Blog #3: Collective Punishment

While looking through the collection of historical mapping projects, I noticed that a number of them did not seem to be active any longer. While it would be unreasonable to expect academics to continuously update a project, it was a little dispiriting to see so many that had already been taken offline, presumably without any online backups. In some sense, this is the equivalent of burning all the remaining copies of an academic article. A contribution to the body of academic work in the field, suddenly lost.

Perhaps the projects were unsuccessful, poorly executed, or unoriginal, however, as more and more major digital projects are completed, and as these same projects grow older and older,  more and more will be abandoned. These projects need to be treated like articles and books, with long-lasting copies made available.

Anyway, moving on to reviewing an active GIS project! I chose Collective Punishment: Mob Violence, Riots and Pogroms against African American Communities (1824-1974). This project aims to aggregate all the major racial riots and lynchings in America in a very broad time period. They are clear that this does not try to include smaller scale lynchings, etc… but instead focuses on large-scale events. Considering the way that data is organized here, or to be blunt, the lack of organization, this limiting of scale is a good idea.


The main issue with the map is it’s rather basic construction. Created by essentially throwing pins onto Google Maps, there is no way to search for information, you cannot show only events of a certain time period, or organize by number of victims. Another useful feature would have been a basemap that showed population density in certain time periods, especially the racial makeup of areas, but again, this would require sorting by time period, and a more advanced tool than Google Maps. Had the they decided to include smaller scale riots and lynchings, the map would have completely collapsed, going from tedious to thoroughly parse to practically impossible.

The raw data is made available on the same page as the map, however, like the map itself, organization is a serious issue. The data is presented as plain text, when something like an excel spreadsheet with individually addressable fields would be much more useful (and which seems to exist, judging by the images on the website).

Fortunately, the information itself is better executed, with clear fields, concise but informative descriptions, and links to sources with more details. At first glance, the information seems solid and appropriate for this kind of project. Although, the project also seems to be incomplete, as practically no events west of Dallas, Texas are registered.

2017-11-02 (1)

Historical Texas almost seems to be racially tolerant here

Overall, the research here seems extremely broad and still a work-in-progress, but still promising. The big issue is that the designers of the project seem to be out of their depth in terms of technical skill, and should seek outside aid to shore up the map interface. Google Maps should probably be abandoned altogether in order to accommodate such a wide spatial and temporal scope. Given a better interface, a map like this could be a valuable teaching tool, as well as a good way to start off researching a project. Until then, however, it is simply too unwieldy for any large-scale analysis.


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