What is Neatline?
In the broadest sense, Neatline is an annotation framework that makes it possible to create rich, interactive editions of visual objects. In the past, the project has focused on maps, but Neatline can also be used to annotate anything that has some sort of visual instantiation - the same set of vector-drawing and content management tools can be used to create interpretive views of paintings, drawings, photographs, documents, diagrams, and anything else that can be captured as an image.
Here are some examples of the kinds of projects that could be built (or have been built!) with Neatline:
Wordsworth in the Alps: In Book Sixth of The Prelude, “Cambridge and the Alps,” Wordsworth describes his 1790 grand tour of Europe, culminating in the famous description of the crossing of Simplon Pass in the Alps. You want to create an interactive edition of the poem that traces Wordsworth’s journey from Cambridge across the channel to Calais, south through France, into the Alps, and along the Stockalper trail over the pass. How does Wordsworth’s description of the sequence of towns and landmarks map onto the actual geography of the area?
The Declaration of Independence: The signatures at the bottom of the Declaration of Independence are iconic - we can all recognize John Hancock and Thomas Jefferson, but what about the rest? You want to create an interactive edition of the document that traces out visual annotations around each of the signatures that connects it to a short biography - who they were, where they came from, and how they ended up signing the declaration. With the signatories in place, you then provide a transcription of the declaration itself, and link the individual sentences or words in the text to the corresponding locations on the high-resolution scan of the original document.
Minard’s Napoleon Infographic: Charles Minard’s 1869 diagram showing the gradual depletion of the French army over the course of Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia is a seminal work in the history of information design. You want to take high-resolution scan of Minard’s original graphic, overlay it on top of modern satellite geography, and layer on an interactive reimagination of the original material - trace out the components of Minard’s flowchart, add background information about each of the cities and rivers marked along the route, and link individual objects on the map to paragraphs and sentences in a narrative that describes the history of the invasion.
Whitman’s “Salut au Monde”: “Salut au Monde” is an index of Whitman’s geographic imagination, an expansive catalog of cities, countries, regions, landmarks, oceans, rivers, and cultures. You want to create a rich interactive edition of the poem by layering the actual text on top of modern satellite imagery and connecting each of the of geospatial references to hand-selected (and at times highly interpretive) focus locations on the map - the “Amazon” to the expansive, dark green rainforests in Brazil, the “northern blasts” to the glaciers in the Brooks Range, etc.
Hotchkiss at Chancellorsville: Jedediah Hotchkiss, a military cartographer for the Confederacy during the Civil War, spent the rest of his life revisiting maps he made during the war, sketching in marginalia and marking off troop locations. In one instance, he printed a series of three identical engravings of the area around Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg and sketched in the positions of the Union and Confederate armies on each of the three days of the Battle of Chancellorsville with colored pencils. You want to create an exhibit that positions the three maps on top of modern satellite imagery of the battle field and layers on a second layer of visual annotation about the maps - the movement of the armies in the weeks leading up to the battle, Lee’s risky decision to split his army and leave half of his force behind at Fredericksburg, and why Jackson decided to perform a risky flanking maneuver on the morning of the first day.
The Chelyabinsk Meteor: On February 15, 2013, a 10,000-ton meteor streaked over the city of Chelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains, producing a massive airburst that shattered windows and collapsed buildings. The explosion occurred during the morning rush hour, and the event was captured by dozens of commuters with dashboard-mounted video cameras. You want to create an exhibit that traces out the trajectory of the meteor as it enters the atmosphere and traverses the airspace over the city, and plot out the exact position and orientation of each of the recordings relative to the location of the airburst.
What makes it different?
How does Neatline fit into the existing ecosystem of geospatial and annotation tools? Neatline sits in the space between consumer-grade mapping applications like the Google custom map-maker and heavyweight, analytical GIS tools like ArcGIS. It’s designed to be simple enough that college undergraduates can easily use it for class assignments, but also sufficiently flexible, scalable, and feature-rich that it can be used for professional scholarship, journalism, and art. Neatline keeps things simple and provides sensible defaults, but it’s careful never to make intellectual or aesthetic decisions on your behalf.