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American Panorama: a next generation atlas for the Digital Scholarship Lab

For the past year, we’ve been working in close collaboration with the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond to create a wide-ranging historical atlas for the 21st century. It’s called “American Panorama,” and it’s funded by the Mellon Foundation. Today, the DSL has launched “American Panorama,” and with them we’re releasing the application software developed for the atlas on github.

When scholarship and design start working together, both sides benefit from the exchange. Bringing the full set of expectations for internet-native work — stateful URLs, for one — compliments academic research and citations in a way that we’re hoping will be useful for digital scholarship as it becomes more core to academic research.

We and the scholars at Richmond are using maps to tell stories about:

The forced migration of millions of enslaved Americans

Movement of immigrants to the West via overland trails

How many Americans were born in other countries, where they came from, and where they settled

The rise and fall of the canal networks in the East

The project represents a significant investment in digital scholarship by the DSL, and each tells a unique story about the history of the United States as seen through the eyes of historians and storytellers.

For example: for the Forced Migration Map, scholars at the Lab wanted to explore and communicate about the mechanics of the internal slave trade. Which places imported slaves from other places? How many? When? Which places exported slaves to other places in the US? How many? When? What was the shape of the slave trade, really, and how did it work? These questions are crucial to our understanding of a period in our history that has been difficult for us to deal with as a country. The DSL set out not just to understand this history as scholars, but to communicate about what they learned with the rest of us.

To do this, they analysed the enslaved populations of hundreds of US counties over time. It sounds simple, but as with many things involving history and space, it isn’t. As an example: since many county boundaries changed over the period of enslavement, and since county boundaries are the only reliable and consistent measure of population via the census, it’s been nearly impossible before now to conclusively identify the places where slaves were sold from and into over time. The work that the scholars at the DSL have done takes into account population centers and known birth rates at the time to generate estimates that can give us a fine grained picture of how the slave trade evolved over space and times.

The map we’ve made with Richmond on the topic shows the flow of human trafficking from 1810 to 1860 and starkly illustrates the human suffering that the slave trade caused. It powerfully conveys the economic logic of slavery’s expansion: slave buyers’ voracious appetite for more laborers to grow cotton and sugar in the lower South and slave sellers’ willingness to treat human beings as property to be sold at a profit led to the need for expanded markets for what they saw as their commodity. As I’ve said elsewhere: data visualization doesn’t just have to be about providing answers to questions that we already have. It can open up ways of exploring new kinds of questions, and we’re looking forward to seeing what kinds of inquiry this atlas can enable that we haven’t even thought of yet.

Each of the maps contains stories like this, and it’s been fascinating to learn about American history in a whole new way through engagement with this scholarly process. We’ll be talking more about each of the maps in “American Panorama” and the stories that they tell soon.

We’re also releasing the software that we wrote to build the maps, and planning to support the DSL (and others) to support their digital scholarship. The first map the DSL is building using this new suite of tools is about the mortgage redlining in about two hundred American cities that kept African Americans and others out of post-WW2 prosperity. It’s sobering stuff. And the DSL is committed to advancing the art of telling stories about our rich and multi-faceted history on digital interactive maps.

The DSL is planning to use this software to build dozens of maps in the next few years, so this is just the beginning.

We’re more than usually proud of this work. The team at Richmond has been just terrific to work with over the last year, and we encourage you to take a look at the ways in which they’re bringing digital scholarship into the 21st century at Stay tuned!

You can read more about the project at the University of Richmond Press Release, CartoDB’s blog post, and CityLab’s blog post.

Published: 12.15.15
Updated: 09.20.22

About Stamen

Stamen is a globally recognized strategic design partner and one of the most established cartography and data visualization studios in the industry. For over two decades, Stamen has been helping industry giants, universities, and civic-minded organizations alike bring their ideas to life through designing and storytelling with data. We specialize in translating raw data into interactive visuals that inform, inspire and incite action. At the heart of this is our commitment to research and ensuring we understand the challenges we face. We embrace ambiguity, we thrive in data, and we exist to build tools that educate and inspire our audiences to act.