The Challenge of Virtual Cities

“The Challenge of Virtual Cities,” presented at the Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians, Milwaukee, April 21, 2012

Session Abstract:

This session will explore historical analysis using virtual cities, that is, online reconstructions of historical urban spaces.  The presentations will feature projects that use a humanities approach rather than the social science methodology long associated with historical GIS. Whereas the later approach employed proprietary software such as ARC GIS, which aggregates data and opens it to statistical analysis, but cannot easily be disseminated online, a humanities approach uses new web friendly location-based tools such as Google Earth and Google Maps, and Flash software, to map data and generate visualizations and animations, and to query the patterns that are revealed. The shift in approach has brought a change in scale, from aggregates to individuals, posed different questions, and shifted the focus from the descriptive to the explanatory.  Those differences fuel the challenge virtual cities pose to our understanding of urban history.  The presentations will address the ways in which the creation of virtual cities changed how each scholar saw and understood his subject, and how he undertook and disseminated his research.  In this way, it will probe the substance of the spatial turn that has begun to occur in historical scholarship.

The session will feature presentations on three projects, including the first two winners of the American Historical Association’s Roy Rosenzweig Prize for Innovation in Digital History. Stephen Robertson, of the University of Sydney, will discuss Digital Harlem, a site that maps everyday life in the neighborhood in the 1920s, focusing on places, events and individuals drawn from a range of legal records, newspapers and other archival sources.  Robert Allen, of the University of North Carolina, will discuss Going to the Show and its spin-off, Main Street Carolina, sites which use Sanborn maps and other material from the North Carolina collection to provide a comprehensive picture of movie-going in early-twentieth-century North Carolina, and to provide a platform for projects that gather and map data on the state’s downtowns.

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