BEARINGS of Baltimore, Circa 1815 is an interactive 2.5 billion pixel image that was created by UMBC’s Imaging Research Center (IRC). BEARING stands for “Bird’s Eye Annotated Representational Image/Navigable Gigapixel Scene”. The image visualizes the city of Baltimore in 1815, during the aftermath of the British attack on Fort McHenry. As we know, the attack of Fort McHenry is a moment that was immortalized by Francis Scott Key when he penned the Star Spangled Banner after the battle.
The image was completed in the fall of 2013, after two years and 5,000 hours of work. UMBC’s IRC worked in collaboration with the Maryland Historical Society (located in Baltimore), and the Maryland Division of Tourism, the 1812 Bicentennial Commission, and the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation provided funding.
The display at the Maryland Historical Society
The image can be seen on your browser (Google Chrome required) or on a large display at the Maryland Historical Society. For this review I will focus on the browser experience. The first glimpse of the map may require a second glance. The familiar tall buildings and interstate system are absent and the map is oriented in a way that most have probably never viewed the Baltimore landscape. The user overlooks Baltimore aimed in the direction of Fort McHenry. This is view, looking down river, is the city as Francis Scott Key would have seen it in 1815. A user can manipulate the map just like they would Google maps on the computer (the display in the Maryland Historical Society is touch screen). The user can zoom in and out of every available part of the image, almost to part of being able to see clearly, individual trees.
At the bottom of the page the user can select from a list of “Hotspots”, which are shortcuts that automatically zoom the user into certain places of historical significance. Some of these locations are still components of the city circa 2014, such as the Lexington Market. Hotspots also include things that no longer make up the fabric of the city such as the “mud machine”, a contraption that would dredge the harbor, and the multiple “ropewalks”, extremely long and narrow buildings that made ropes. These Hotspots provide some insight to the nature of the city’s burgeoning harbor industry at the time.
When zoomed into a Hotspot a user can click the underlined text to reveal pop up windows that provide information about the Hotspot and often include images of artifacts, or transcriptions of relevant primary source documents. Did you know that Lexington market is the oldest continually running market in the country? From the Hostpots users can learn information about the places they may have interacted with before in everyday life. Currently there are 24 hotspots. The map also allows the user to toggle on and off, a feature that will overlay important landmarks that exist today: Camden Yards, interstate 95, Domino Sugar factory, etc.
Overlaid landmarks of Baltimore in 2014
What makes this DH?
According to Matthew Kirschenbaum in his chapter of the book Debates in the Digital Humanities, “The digital humanities, also known as humanities computing, is a field of study, research, teaching, and invention concerned with the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities”. In keeping with this definition, BEARINGS is clearly an example of a DH project. This is made clear by a video of how the IRC team created the predecessor and proof of concept for the image of Baltimore, a visualization of DC.
In the video, Dan describes the primary challenge of creating the base map: the layer of the image that consists of cartographic information based on data pulled from early paintings, drawings, and documents about the area. This phase represents how computation and the humanities intersect in the creation of new scholarship. Mapping and animation software are able to stitch together disparate pieces historical information that has been gathered by a team of “architectural historians, cartographers, engineers, and ecologists to assess the often unreliable eye-witness accounts “. In 1815, photography was not invented and so it was difficult for the animators and mapmakers to ascertain what the area actually looked like. There are illustrations from the time but most professionals at the time were educated in the romantic landscape tradition and thus their work does not provide accurate topography, and spatial information. After digging through documents like detectives, the IRC worked with UMBC’s Center for Urban Environmental Research and Education (CUERE) to create an accurate topographic map also portrays the spatial data of buildings in three dimensions.
Critiques and ideas for future functionalities
Dan Bailey from the IRC team mentioned in an interview with WYPR that the BEARINGS project is not meant to be a static form of scholarship. The project is meant to grow throughout the years and serve as a framework for further kinds scholarship, similar to how Google Maps provides more functionality than just that of a traditional map by including information/reviews of restaurants, etc.
