Digital Project Reflection: Mapping Disaster: Measuring the Cost of Human Disaster Events

Hi everyone! I hope you are doing well and feeling encouraged that we are very nearly done with the semester! It’s been a wild and challenging one, but I’ve still really appreciated being in this class with each of you. You’ve taught me so much and made it such an enjoyable experience. 

As I reflect on my Final Project, I’ll ultimately glad I chose to pursue a digital project on what will, ultimately, be part of my dissertation project. Prior to this semester, I had been considered how I might develop a public/digital component or format for my dissertation, but was unsure of how best to communicate the significance of chronic flooding in Washington, D.C. Mapping felt like a natural and useful choice, but it wasn’t until getting into StoryMaps that I realized how massive this digital project will ultimately be. My final project layers demographic and scientific data from a SINGLE flood event and is by no means an exhaustive analysis of that single event. Further, I was fortunate to utilize pre-made layers and data sets that other ArcGIS users have already developed to establish my map. For my dissertation, I plan to do a century-worth of these events within a single project. I will have to create shapefiles for these other events and link them to datasets I create in order to develop layers within ArcGIS. It will truly be a massive undertaking, but my final project demonstrated the utility of pursuing the larger project and for that I am thankful (fingers crossed I don’t burn out!!!).

In my post for my “Mapping Disaster” draft, I posed the question of whether or not to add more demographic data to the final project or to attempt to add another disaster event from the 1920s or 1940s to demonstrate change over time. Trevor also suggested that it might be helpful to provide a “walk-through” of how to use the map. In going back to make changes for the final draft, I quickly found that I wouldn’t be able to add data for another disaster event in the 1920s or 1940s to show change over time, as these disaster events have yet to be mapped and each decade was missing some type of demographic data I planned to use—there was a zoning map for the 1920s but no census data for the tracts in D.C., there was census data for the 1940s but no zoning map, etc. Creating layers for the missing data would be far too large an undertaking for this course, so I pivoted. I decided to add two substantial components to the final project: 1. A “Navigating the Map” section that walks users through how to use the StoryJournal and what type of data is featured, and 2. A section on Federal Housing Administration (FHA) commitments from 1936. 

Check out the final project HERE.

The section on FHA commitments really elevates this project from a single event to one wrapped up in a larger history of institutional segregation and environmental injustice in Washington, D.C. Indeed, the topic of housing in Washington, D.C. is intimately connected to my primary goal for “Mapping Disaster”: to demonstrate the “human cost” of disaster events by illustrating vulnerability. Overlaying FHA commitments on a 1936 map of D.C. reveals a few important trends: that the FHA was still underwriting mortgages for homes along the Potomac and Anacostia floodplains, suggesting that flood-risk was not among the factors considered to determine “solid” investments from mortgage lenders, and that the FHA was not insuring mortgages in communities of color, suggesting these communities were not solid investments (FHA Underwriting Manuals from the 1930s-50s outline their overt racially-discriminatory practices). To read more about institutional racism in Washington, D.C., check out the exceptional project, Mapping Segregation DC. Though this topic necessitates greater analytical work, I believe it complicates the narrative of the Potomac River Flood of 1936 in Washington, D.C., by painting a clearer picture of what constituted “risk” in terms of housing investments, and underscores the systemic racism within the city, which was exacerbated during flood events.

One significant aspect of “Mapping Disaster” that I was unable to pursue this semester were oral testimonies of disaster events. Lived experience really gets at the continual and compounded impact of disasters and vulnerability in Washington, D.C. and a main focus of my dissertation research. That said, gathering oral testimony requires developing deep relationships, gauging community interests in sharing these narratives, and committing myself to this history and those most impacted by it. A semester is not nearly enough time to undertake that process, and COVID-19 really prevented me from even beginning the process.  Moving forward, however, I see the lived experience as an essential piece of what this project can ultimately become. 

This class and project have really expanded my understanding of the digital tools and methods for conveying historic information in the digital sphere. It has revealed the deep roots of spatial history, posed important questions about the longevity of digital projects (and how/if they are maintained overtime), challenged me to think critically about the type of dissertation project I will produce in a moment in which the field is navigating the limitations of analog projects, underscored the utility of interdisciplinary work, and inspired me to create ever-more accessible, critical, and impactful work that can help, if only in a small way, to push the fields of history/public history/digital history into a more equitable, accessible, decolonized, forward-thinking space. I leave this class with the confidence of having an abundance of tools and information to pull from as I continue the process, and am most grateful for the other passionate, creative, innovative, individuals I’ve met during this course who seek to do the same.

