About Spatial Humanities

With the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Humanities Research Center (HRC) is funding a sustainable, multi-tiered, and data-driven Spatial Humanities Initiative over a period of three and half years. This initiative supports research projects in the Humanities at Rice University that integrate constructs of time, place, and landscape into the micro-stories of everyday life and the macro-studies of our global condition. Diverse as they may be, these projects not only stem from a surge of scholarly interest in space but also exploit a vast assortment of information technologies; explore, critique, and experience the modeling and mapping of historic sites and events; and together incubate a multi-disciplinary and broadly humanistic collaboration among interested tech innovators, faculty, and students.


In September 2015, Rice University’s Board of Trustees set aside $43 million for hiring a significant number of new faculty who would together establish a “world-class program in data sciences.” At the time, university president David Leebron argued that data science was one of the opportunities “where Rice could differentiate itself and excel at the highest level over the next five to 10 years.” The university provost, Marie Lynn Miranda, added that “data science extends to almost every school, institute and department on campus” and underscored “urban data analytics” as one of the initiative’s three core areas considering how representative it is of efforts already underway at Rice (the other two are “Health and Medicine” and “Massive and Real-Time Data Science”). This area of the initiative would, in addition, bring together social scientists, civil engineers, architects, and policy experts in order to “gain insights into urban issues” and “suggest data-inspired solutions to a wide range of urban problems.” Such an initiative is indeed plausible at a time when ubiquitous network connectivity, powerful mobile computing, remote sensors, accurate location data, and massive data-centers have produced an astonishing growth in the collection and availability of data that now flow through a pervasive network of servers, computers, tablets, smartphones, PDAs, media players, GPS navigation units, and publicly accessible digital repositories. Unimaginable volumes of data are constantly being recorded in real-time by mobile sensors, fitness trackers, high-resolution cameras, altimeters, accelerometers, and thermal imagers, making it indeed possible for “data scholars” to perform research at a never before seen scale.

While the university’s initiative is not explicitly centered on the humanities, it does cite the innovation of ongoing projects conducted by faculty in the School of Humanities. The Initiative also recognizes that humanists are particularly well suited to explore critically the science of zeros and ones in a world where even social relations are ruled by extensive data sets connected by Application Programming Interfaces (i.e., APIs), and are powered by adaptive algorithms, a world where our interlinked computers depend on distributed networks, rules, protocols, and infrastructures, all bound by a paradoxically hierarchical, if not panopticistic, social contract now located in Cyberia. Humanistic research, however, is open ended, not necessarily linear, and interested in meaning, not necessarily proof, and this inevitably poses an epistemological and ontological challenge when information technology insists on fitting data within the positivistic parameters of computer software. Bringing humanities-based historical, interpretive, and comparative tools to a university-wide Data Science Initiative would only lead to a more comprehensive, critical, and engaged understanding of an era in which data has such widespread impact. In such a context, a data-driven Spatial Humanities Initiative would set a precedent, both locally and globally, for the value of humanistic input in any collection or study of vast quantities of data and for the rigor and diversity of humanities-driven research projects built from spatial and temporal data sets. It would bring humanistic ways of knowing, critical thinking, and comfort with ambiguity to the seemingly empirical realm of numetrics, while resisting the very quantification of the humanities. After all, the purpose of the humanities is to ask questions about assumptions, biases, and absences that are present in culture as well as in various modes of collecting, visualizing, and disseminating data. Humanists would offer reasons for both embracing and resisting the current enthusiasm in measuring, quantifying, and sharing data about the spaces and times in which we have lived or which we imagine. The potential of infinitely measurable and infinitely shareable human activity requires careful consideration, and this extends beyond the production of more algorithms and more data. It is the kind of consideration that has always been at the core of humanistic study and that factors in inequalities of education, class, access, and geography.

If the humanities are the study and interpretation of the experiences, beliefs, constructs, behaviors, representations, and artifacts associated with human beings—who happen now to be in permanent data mode and unable to move without leaving behind a digital trace—and if people, goods, and ideas do move across urban or geographic space, then the capturing, storing, manipulating, analyzing, managing, and presenting of spatial and geographical data would indeed be extremely useful to humanistic research. In order to participate in a Data Science Initiative that features “urban data analytics” as one of its core areas humanists at Rice would, however, have to work against the very grain of a geographical information system, privilege complexity and ambiguity over authority and certainty, and show how a computer need not be bound by mutually exclusive categories in its data structures. Room, therefore, ought to be made for “chronotopic imaginaries” where a historian’s timeline can merge with a cartographer’s map, and where scale can shift in both time and space, simultaneously, all supported by emerging technologies in multimedia, GIS-enabled W3 services, geo-visualization, cyber-geography, exploratory spatial data analysis, on-the-fly 3D modeling, and augmented reality.

