R for historians. So I started writing up a series of tutorials for my students, which they said were helpful. It seemed like those materials could be the nucleus of a textbook, so I started writing one with the title Digital History Methods in R.

It was too soon to start writing, though. Besides needing to spend my time on more pressing projects, I didn’t really have a clear conception of how to teach the material. And in the past few years, the landscape for teaching computational history has been transformed. There are many more books available, some specifically aimed at humanists, such as Graham, Milligan, and Weingart’s Exploring Big Historical Data and Arnold and Tilton’s Humanities Data in R, and others aimed at teaching a modern version of R, such as Hadley Wickham’s Advanced R and R for Data Science. The “tidyverse” of R packages has made a consistent approach to data analysis possible, and the set of packages for text analysis in R is now much better. R markdown and bookdown have made writing a technical book about R much easier, and Shiny has made it much easier to demonstrate concepts interactively.

After teaching these courses a few times, I have a clearer conception of what the textbook needs to accomplish and how I want it to look.

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New package tokenizers joins rOpenSci

This post originally appeared at the rOpenSci blog.

The R package ecosystem for natural language processing has been flourishing in recent days. R packages for text analysis have usually been based on the classes provided by the NLP or tm packages. Many of them depend on Java. But recently there have been a number of new packages for text analysis in R, most notably text2vec, quanteda, and tidytext. These packages are built on top of Rcpp instead of rJava, which makes them much more reliable and portable. And instead of the classes based on NLP, which I have never thought to be particularly idiomatic for R, they use standard R data structures. The text2vec and quanteda packages both rely on the sparse matrices provided by the rock solid Matrix package. The tidytext package is idiosyncratic (in the best possible way!) for doing all of its work in data frames rather than matrices, but a data frame is about as standard as you can get. For a long time when I would recommend R to people, I had to add the caveat that they should use Python if they were primarily interested in text analysis. But now I no longer feel the need to hedge.

Still there is a lot of duplicated effort between these packages on the one hand and a lot of incompatibilities between the packages on the other. The R ecosystem for text analysis is not exactly coherent or consistent at the moment.

My small contribution to the new text analysis ecosystem is the tokenizers package, which was recently accepted into rOpenSci after a careful peer review by Kevin Ushey. A new version of the package is on CRAN. (Also check out Jeroen Ooms’s hunspell package, which is a part of rOpensci.)

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An introduction to the textreuse package, with suggested applications

A number of problems in digital history/humanities require one to calculate the similarity of documents or to identify how one text borrows from another. To give one example, the Viral Texts project, by Ryan Cordell, David Smith, et al., has been very successful at identifying reprinted articles in American newspapers.1 Kellen Funk and I have been working on a text reuse problem in nineteenth-century legal history, where we seek to track how codes of civil procedure were borrowed and modified in jurisdictions across the United States.

As part of that project, I have recently released the textreuse package for R to CRAN. (Thanks to Noam Ross for giving this package a very thorough open peer review for rOpenSci, to whom I’ve contributed the package.) This package is a general purpose implementation of several algorithms for detecting text reuse, as well as classes and functions for investigating a corpus of texts. Put most simply, full text goes in and measures of similarity come out.2 Put more formally, here is the package description:

Tools for measuring similarity among documents and detecting passages which have been reused. Implements shingled n-gram, skip n-gram, and other tokenizers; similarity/dissimilarity functions; pairwise comparisons; minhash and locality- sensitive hashing algorithms; and a version of the Smith-Waterman local alignment algorithm suitable for natural language.

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