Thank you all for a great semester! Stay well!

Mapping Disaster: The Potomac River Flood of 1936

My initial proposal for my Digital Project outlined the best case, long term form this digital project could take. For my final project, I chose to pursue a more attainable deliverable by focusing on a single decade and single flood event—the 1930s and the Potomac River Flood of 1936. I also chose to develop a StoryMap Journal (check it out!!) to make the project more narrative than a standalone (albeit interactive) digital map might be.

I was super fortunate in that ArcGIS layers for the flood of 1936, the zoning map, and census data for D.C in the 1930s, were already developed by other users. This saved me from having to do the super time-consuming task of marrying raw data and shape files to create base layers of my own. I was able to combine several layers of data: census, zoning, and flood levels, and add locations of flood control projects, to build a narrative of vulnerability and bring the most heavily impacted locations and populations into sharper relief. I provided context for the map(s) with text from the Flood Control Act of 1936, images from the flood event, contemporary news media, and narration. Altogether, this StoryMaps journal is a chapter (or draft chapter) of the history of flooding in Washington, D.C., and by performing a critical reading/interpretation of traditionally top-down sources (governmental records, policy, demographic data, etc.), begins to reveal the longstanding human impact—beyond immediate loss of life—of flood events in the District.

I can imagine a realistic finished digital project for this course taking one of two directions (and would love your feedback on which direction of development you would be most interested in seeing):

  1. Sticking with the 1930s and adding more data/maps from the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), any personal narratives of the flood captured in news media or hearings of the Senate’s Committee on the District of Columbia. This approach could fill in more details about the impact of this particular flood event and further demonstrate the utility of layering various types of data.
  2. Adding information about another decade, likely the 1940s, to illustrate population growth and distribution, modifications in zoning, subsequent flood events, and other flood mitigation projects (if any). The utility of this approach is demonstrating a pattern of constructed vulnerability over time.   

In either case, my final project will include consideration for how a project of this nature might be publicized to the broader public. Further it will include a plan or draft form through which community collaborators might submit stories/firsthand accounts from disaster events within their communities.

Long-term, I imagine this type of digital project becoming a component of my dissertation, that incorporates the sort of data I’ve used here over the entirety of the 20th century to tell a story about chronic flooding in Washington, D.C. It would reveal patterns of environmental inequality within the built environment of the city, and include oral history accounts of individuals who have experienced these flood events firsthand with the goal of becoming a co-curated project with the potential of achieving tangible policy change.

Playing Games and Winning Arguments

Hi friends, I hope you are all staying safe and well and taking this opportunity to really check in on yourselves and what you need during this time. If you are finding that you are needing the opportunity to air frustration, live out your father’s dreams for you, or pontificate about important matters in the comfort of your own home, might I suggest the Argument Wars game on

Someday we can unpack the title to this game because that seems LOADED.

On the site, the game is described as the following:

Ever tried to win a disagreement? In Argument Wars, test your persuasive abilities by arguing a real Supreme Court case. The other lawyer plays your competition. Whoever uses the strongest arguments wins!
(***worth noting that I had to open this game in Safari, as it wouldn’t open in other browsers. Similarly, I had to give Flash Player permission to play.***)

The goal of the game is to expose players (I’m assuming middle-school age?) to nine significant U.S. Court Cases like Bond v. United States and Brown v. Board of  Education. The first few minutes are spent clicking through opening arguments by either side before being prompted to answer which constitutional issue is at stake. You start getting points at this stage for every correct answer or well-supported argument. You lose points for poorly-supported arguments and objections to well-supported arguments by the opponent. A tutorial walks you different steps of the game: drawing “cards” or, the supporting supreme court case/evidence supporting your case;  the pitch deck where you drag and drop cards to build your argument, connecting your support to your argument, Once the judge has distributed his “ruling points,” whichever side has received more “wins.” I did try to throw the game/match/case once just to see if the game would allow for “ahistorical” outcomes, but it took about 10x longer, the computer (via judge/opponent) seemed to self-correct, and it eventually froze on me soooo while I can make an educated guess (and certainly hope) that this game would go on as long as it takes for “Brown” to win in Brown v. Board, I couldn’t say for certain.

I will walk through the game as I play it so you can get a sense of how it works before going and spending hours (or 0-15 minutes as the website suggests) trying it out for yourself!

First step: choose a character.

This part felt a little like the Game of Life of CDROM (iykyk). The only customizable option here is the name, so I went with the GOAT.