As a giga pixel image, BEARINGS very clearly adheres with the following DH definition from Short Guide to the Digital_Hummanites:
Digital Humanities marks a move beyond a privileging of the textual, emphasizing graphical methods of knowledge production and organization, design as an integral component of re-search, transmedia crisscrossings, and an expanded concept of the sensorium of humanistic knowledge.
However, I wish that beneath the initial visual layers of information in the BEARINGS gigapixel, there were more content, including text. I do believe that DH projects need to push past relying on text to carry the day but I also think that text and even long form writing components should always be included in some way. Articles can provide depth on certain topics that can aid further discoveries by the user in the image. To no fault of their own, the user is oblivious to many of the historical details included in the gigapixel. For example, consider the following excerpt from a press release about the visualization written by the Maryland Historical Society.
A historically accurate paint scheme was used for the shutters. Notice how the shutters were louvered on the upper floors – their purpose was for ventilation from the hot, dusty street below. On the first floor, the shutters were paneled, for privacy from passersby. A hand-painted sign, a replica of what hung outside the hotel, was the final touch.
The furthest you can zoom in, it is difficult to notice historical significance of the blind design.
I did not notice the detail about the shutters from my exploration of the image. I simply didn’t know that this level of detail was possible in the image, and even if I had noticed it I would not have understood the historical significance. I think this information is important because it allows the image to connect to an aspect of the lived experience that is still relevant to Baltimore. Current residents who deal with the sweltering summer months can surely relate with past residents who made design modifications to help aid ventilation in homes. The fact that this interesting detail is not integrated into the image itself supports my belief that the image needs greater amounts of interaction.
I would include more text boxes at certain levels of the information hierarchy in this project. This would serve as a curating force, helping users to understand what they’re looking at. Future iterations of the project could allow users additional opportunities to interact with buildings. Rather than only being presented with a blurb to read when looking a Hotspot, the text could could be related to the object itself in some way. For example users could be prompted to click on the blinds of a certain building and learn about the reason for their design in 1815.
“BEARINGS of Baltimore, Circa 1815 also includes accurate representations of the area’s vegetation, including plants that have since become scarce and even extinct. The American Chestnut Tree, for instance, was prevalent in 1815 Maryland before being wiped out by blight between the late 1800s and the mid 1950’s.” Read more from the Maryland Historical Society press release linked above.
Another further form of interaction that I think is missing is the ability of the image to connect to additional scholarship outside the image itself. Could there be a kind of API for the project? The image can then serve as a gateway to further information relating to Baltimore and help create a discourse community that would co-create an understanding of Baltimore’s past. Open source components could be a powerful addition to the project. This has succeeded with maps before. Consider Waze, a navigation mobile app recently acquired by Google, which relies on user-generated content to present users with relevant information about such as traffic conditions and the location of speed traps (I’ve never heard of an open source gigapixel so I will have to do further research).
Besides increased methods of interaction, I do wish that the creators of the project incorporated reflexivity into the image to help us understand how the map was made from archive material. For example, users should be able to easily view what documents serve as evidence for why buildings exist in their given locations. As Johanna Drucker explains in her article “Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display”, it is important that in DH projects, data be portrayed as qualitative and not given truths. By providing access into their data analysis process, the team behind BEARINGS would add transparency to their analysis and in the process also make the archive of documents from the Maryland Historical Society accessible in a totally new way. If each Hotspot in the image linked to relevant archival documents, the project will also create a method of locating historical information that is not possible through traditional catalog search functions. The map could be a form of visually searching the historical arhcive of the Maryland Historical Society.
These additions I have proposed will require time, of course. Dan Bailey has expressed that the project will continue to grow over the years so it will be exciting to see how image, and our understanding of the city of Baltimore, changes over time. Please comment below if you have any additional suggestions for Dan Bailey and his team.