Jim McGrath, Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Public Humanities, John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, Brown University
This case study looks at an important benchmark in the development of Mapping Violence, a digital project interested in histories and records of state-sanctioned racial violence on the Mexico/Texas border in the early twentieth century. Specifically, it focuses on work completed in the summer of 2016 with a team of undergraduates at Brown University, documenting some of the collaborative, iterative, pedagogical, and ethical dimensions of the project’s ideas of data, interface, and audience.
Problem and Context
From 1900 through 1930, vigilantes and Texas Rangers killed hundreds of ethnic and national Mexicans along the Mexico/Texas border. This period is one of the largest episodes of civil unrest in American history. In the fall of 2014, Dr. Monica Muñoz Martinez (Assistant Professor of American Studies, Brown University) began work on Mapping Violence, a digital public humanities initiative drawing on records of this period from a range of archival collections, oral histories, and other resources. Complementing and remediating research Dr. Martinez published in the 2018 book The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas, Mapping Violence aspires to be a database of primary and secondary sources for researchers studying this history, a curated and dynamic resource for classroom use, a memorial space that honors and remembers the victims of these acts of violence, and a corrective to historical narratives and commemorations that erase or mute these moments in the history of Texas, Mexico, and the United States.
Mapping Violence is also informed by Dr. Martinez’s work on Refusing to Forget, a collaborative public history project that seeks to raise awareness about this period of state-sanctioned violence through physical exhibits (like a 2016 exhibition at the Bullock Texas State History Museum), applications for Texas historical markers that acknowledge the state’s complicity in racial violence, lesson plans (developed with K-12 educators in Texas), public talks, and other means. Like these efforts, Mapping Violence is invested in ideas of audience and their impact on the design and dissemination of public-facing historical research. And while data sets and maps are recognizable conventions and components of digital public humanities work, Dr. Martinez and other project stakeholders are wary of the ways that the uses of these tools and methodologies could potentially transform “acts of violence” into “mere dots on a map” (Martinez, “Mapping Segregated Histories of Racial Violence”). What would a dataset creating records of racial violence highlight (and leave out) from primary and secondary sources, and how should that information be structured in this new context? How might that data be used to document, shape, and augment stories about this history of racial violence via digital tools like maps, visualizations, and multimodal annotations? How will the design of the project’s interface reveal the severity of these acts of violence, encourage further research and analysis, and honor the lived experiences represented in this resource? These and other questions are at the core of this initiative.
Work on Mapping Violence began in late 2014, with Dr. Martinez working with Amelia Grabowski (then a graduate student in Brown’s Public Humanities program) to develop the first version of the project’s data set, to draft metadata schema for records, to draft proof-of-concept visualizations, and to begin drafting materials for potential grant funding. The first phase of this work wrapped up in the summer of 2015. This case study will focus on what I read as the second major phase of project work, which began in the fall of 2015 and extended into the summer of 2016. Work completed during this phase involved meeting with digital specialists at Brown to discuss project parameters and campus resources, drafting and whiteboarding an imagined public-facing project interface, reviewing the project’s approach to data, designing a content form and workflow for project collaborators, introducing a team of undergraduates and graduate students to the project’s aims, and working with that team to create and refine the project’s approaches to data and visualization.
In the fall of 2015, Dr. Martinez met with Jim McGrath (a Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Public Humanities), Hong Chau (then an instructional designer in Academic Technology at Brown), and Andrea Ledesma (then a graduate student in Brown’s Public Humanities program and a Teaching with Technology Innovation Fellow) to outline and prioritize upcoming project work. Through a SEED grant from Brown’s Office of the Vice President for Research and an Interdisciplinary Team Undergraduate Research Teaching Award, Dr. Martinez had secured funding to develop Mapping Violence by hiring a team of student collaborators, most of whom were set to begin work in the summer of 2016.
Meetings in the fall of 2015 and spring of 2016 were important stages of project work, as the availability of compensated student labor forced the team to assess the current state of the projects, to discuss and document project needs that students could focus on, to create learning goals and metrics of success for student collaborators, and to develop digital spaces and protocols for their work. We were conscious of the need to use allocated project resources productively ,and we wanted to ensure that students had forms of support and an understanding of the impact their work had on project development. It was also important that students be ethically compensated for their labor. Work took the form of meetings in campus conference rooms, email correspondence, the development of project documentation on Google Drive, and, by the spring of 2016, the creation of a content management form that allowed for collaborative creation and revision of project data.
At one of our earliest meetings, we used a whiteboard in a conference room on campus to visualize Dr. Martinez’s public-facing project interface. We used this drafting exercise to discuss what it revealed about the aims and imagined uses of the project, as well as what approaches to data would best serve these perceived needs and desired audiences. This component of project development allowed us interrogate the project’s relationship between design, data, and audience. For example, we were able to reflect on the difference between an academic researcher with some knowledge of the histories represented on the project’s map and a Texas resident with regional knowledge, or a user who is interested in looking for information about a relative. Investments in particular metadata categories related to these areas of interest could aid these desired uses, but organizing the information about victims and agents of violence in particular ways could also impede or obscure these stories, or privilege readings of these events that abstract or neatly arrange the lives impacted by them.