You then decide which side of the case you wish to argue:

Following the opening arguments, the interactivity begins. You draw cards and then decide which best support your case. Each card opens up to a dialogue box with more information of the given evidence/court case to help the player choose which best supports the argument:

If the judge likes or approves of your argument, he might request you argue your point further. You then have to arrange a statement that connects the support to the argument (note that options are LIMITED):

The opponent then has the opportunity to support their argument in the same fashion and the player can choose whether to object or pass. The judge then determines whether the supporting evidence and/or objection are legitimate:

Things can get ugly…

And so on and so forth until all of the judge’s ruling points are distributed, at which point he makes a ruling (note the SMUG look on RBG’s face at crushing her downtrodden opponent):

And that’s the game! The player can then restart and play through different court cases.

So what is the utility of this game and how it operates? “Argument Wars” definitely falls into what Brian Sutton-Smith refers to (via Flanagan) as, “a Western notion of progress where play, especially children’s play, is justified as educational and moral, helping to build intelligence and good behavior, and preparing children to take part as good citizens of the adult world. (Flanagan, 25)” The game is essentially a “choose your own adventure” that you *likely* cannot lose. It prompts the player to build a logical and well-founded argument—super useful for the future lawyers/scholars/scientists/activists/kids arguing with their parents/citizens—and distributes a substantial amount of what might be considered “civic information” throughout. The limited number of possible outcomes somewhat limits the creative and interpretive possibilities on the part of the player, but the intention of this game is to convey a very specific set of historical data, and thus probably is not very interested in interpretive possibilities (which is as much a critique of the ways in which nationalism is indoctrinated through art and culture as of this game, specifically). The website/game developers get a “win” in disseminating the core curriculum in manner that is more engaging than a PowerPoint, and the player not only gets the ego boost of winning, but hopefully pick up a lot of information about various significant court cases that have shaped the course of United States history.

iCivics has a large number of other games that would be worth checking out as well—many deal with the evergreen political topics such as immigration, fake news, and campaign building. I would definitely be interested in seeing if there are other games (on or otherwise) that allow more space for interpretation and feedback from their audiences. I perceive (or, at least hope) that the current generation of middle-schoolers are encouraged to pursue more independent critical thinking in relation to U.S. history than my generation was, and I would like to see how game developers are responding to that shift.

Now back to arguing with characters on Netflix — stay safe!

The World Is Your [Living Museum]: Spatial History and the Digital Age

Hi friends, hope you are staying well—body, mind, and soul—and safe at home! I don’t know about you, but the readings on place, space, and human connectivity for this week felt either particularly cruel or like a digital vacation (or, if you’re like me, oscillating between the two).


In any case, please join me in a discussion of space and why, starting about a century and a half ago, Western scholars of history, religion, psychology, etc. began to take up the topic of spatiality. In the readings this week, Jo Guldi and Mark Tebeau introduce us to both the origins and examples of the application of the spatial turn in the digital age

Jo Guldi’s “What is the Spatial Turn,” tells us—you guessed it—what exactly the spatial turn was (gotta love that sign-posting). According to Guldi, starting in ~1880 and lasting through the mid-twentieth century, Western scholars from multiple disciplines—particularly the arts and social sciences—began to consider the relationship between peoples/societies and the land. In fact, they considered not only the relationship between a person and the land, but how that land could and did facilitate connections to other people. He brings up the discussion of “the commons” (any student of history or poli-sci likely remembers a class lecture of the “Tragedy of the Commons”—essentially the “this is why we can’t have nice things” of the 1960s), using it to model how historians, in particular, began to conduct close-readings of sources on societal structure to glean information about the importance of the space societies inhabited. Guldi’s second article, “The Spatial Turn in History,” breaks the trajectory of historian’s explorations of spatiality more closely. According to Guldi that trajectory looked like the following:  

  • Land within the context of the nation (a top-down, elitist narrative) –>
  •  Land within the context of the “city” (which allowed historians to “foreground middle-class actors” –> 
  • “Imagined” or “Sensuous Landscapes,” such as leisure spaces, suburbia, or even the “home” (which facilitated the entry of a broad range of historic actors into the narrative) –> 
  • Space within the context of the “infrastructure state” or how the manipulation of territory results in new/different relationships between people and the land

Guldi notes in “What is the Spatial Turn,” that since the 1970s, questions of power in relation to space have been the focus of many social histories. Indeed, we would be hard pressed to get out of a seminar book discussion without identifying how the author treated those subjects. Yet, not until the Digital Age have scholars had the opportunity to interpret and represent these spatial histories in a manner that emphasizes their spatiality. Writing about events that occurred within a space is not nearly as impactful as seeing an image that captured the event within the space is not nearly as impactful as seeing both the narrative and image imposed on a geospatial representation of the space itself. Each layer of interpretation provides the scholar/public a more complicated and (arguably) “complete,” multi-sensory lens into history. 

