Mapping Inequality

Since we launched in October of 2016, Mapping Inequality has received a good deal of public recognition.  National Geographic named it one of the top mapping projects of the year and Slate's Rebecca Onion put it on the list of the year's best digital history projects.  Justin Madron recently wrote a summary of the project that gives a good overview of the data resources.  I wanted to augment that with an account of helping pull this together as a faculty member, in order to give other historians a sense of the process and what a project of this scope entails.

It was somewhere early in graduate school when I first read about the Home Owners' Loan Corporation in Ken Jackson's Crabgrass Frontier.  At the time, I was deep in coursework, barely starting on my graduate research and, while I was concerned about the practice and impact of redlining, it was not my first line of inquiry.  Besides, I didn't see this as a debate I could contribute much to.  Jackson set the line of the debate that still dominates among historians, and Amy Hillier had just published her articles a year or two before, using GIS no less, which was totally beyond my grasp.  Eventually I did develop some GIS skills with some intense summer work.  It took me several years of thinking about the state of scholarship on HOLC and redlining, of developing a familiarity with the National Archives, and of getting a sense of big data possibilities before I began to think about a HOLC digital project.  In fact, it was a set of trips to NARA and NARA II that was really eye-opening -- how much material there was there and how increasingly friendly the institution was to digitization.

When I started at Virginia Tech, I thought about digitizing the whole run of HOLC maps, talked to a few people who had some interest (or had it and lost it), and realized that it would be a plausible project.  After a few exploratory trips to College Park, I had about 25 or 30 maps that I made publicly available, which at that point, was the largest collection available on the web.  It was in this period, 2012, that I talked to the friend of a colleague and got introduced to Richard Marciano and the team (then) at UNC, as well as Rob Nelson and the DSL team at the University of Richmond.  These two had recently been gearing up and had digitized a large set of their own, far larger than mine, and they had some pretty significant funding support.  At the same time, Nathan Connolly and I had had a few conversations about the possibilities for bringing this story out to the public.  Four collaborators at four institutions seemed fairly unwieldy, but it was only with this four that we really had the range of research, writing, institutional, and technical capabilities to make the project work in a reasonable amount of time.  A smaller group, even individuals, probably could have conducted the digitization, the development, etc., but it would have taken a much longer time and a significant set of resources.  Virginia Tech didn't quite have the infrastructure for a project like this, as it lacked a digital history center and the central staff and infrastructure that entails, so working with the University of Richmond team made great sense for me -- our efforts didn't need to compete.  But each member played important roles and I can't imagine we would have brought the project about this way without everyone.

A key challenge we had was that redlining was not the top priority for any of the participant members.  Nathan and I, as historians, had the obligation of finishing and publishing our books, the main elements of a strong tenure case.  Rob and the DSL staff were working to launch their digital atlas "American Panorama."  Richard is a computer scientist and took a position at the University of Maryland, had a lab to set up (<a href=\"\">DCIC</a>), and had a wide array of projects to manage.  Everyone was committed to the project, however, and so it proceeded on a semester-by-semester basis.  I had classes where students would georeference maps and create polygons; I would send students up to College Park to digitize maps on a few summer trips; and I would hire undergrads to enter Area Description data for several cities.  All along, Rob, Justin Madron, and Nate Ayers at the DSL were churning along with their interns and students. Justin was great in maintaining quality control over the material we submitted (including a manual for a standardized process of georeferencing), something really essential for a decentralized effort like this.

We started working together in 2012 and the project only launched in October 2016.  Four years is a long time.  Patience in this kind of collaboration is necessary.  We applied for a few NEH grants without success; I had a steady stream of internal grants at Virginia Tech that were smallish, but were essential for keeping my team working.  In 2013, we hardly made any progress, in part because I faced personal difficulties, another digital project was competing for my attention, and we didn't yet have a lot of the momentum that came later.  But we did have Google Hangout meetings every few months and kept making progress.  If I had a unique contribution to the project, it was in keeping people shuffling ahead -- calling meetings and circulating agenda, pinning down action items at the end of meetings, and sending my research assistants to NARAII to get the last few maps and materials we were lacking.  The greatest progress we made in site development on the Web side came with the launch of <a href=\"\">American Panorama</a>.  Stamen Design created a toolkit for Rob and the DSL and that launched in December 2015.  With that project set and the toolkit handy, Rob and the DSL could develop the interface for Mapping Inequality and start populating it with material.   

The inclusion in American Panorama was an opportunity that I had not been expecting.  I was initially a little skeptical, largely because I had been thinking of this as a standalone project.  But Rob suggested it and Nathan immediately saw the value of putting these geographic resources in dialogue with other maps -- voluntary migration, forced migration, infrastructure development.  In this sense, the collaborative aspect of the project has made it better overall -- in bringing together a group of really capable people, larger labor forces, and building up a bigger project, American Panorama, which has the potential to be the most significant historical digital mapping effort in the country (if it isn't already).  I am now planning to incorporate my other major digital project, Mapping Congress, in American Panorama in plenty of time for the 2018 Congressional elections.  It was also a good collaborative effort for me in hearing and accepting input and decisions from a group.  This is key to the work of public historians, but in much of academic historians' work, we make individual decisions and take solitary steps to create and market our work.  Credit was and is a concern for historians, too.  When I make my case for tenure, this project will feature prominently, second to my book, but it will take a great deal of explaining what my intellectual and administrative contributions were.  Even with that, I'm not confident I will get adequate credit for the ultimate impact of the project.  This is something I'll discuss in another piece.

Reposted from my former site, Urban Oasis.