The work of drafting this map helped Dr. Martinez more clearly assess the need for “curated content (event narratives, timelines, digital tours, interactive historical essays, primary sources)” to contextualize mapped interpretations of project data and to anticipate public interest beyond academic audiences (“Mapping Segregated Histories of Racial Violence,” 659). Given that one of the aims of Refusing to Forget is the use of public history “to shift public understandings of histories of racial violence in Texas,” there was a need to think about various public contexts for visualization literacy and ideas of curation (The Injustice Never Leaves You, 267).
Solidifying the project’s investments in multiple forms of curation and avenues of access also forced us to reflect on the content, design, and intentions of its dataset. As Dr. Martinez notes in The Injustice Never Leaves You, the act of naming the victims of the violence surveyed in this project is a disruption of “long-held patterns of erasure” set in place by “institutional negligence,” by law enforcement tactics that “criminalize the deceased” by classifying them “as bandit, thief, or other labels” instead of the use of names, by “leaving dead bodies to decompose beyond recognition and failing to write death certificates,” and other factors (79). She argues that “[n]aming is essential because names have the potential to place an individual within broader social connections…and provide insight into their lives” (79). Given the project’s awareness of the powers and limits of naming and classification, it was important to stakeholders to approach the creation and revision of data as an iterative, subjective process, and to have opportunities to debate and document moments where the approaches to data taken in Mapping Violence could be discussed and made transparent with student collaborators. These matters were important to consider when developing our workflow for metadata creation and to the project’s onboarding of undergraduates. The historical and ethical dimensions of this work also made it clear that while student labor may involve the work of data entry or interface design, a “shared foundation” of the project’s stakes at the level of its theoretical and methodological underpinnings can and should inform these efforts (“Mapping Segregated Histories of Racial Violence,” (659).
Consequently, the project team created a Point-of-Interest (POI) content form in the spring and early summer of 2016: Cailyn Hansen, a Brown University undergraduate majoring at the time in Computer Science, created and deployed a dynamic spreadsheet interface that requested information on particular metadata fields, provided space where concerns about particular forms of classification could be recorded by students, and tracked who and what content each student created (in the interest of workflow management). Initial metadata categories focused on the creation of geographic metadata, dates, names of victims and other actors, and fields where descriptive metadata beyond these areas could be documented. Over the course of the summer, students helped Dr. Martinez and project stakeholders revise this approach to metadata. Among other areas, the project team felt it important to find ways to document a wider range of characteristics for victims and agents of violence (race, ethnicity, occupation, age, gender, nationality), forms of violence, records of activity beyond initial incidents (media coverage, arrests, depositions, protests, a lack of response), and documentation of context for primary and secondary sources related to a source’s credibility or lack of credibility, missing information, or misrepresentation (“Mapping Segregated Histories of Racial Violence,” 659). Work refining metadata categories was conducted in project meetings and email correspondence, but it was also important to record elements of this contextual information about the project in the data itself for future project team members.
As students created, refined, and debated metadata and its uses on Mapping Violence, it also experimented with ways of visualizing its developing dataset. Hansen, Edward Jiao (an undergraduate in Computer Science at Brown), and Benjamin Rodriguez-Vars (an undergraduate in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering at Yale) developed prototypes for Mapping Violence informed by our whiteboard visualizations and by refinements made during summer project work. These prototypes helped the project team see the ways that additional metadata categories would impact the design of the digital interface in terms of how information could be visualized, filtered, and searched by users. The conventions of the POI and its imagined uses were clear to student team members who had spent the summer working on the project, but these contexts may not be immediately or clearly understood by site visitors who were visiting the Mapping Violence site. A granular approach to metadata may help project stakeholders push back against data-oriented approaches that generalized or overlooked the untidy ways that lives resist classification, but it also forced the project to consider how this granularity helped particular publics learn more about these events and their impact.
By the end of the summer of 2016, Mapping Violence had greatly expanded its dataset, refined its approach to data, and developed prototypes and proof-of-concept visualizations that could be used internally and distributed in public talks about the project. The project had carefully documented the results of its iterative approach to project design and development, ensuring that future collaborators would have a clear sense of past work and its motivations. But as Dr. Martinez notes, a clinical record of project outcomes that focused too strictly on data collection and wireframing ignores the transformation of student collaborators into “hybrid practitioners” (borrowing from the language of Tara McPherson in “Why Are The Digital Humanities So White? Or Thinking The Histories of Race and Computation”) who are now “thinking beyond traditional historical narratives,” “critical race coders” modeling forms of academic labor that highlight the benefits of interdisciplinarity (“Mapping Segregated Histories of Racial Violence,” 660).