The primary question I had after reading Guldi’s articles is about how spatiality has been represented in non-Western scholarship? Western spatiality is very much wrapped up in place—physical locations seen through a predominantly colonial lens. However, there are other ways of conceiving of space beyond the physical that not even the imagined/sensuous landscapes of Western scholarship seem to get at. I imagine that including conceptions of “space” outside of the Western tradition would challenge the physicality of place-ness of how we conceive of the spatial. 

 Mark Tebeau’s article, “Listening to the City: Oral History and Place in the Digital Era,” discusses a great example of how spatial history can be represented and interpreted using digital tools. Cleveland Historical, a “dynamic, layered, and contextual storytelling endeavor,” combines maps, multimedia (oral histories, music, images), and contextual text (felt redundant/wrong but left it) to “curate” Cleveland’s history. This project is collaborative in that multiple users can contribute “pins” to the map after being trained, and is intended to elevate aural interpretation to the same level as visual. Because this project is mobile, users can go on tours and stand in the “pinned” spaces while accessing contextual information online. As Tebeau refers to it, Cleveland Historical is a “living museum” the size of the city and its strength lie in both its collaborative nature of democratizing the historical interpretive process AND in its utility in presenting history in a multi-sensory, spatially-oriented way.

The “Cuyahoga River Fire” pin on the interactive map of Cleveland
Once you click on the pin, you get sent to that pin’s landing page
In addition to contextual text (wrote that again, still the worst), the pin has multimedia such as a video interview…
…and images of the event. Below the multimedia were tags, a bibliography of sources consulted, and space to comment.

I chose to use the “Cuyahoga River Fire” pin as an example because Tebeau addresses it, specifically in his text to make the point that it’s not totally clear “whether geolocation even provides the best way to contextualize historical stories.” He argues that, in the example of the burning of the Cuyahoga River, “placing the story at an abandoned railroad bridge along the Cuyahoga River (as we do now) may be physically accurate but remote from a location where its interpretive connections are richer.” However, I believe it is worth arguing that sites of experience—regardless of whether or not the site is one of many or, alternately, the physical site itself no longer exists–have memory and experience embedded within them. Ultimately, spaces themselves can facilitate the interpretation, and rather than shifting the location away from the space in which an event occurred, we might challenge ourselves to attempt more creative interpretation before considering relocation. For instance, the Cuyahoga River Fire page could be used to prompt deep thinking about the impact of pollution in Cleveland’s history. It could be connected to other locations where pollution runs unchecked, introduce the narratives of those who are particularly vulnerable to environmental racism or discrimination (thus ensuring class, race, gender, and other categories of experience and analysis are elevated). What is so encouraging about a borne-digital project like Cleveland Historical is that it is ultimately iterative—constantly evolving, growing, becoming (ideally) more representative—and has the capacity to incorporate a many connected, overlapping, layered histories interpreted in myriad ways. 

I’m interested to hear if, especially in the process of drafting our projects—particularly those who are doing digital projects—you have come across any multifaceted digital history projects that incorporate the spatial and narrative in engaging ways?

Mapping Disaster: Measuring the Human Cost of Disaster Events

In the wake of disaster events, information and data is collected and disseminated about the cost of the event—from economic, infrastructural, and human perspectives. “Human cost,” however, is predominantly measured in loss of life, rather than the lasting physical, mental, and financial cost for the survivors. And while the data collected is filed away to be used by disaster and weather analysts, insurance agents, and city planners, the voices of those most directly impacted are obscured, the spaces and places they occupied pre-disaster rendered at best, unlivable, at worst, wiped from the landscape. By combining the human cost of the survivors with the empirical data gathered about weather patterns, environmental and infrastructural impacts, mitigation and recovery efforts, and more, we have a more complete understanding on the heavy toll disasters—especially chronic events like urban flooding—on our lives. Only through seeing the full picture can we begin to respond in ways that not only offer preparation for disaster events, but also lasting change that ensures certain communities do not perpetually bear the brunt of these events. 


My Digital Project, to a large degree, responds to and builds upon the digital tools I discussed in my Print Project proposal.