Taking data and the methods by which it is gathered, examined, and disseminated as its drive, a Spatial Humanities Initiative at Rice would not compromise the qualitative nature of the humanities but would indicate the need for reconsidering the relationship between qualitative and quantitative approaches to data. Such an initiative would necessarily have to straddle the social sciences, architecture, computer science, and the humanities by simultaneously seeking empirical knowledge, spatial literacy, technological knowhow, and critical engagement in culture. The Spatial Humanities Initiative, hereby proposed, would also not be limited to data science and geographic information systems when it ought to build on the “Spatial Turn” inherited from the 1970’s and 1980’s, inflected by Michel Foucault’s spatialization of power in Bentham’s panopticon, Paul Virilio’s “dromology,” or other phenomena that alter the qualities of, and relationship between, time and space, as described by David Harvey’s “time-space compression.” A growing number of humanists, however, are interested in integrating constructs of time, place, and landscape into their micro-histories of everyday life and their macro-studies of our global condition, and they all rely on basic research tools such as maps, 3D models, and diagrams, all potentially fed by databases and each becoming increasingly sophisticated with the influx of information technology. Paradoxically however, and as Jorge Luis Borges once pointed out in “On Exactitude in Science,” these tools (which in theory could extend all the way up to GIS) make sense only as long as their imprecision persists considering that perfection renders them obsolete (i.e., once their outcomes become as big, as long, or as detailed as the area or time they cover). It is therefore the scale at which these tools are deployed that ultimately calibrates the meaning they convey, and this implies an editing process where human agency and subjectivity, as well as political contexts, decide what gets revealed and what is concealed.

How to determine or articulate scale is a question usually posed in the design studio environment of architecture schools, where students rely on both digital and analog tools that integrate time and space. The design studio happens additionally to be a space where imagination and execution come together, where faculty and students from many corners of campus can meet potentially to exploit, in unprecedented and mutually beneficial ways, their respective disciplinary depth, be it the visual literacy of one or the hermeneutic rigor of another. For humanities faculty, the studio can serve to produce maps, 3D models, diagrams, and spatial metaphors but, in partnership with others on campus (such as the Office of Information Technology or the GIS/Data Center), the potential exists to build relational databases that can integrate digital libraries of images, geographic information systems, and content delivery web services. Such a pedagogical environment will provide incentive and support for humanists to engage critically both spatial humanities in particular, and the field of data science in general.

In addition, and in collaboration with the Rice Space Institute, other academic units on campus, and potentially the neighboring Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, the Humanities Research Center (HRC) is particularly interested in charting new territories by bridging the gap between earth observation data and geographical information systems, based on the premise that the combination of hyperspectral and LiDAR imaging with tabular, vector and raster data from primary archival sources locatable in time and space, will yield ground-breaking and transformative research. Social scientists, urbanists, and humanists would hence be able to extend the scope of their points of view beyond existing limits and study urban agglomerations at the global scale while shifting back and forth in time as well as across the digital/analog divide. The ‘panoramic’ view of satellites offers, after all, a privileged vantage point from which to oversee ongoing trends, such as global migration patterns, ecological, and other collective risks in a world where flows of capital generate increasingly larger social, economic, and political formations. Once combined with earth remote sensing data, online atlases would, for example, accurately illustrate the social and architectural evolution of cities while predicting possible futures. As a collaboration among faculty members in the sciences, social sciences, architecture, and the humanities, this effort would take advantage of a combined expertise in urbanism, social history, computational humanities, and space observation in order to develop new analytical instruments that can be made available to anyone interested in combining historical information with integrated sets of raster, vector, spatial, and spectral data.

At Rice, many ongoing humanities research projects already operate outside normal historical practices, depend on the use of computers, and have a conceptual focus on space. Diverse as they may be, these projects fall under the rubric of Spatial Humanities, as a relatively new interdisciplinary field resulting not only from a surge of scholarly interest in space but also depending on collaborations with investigators engaged in quantitative and computational research. Such projects exploit a vast assortment of technologies; explore, critique, and experience the modeling and mapping of historic sites and events; and together incubate a multi-disciplinary and broadly humanistic collaboration among interested tech innovators, faculty, and students. Each one of these efforts looks at ways in which new visual, hyperspectral, and geospatial media technologies can help researchers and students gain spatial, temporal, kinetic, and aesthetic knowledge of places as they once existed, as they were once imagined, or as they might become. While each project uses a different spatial approach—and therefore has different sets of questions, different kinds of evidence, and different goals—they are all invested in the kind of collaboration that would greatly benefit from a Spatial Humanities Initiative designed to situate humanists in the very centre of discussions, at Rice and elsewhere, regarding data science.

Farès el-Dahdah, Lead Principal Investigator
Melissa Bailar, Principal Investigator