Beyond immediate project goals, the framework of this phase of Mapping Violence work motivated student collaborators to make their labor and contributions visible in professional networks and developing resumes and C.V.s. Dr. Martinez encouraged team members to present summaries of their work at public events at Brown, where undergraduate collaborators demonstrated their familiarity with project research and their understanding of design choices, project methodologies, and approaches to data. Hansen would go on to co-present on aspects of project work in a poster session at the 2017 international Digital Humanities conference. Dr. Martinez notes that many student team members “were first-generation college students and came from historically underrepresented groups,” and they represented an impressive “range of disciplinary training” and majors (“Mapping Segregated Histories of Racial Violence,” 658). In addition to finding ways that students could assert project contributions and situate them within larger networks of scholarly and digital humanities research, it is also essential to consider who is part of your project team, what personal and academic contexts they might productively bring to bear on these forms of research and scholarship, and how project staffing can be a site of resistance and transformation in academic spaces.
Next Steps and Research Agenda
In addition to project labor related to the dataset and interface of Mapping Violence, summer 2016 work also involved the drafting of curated content (temporarily borrowing from the language and technology of the “tour” but also aware of the need for frameworks that memorialize the dead and acknowledge the costs of violence) and the creation of lesson plans in collaboration with educators in Texas. In 2017, the next major phase of Mapping Violence work commenced, primarily involving a team of Brown University graduate students (working with some undergraduates from the summer of 2016 who remained on the project in various capacities). This work has involved the continued refinement of project data (with an expanded emphasis on the gendered dimensions of racial violence), additional curriculum development, and an expanded proof-of-concept that focused on visualization and curatorial contexts for digital work related to the 1918 Porvenir Massacre.
Dr. Martinez has also completed work necessary for the publication of The Injustice Never Leaves You in 2018 and continues to play an active role in advocating for state-sanctioned markers acknowledging the complicity of Texas in acts of racial violence. For example, in the fall of 2018 a marker on the Porvenir Massacre was set to debut, but faced unanticipated delays when the Texas Historical Commission (THC) “halted production.” Despite initially approving the marker text, the THC catered to concerns raised by members of the Presidio County Historical Commission (a group that “had been previously consulted through the marker approval process”), who claimed that “militant Hispanics” were attempting to distort history for dubious political ends (Tyx, “Who Writes History?”). Dr. Martinez joined local stakeholders in an informal gathering that acknowledged these events at their site while the marker waits to be revised and revealed. In the immediate wake of media attention surrounding the controversy, Dr. Martinez appeared on Texas Public Radio and other news outlets to contextualize the marker and the history of racial violence that it made visible. The work of building local connections with regional communities in Texas and Mexico continues alongside the development of the digital Mapping Violence resource, a reminder that efforts in public history and public humanities can and should extend beyond the project site.
Mapping Violence continues to prototype and develop its dataset and interface, work that requires new funding, collaborators, and additional time. In many ways, the process of debating our project aims and refining our project workflow emphasized the value of process-oriented approaches in public-facing digital humanities projects. A major challenge facing this project has been developing a digital space that meets the needs we have identified in terms of audience and use. While there are mapping and visualization tools like Neatline, Historypin, and Esri Story Maps (among others) that provide interested projects with contexts for place-based forms of digital storytelling, we have found that our investments in curation and our ideas of audience don’t always align with the conditions made possible through these resources (though we have used tools like CARTO to visualize project data and document early progress, drafting and prototyping in public). We are aware that time and development periods are luxuries in academic contexts, and we have worked with collaborators interested in academic career trajectories (particularly undergraduates and graduate students) to situate this developing work in ways that renders it legible to potential employers and graduate programs. But we are ultimately more concerned with doing justice to these stories of racial violence (and in the long-term uses of this data) than we are concerned with quickly “finishing” this project.
Martinez, Monica Muñoz. The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018.
Martinez, Monica Muñoz. “Mapping Segregated Histories of Racial Violence.” American Quarterly 70.3. September 2018 657-63. doi:10.1353/aq.2018.0049
Martinez, Norma. “Fronteras: Massacre in a West Texas Border Town.” Texas Public Radio. September 21, 2018. http://www.tpr.org/post/fronteras-massacre-west-texas-border-town Accessed November 9, 2018.
Tyx, Daniel Blue. “Who Writes History? The Fight to Commemorate a Massacre by the Texas Rangers.” Texas Observer. November 26, 2018. https://www.texasobserver.org/who-writes-history-the-fight-to-commemorate-a-massacre-by-the-texas-rangers/. Accessed December 15, 2018.
Various contributors. Mapping Violence. www.mappingviolence.com. Accessed November 9, 2018.
Various contributors. Refusing to Forget. https://refusingtoforget.org/. Accessed November 9, 2018.
This case study is the perspective of one of many project contributors and stakeholders. An overview of the project’s long history of collaboration can be found on the Mapping Violence project site (www.MappingViolence.com). The work highlighted here is particularly informed by the efforts of Monica Muñoz Martinez, Hong Chau, Andrea Ledesma, Susan Smulyan, Cailyn Hansen, Edward Jiao, Ricardo Jaramillo, Nnamdi Jogwe, Danielle Gomez, Jennifer Wang, Jonatan Pérez, Benjamin Rodriguez-Vars, Liliana Sampedro, Katie Vogel, Felicia Bevel, Anni Pullagura, Maggie Unverzagt Goddard, Jeremy Wolin, and Emily Esten. Any errors or omissions in this case study are my own.