I plan to use the ArcGIS StoryMaps platform to create an interactive digital map that brings together stories from the heart of places and spaces struck by disaster events with the raw historical scientific and demographic data of those events. Using Washington D.C. as a case study, this project focuses predominantly on the flood plains along the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. Several unique components will make up this digital mapping interface:

  • Maps from different periods of D.C. history—perhaps for each decade—overlaid upon one another. 
  • Specific locations of disaster events marked on the maps.
  • Specific infrastructural changes to the landscape—dykes, levees, dams—intended to mitigate disaster events marked on the maps.
  • Demographic data for the neighborhoods and locations impacted by disaster manifested in some form on the map (perhaps using color coding).
  • Oral or written stories/testimony attached to different locations where disasters have struck.

By selecting different maps, a user can not only observe which areas have been struck by a disaster event during a specific period of time, but also analyze change over time, whether that change demonstrates larger patterns of class-/race-based displacement or environmental discrimination.


  • Identify specific disaster-struck locations
  • Identify zones/neighborhoods particularly vulnerable to disaster
  • Identify demographics particularly vulnerable to disaster
  • Demonstrate change over time:
    1. Increased (or not) frequency of disaster events.
    2. Increased modifications to the landscape to mitigate/control flooding.
    3. The movement or displacement of communities (both as a result of disaster events and, more directly, as a result of gentrification/development projects/urban “renewal”).
      • Also, I hypothesize that such a project could demonstrate a link between flood control efforts and urban development, revealing which communities are deemed worthy of “protecting” and which communities have their vulnerability perpetuated and/or magnified.
  • Leverage the increased awareness garnered by the goals above toward the creation of educational tools, resources for disaster preparedness and response, and, ultimately, changes in policy concerning development and displacement in flood plains. 

The audience would include: D.C. residents interested in the history and, indeed, contemporary environmental events/responses/conversations occurring in their state/city/neighborhood; members of the neighborhoods most directly impacted by disaster events (or historically impacted), as they, in particular, would be encouraged to share their lived experience(s) as part of the effort to develop and continually add to the project; city planners, real estate developers, experts tasked with studying, mitigating, and responding to disaster events; aid organizations; and municipal, state, and federal law and policymakers.


Various groups have attempted to achieve similar analyses of vulnerability to disaster events:

The American Red Cross “Mapping Vulnerability” overlays maps showing different census data for social vulnerability and local hazards (floods, seismic, etc.). The primary goal of their project is to develop disaster preparedness in these communities via education, tools, and resources. While these maps aren’t interactive, they provide an excellent framework for understanding layers of vulnerability and why/how they contribute to/compound the risks associated with/resulting from disaster events. 

The Narratives of Displacement and Resistance, Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, is a digital oral history transmedia project that charts instances of eviction throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Included on this map are oral history interviews with individuals whom have been directly impacted by eviction notices and displacement. 

While natural hazards aren’t outlined on this map, it provides an excellent model for the form a digital map that incorporates demographic/empirical data and personal testimony can take. Displacement is arguably also a disaster event to the people who experience it, and thus this project also provides a framework for understanding how forcible relocation (via eviction or as a result of a natural hazard) compounds vulnerability. 


Overarching outreach: Targeted social media campaign to reach stakeholders at all levels.

Grassroots Outreach: For interview participants and community members, the strategy for outreach and publicity would start within the neighborhoods themselves. With the D.C. case study, neighborhood branches of the DCPL would serve as a center for disseminating information about the project, recruiting interview participants/narrators, and serving as a repository for interviews.

Mid-level Outreach: For city planners/developers/aid organizations/etc., approaching specific stakeholders directly (after conducting research on which individuals/organizations might have a vested interest in these particular neighborhoods).

High-level Outreach: For city/state/federal officials, a more concrete lobbying/communication effort based on a representative’s voting and policy history would be the goal.


At a very base level, this project will be evaluated based on the willingness of participants to share their testimonies through the project. The experiences of those most directly impacted by disaster events are often left out of data collection processes in the wake of an event, yet they are arguably one of the most important and illuminating types of data we have. 

As declensionist as it may seem, the efficacy of this project will also be measured in the types of educational resources and tools for preparation developed out of the information provided by this project. When future disaster events arise—and they will arise—changes in disaster preparation and reactions based on the information shared through this project will determine its utility as a tool for on-the-ground response.

Higher levels of evaluation might include whether or not tangible policy change comes from increasing pressure on representatives. 

Ultimately, this project’s value ranges from illuminating the humanity within the disaster zone to triggering lasting change.