Project Reviews

The Terrain of History
Part of Stanford University's Spatial History Project. Created by Dr. Zephyr Frank et al. Supported by the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University, Stanford, California. Site designed and developed by Moxie Sozo, Boulder, Colorado.

Part of a larger ‘geo-historical archive' of the city, Stanford University Professor Zephyr Frank and his team created the Terrain of History project to investigate the social and economic history of 19th century Rio de Janeiro through its geography. Frank and his team have utilized GIS, Geographical Information Systems software, to create a digital map of the city on which they have plotted a variety of datasets related to wealth, occupation, disease, and social mobility referenced from local archival data such as property records and almanacs. The project has thus far compiled over 300,000 historic records, including individuals' names, addresses, and "other detailed information" regarding Rio de Janeiro—an expansive database to say the least. In this case, one must consider not only the sheer volume of data needed to compose a historical geographical map but also the challenges associated with its subsequent organization into social units and pre-requisite geo-rectification, particularly with locations that may no longer exist or have changed structurally. With these difficulties in mind, the interoperability of the many different categories of data included in the Terrain of History project stands out as particularly impressive.

Frank and his team have beautifully synthesized a diverse dataset into visualizations that allow for their synchronous viewing. In the animations "The Distributions of Occupations, 1870" and "Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1850: Scale, Time and Space," for example, visitors are treated to illustrations of social class and mobility in of Rio de Janeiro across time, space, and scale. In another animation, "The Slave Market in Rio de Janeiro," the city's slave transactions are similarly plotted by gender, age, and location, over a three-month period. The multiple dimensions of these visualizations make viewable certain relationships between categories that would have otherwise been obscured, such as the proximity of tuberculosis and yellow fever deaths and the clustering of by class of lawyers and other professionals in the city to the exception of lower class workers, who were dispersed throughout the city despite common wage earnings.

While the project's visualizations are useful and interesting for scholars working to develop their own answers to some of the questions the data poses (as well as those cognizant of the significance of the comparative data Terrain provides), they are less so for laypeople, as there is no argumentative framework or narrative with which to navigate and interpret the project. It becomes unclear to what degree the site caters to non-academics and fulfills the roles of archive versus digital project. The former would be expected to abstain from argument, providing only a body of primary sources, while the latter would actively engage in interpreting the materials it provides. While there is no available cache of the sources used to produce the project's visualizations, the visualizations rely on this body of sources exclusively, from which they are, in themselves, representations—indicating an archive. To complicate matters, though, Terrain does provide local interpretations of the data, suggesting, as is the case with the "Distribution of Occupations" visualization, an explanation for the variations the diagram shows. However, while the significance of the each data visualization is individually explained, a collective explanation for the set and how they may relate to each other is absent.

An essay attached to the project provides a clue to the research teams' intentions. Writing about the group's methodology, project research assistant Ryan Delaney articulates the difference between "backend," or conclusive, end-product data visualization and that which is open-ended and research directive, supporting the idea that Terrain's visualizations gravitate more towards the principles of an archive: providing refining, interpretative lenses for further research and not conclusive arguments. "Most visualizations represent the end point of a specific line of inquiry in a project; a map in a paper, an animation telling a previously determined story, or an interactive mechanism for browsing a project's findings," Delaney writes, "This, however, is only a small fraction of their usefulness." Visualizations are also helpful in keeping the data "rigorous and honest" and guiding researchers toward "new avenues for research."

The Terrain team's goals straddle a nebulous epistemological divide between what constitutes a digital reformatting of extant sources and what can be considered new knowledge creation through synthesis. Are these visualizations ‘just' digital iterations of their parent sources, or are they a new product entirely? How divergent are these visualizations from the sources they were derived from and what is the human element in their production? Finally, should they be interpreted by scholars as primary or secondary sources? What is clear is that The Terrain of History has produced a variety of sources that convey a variety of information about its subject, Rio de Janeiro, and that the data, like the project, is incomplete.

Though The Terrain of History may cater to academics, it does so purposely. What The Terrain of History project does in providing a ‘geohistorical archive,' with some of the questions it raises about what we might call ‘born-digital' archives, it does well and in fulfillment of its objectives. The sources are useful and I have no doubt will inform future scholarship in the field by providing old data in new forms.

Grant Forssberg
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Reviewed: February 2011