Knowledge Gains and Geeky Pleasures: Adding Digital to Environmental History

by Giacomo Parrinello

Like virtually everyone who has grown up after the PC revolution, I have used digital tools for work or entertainment as early as I can recall. However, work on my second book-length project entitled Entangled Flows: The Remaking of the Po River Valley, has encouraged me to consciously and programmatically explore digital methods more fully.

Colleagues and friends who are not involved in the digital humanities have often asked me why I have chosen to go digital. This is a legitimate question, and a very important one. Before showing how I integrate digital methods in my project, I should thus explain why. There are at least three major reasons. First and foremost, my environmental history project would simply be unfeasible without utilizing digital methods—in particular, without historical geographic information systems (HGIS). Second, digital tools open up a field of new possibilities for research dissemination and outreach, which in turn increase public accessibility of scientific knowledge. Finally… because it’s fun! Although personal pleasure has seldom a place in compelling scientific arguments, humanities scholars should know better than anyone how important emotions are in stimulating or constraining creativity. We will get back to that. But let me first say something more about the project.

My current project, funded by the European Union with a Marie Curie Fellowship, aims to understand the genealogy of today’s problematic interdependencies in water resource use in the Po River Valley. The Po River Valley is one of the most densely urbanized, industrialized, and agriculturally developed regions of the planet. Cities, industries, and agriculture in the valley depend on particular arrangements of water circulation, and water flows interconnect them all. In this project, I study how the current configuration of water circulation in the Po Valley has been produced through history. More specifically, I analyze the transition from a predominantly agricultural society to the modern urban-industrial society, and the ways that water circulation structured this transition. This endeavor has two major implications: 1) the analytical focus of my research are water flows and their modification across the entire watershed of the Po River; 2) I take into account a multiplicity of water uses (agricultural, urban, industrial) over more than 150 years.

When I first designed this project in the form of a proposal for a Marie Curie Fellowship, I realized that I needed to find a way to systematize sources and information, or else their sheer abundance would have overwhelmed me. Besides working on more traditional text-based research and outputs, I thus decided to build a geographical database of water uses. I planned to utilize it in order to spatially organize the sources and information I would collect on irrigation and drainage canals, hydroelectric reservoirs, urban waterworks, floods and so on. Although by then I had only a superficial knowledge of GIS, what I knew was enough to guess that it could serve well to that purpose.

It turned out it was not a bad idea. I have been implementing a historical GIS of water uses for almost one year now, and I have already derived several benefits from it. First, it has effectively helped me to never lose sight—quite literally!—of the big picture. This is very important, since it is incredibly easy to get entangled into local stories when using archival or other narrative sources. By constantly getting back to the GIS, I am forced to always relate every specific case I encounter—be it a canal, a drainage initiative, or a dam, to the larger regional context. This helps me to avoid the risk of overemphasizing the single episode, and to gain a clearer perspective of its relative importance and historical interconnections. Moreover, building the database has driven me toward sources that otherwise I would have overlooked. Searching for comprehensive information on large-scale processes, I have turned to inventories of irrigation canals, surveys of aqueducts and hydroelectric power plants, and maps. These sources are probably not as “fleshy” or “spicy” as reports or letters, and can be of little or no use if taken alone. However, once digitized and put into a GIS, they can be extremely valuable to keep track of extent, patterns, and features of environmental change on a large scale. Furthermore, GIS is proving extremely helpful as an analytical tool. Let us take hydropower as an example. I have digitized five inventories of hydroelectric power production compiled between 1927 and 1970, and I am now completing the digitization of an 1880s survey of watermills. Visualizing and analyzing these data via GIS offer new insights about the difference between the two modes of waterpower production, the localization, diffusion, and functions of the hydropower plants, and their impact on watercourses. By cross-matching waterpower sites and irrigation canals, then, it becomes possible to identify locations where the overlap between the two types of uses was intense and precocious, and where it is thus worthwhile to pursue more fine-grained investigations.

GIS is also a great resource for creative outputs. As geographers and cartographers know well, geo-visualizations can communicate spatially situated information in an extremely effective manner. Visual information comes across very differently than written words, and sometimes can be more easily accessible than scholarly articles or books, especially for a non-specialist audience. Nowadays, most of the free pieces of GIS software such as QGIS or Google Earth allow users to produce very powerful and attractive geo-visualizations of various kinds. QGIS, for example, has a map-drawing tool that produces high-resolution image files out of GIS data. I have used it to produce a sequence of maps concerning the diffusion of aqueducts in the Po Valley from 1800 to 1940. I have then composed the resulting image files into an animated sequence by means of a free video editing software.

I have published the animation on my Youtube channel, on my blog, and on twitter. This is by no means a replacement of a scholarly article, but it can be a nice complement to it, and one that has more chances to reach a wider audience. Map animations can also be easily created with Google Earth Pro (now free). Google Earth Pro indeed allows for the creation of short HD videos out of virtual tours. I have used this feature to create a visual narrative of the 1951 Polesine flood, the worst flood disaster in twentieth-century Italy. The video shows the points where the river overflowed the embankments, the flooded area, and the locations that were abandoned as floodwater advanced.

These are just examples of the many possibilities that free GIS software offers to create digital historical narratives of environmental change capable to reach a broader audience. Even more potential lies in integrating GIS with other multimedia formats. I have used Google Maps Engine to map a field trip in the drained wetlands of the Po River delta I did in the summer of 2014. The map shows each stop in the trip, and includes brief field notes, pictures, video recordings, and links to relevant web pages. Users can navigate the map and get a better sense of the geography of the field trip, while learning more on some features of the landscape I explored.

Part of my project consists of replicating this model on a larger scale, by creating an interactive map that would allow users to select and visualize the data on water uses and water infrastructure I have digitized, including dams, hydropower plants, irrigation canals, and so forth. I envision this instrument as a way to help people understand the interconnectedness of apparently unrelated processes of social and environmental change, and thereby enhance the public debate on water uses and interdependency in the Po Valley.

While digital methods and tools are now playing a decisive function for both primary source analysis and project outreach, they have also been a refreshing complement to my scholarly practice. GIS, videos, and websites can expand storytelling into new and fascinating directions, and liberate creativity from some of the constraints of textual narratives. Moreover, playing with maps, learning how to use pieces of software, shooting and mounting videos, are all activities that I have always enjoyed. In these moments, I become oblivious of time, a sensation that I also experience when reading a good book or sifting through archival records. My academic training in history, however, has led me far from digital media production. The digital humanities represent a way to finally integrate this longstanding passion with my professional practice. I find this extremely rewarding, and increases the pleasure that I attach to the work I do. Is that not already enough?

Giacomo Parrinello is the author of Fault Lines: Earthquakes and Urbanism in Modern Italy (Berghahn Books 2015). He is working as a Marie Curie Fellow (EU) at a new book-length project on water flows and the modern urban-industrial society in the Po Valley in Italy. You can read further about his ventures in digital history on his blog. On Twitter you can follow him as @ParrinelloG.

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  1. Pingback: Knowledge Gains and Geeky Pleasures: Adding Digital to Environmental History | Giacomo Parrinello

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