American Panorama

For the past year, we've been working in close collaboration with the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond, to bring one of the great works of American historical scholarship into the 21st century.

It's called "American Panorama", it’s funded by the Mellon Foundation, and we announced a major public update to the project on December 15. ​Gizmodo said “this is data storytelling at its very finest” while the New York Times called the work “a stunning data visualization project.” 

We and Richmond are using maps to tell stories about:

The project represents a significant investment in digital scholarship by the DSL. Scholars at the Lab analysed the enslaved populations of hundreds of US county boundaries over time. Since many of those boundaries changed over the period of enslavement, and since county boundaries are the only reliable and consistent measure of population, it’s never been possible before now to conclusively identify the places where slaves were sold from and into over time. The maps we made with Richmond on the topic show the flow of human trafficking over time, a compelling visualization that starkly illustrates the human suffering that the slave trade caused. It powerfully illustrates 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.

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. CityLab had this to say about the project:

“...these are not the simple animated maps or hover-over statistical visualizations to which Internet trawlers are by now so accustomed. The Panorama’s plates are dense, like entire textbook chapters turned interactive tools.”

We're releasing the software that we wrote to build the maps, and working with the DSL (and others) to support their digital scholarship. The first map the DSL is building using their new suite of tools is about the mortgage redlining in several 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 our software to build 100 maps or so in the next couple of years, so this is just the beginning.

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