The most significant motivating factor for my entrance into the world of digital humanities is my interest in spatially visualizing historical data sets. I am especially interested in exploring cities and the flow of everyday life through the urban environment. As French sociologist Henri Lefebrve articulated in The Production of Space, such cityscapes represent “the spatialized production of ideas, values, and memories that individuals and the state attach to them.” By visualizing the city and the ways in which people interact with the physical, social, and cultural landscape of the urban environment, hidden patterns and anomalies emerge to be used for further investigation.
Many inspirations for my own future work in this medium come from Stanford’s Spatial History Project, a project which has produced dozens of visualizations on topics ranging from: immigration, disease, crime, economics, literature, and the environment, among many others. Most relevant to my own historical interest in twentieth-century Mexico City is Zephyr Frank’s multifaceted works on nineteenth-century Rio de Janeiro. My favorite Rio visualizations include: transaction information on 408 slave sales during the spring of 1869, a heat map of the yellow fever outbreak of 1850, and a cartographic survey of residents’ occupations.
The University of Richmond’s “Redlining Richmond” which examines real estate trends and Emory University’s “Atlanta Map Project” which examines the racial history of the city are also excellent examples of the use of computer-based visualizations to further understand the complex social, cultural, and economic relationships within an urban space. These visualizations allow researchers to pick out larger patterns of change which otherwise might be lost in an ocean of data. Such large data sets, when visualized through the use of such programs as ArcGIS or even Google Maps/Earth especially provide insight into change over time. An example of such “big data” transformed by a spatial visualization is the very recently published “Portland, Oregon: The Age of a City” that not only provides incredibly detailed data on housing construction and the spatial growth of the city over the last two hundred years, but also functions as a beautiful mosaic of color and form.
These projects inspire me to create similar (albeit far cruder and smaller) works of my own on Mexico City during the 1950s & 60s, which hopefully can serve as a small but lasting contribution towards the creation of a larger body of knowledge about what I believe to be one of the most fascinating cities in the world.