In 2018, the Boston Research Center worked with seven project groups on Northeastern’s campus to identify innovative ways to support historical exploration and research. These pilots were spread across different disciplines, time periods, and neighborhoods in Boston. These initial collaborations built on the strengths of Northeastern faculty, staff, and graduate student research, and allowed us to connect with Boston-based communities, individuals, and cultural heritage institutions, including the Boston Public Library and the Massachusetts Historical Society. A central goal for the BRC’s first phase focused on the exploration of tools and guidelines to help bring historical datasets, such as historical maps, archival collections, and census data, into the conversation. Another important focus was on ethical community engagement to ensure community-informed and community-driven research projects.
We explored the potential of the Boston Research Center through seven prototype projects. These projects, intended to be suggestive rather than comprehensive, made key conceptual progressions and developed the beginnings of what could be larger projects in the future. Below are brief summaries of each:
- The Birth of Boston project explored ways that archival collections can be combined with contemporary mapping tools to develop multi-layered maps of Boston’s physical space and infrastructure over time. Using collections digitized by the Massachusetts Historical Society and the New England Genealogical Society, Birth of Boston combined the spatial data of 17th-century maps with data about the people who lived in the city. The prototype map as of November 2018 includes the 1648 Clough land parcel map about the people who lived and worked there.
- The Boston 911 Data project, developed by faculty and graduate students at Northeastern University’s Institute on Race and Justice, researched the possible uses of Boston’s publicly available 911 call data. The team developed recommendations addressing the ethical use and reuse of these types of “big data” sets, the ambiguities and inconsistencies within the dataset itself, and the ways to provide contextualization that would ensure responsible use of the data.
- The Boston Desegregation Archive was a joint effort between the Northeastern University Archives, the NuLawLab, and the BRC. This project focused on exploring the social and historical materials, such as maps and photographs, at the center of major legal cases in Boston related to race equity and desegregation. The project team selected the 1974 Morgan v. Hennigan decision as the focus document for the prototype, and developed a prototype reading interface that explores how legal and archival materials can be brought together.
- The Diversity Explorer project focused on exploring the ways that large public datasets can serve as the basis for dynamic visualizations of several indices of diversity in contemporary Boston. The team processed and organized data provided by anonymized samples from the 2016 American Community Survey to develop household-level visualizations for three specific measures of diversity: race, languages spoken, and birthplace.
- The Early Black Boston Digital Almanac project created and published digital exhibits related to influential black individuals in Boston’s long history. The EBBDA exhibits, published through the Digital Scholarship Group’s CERES Publisher, include maps and timelines that contextualize and connect archival objects from the seventeenth through the early nineteenth centuries. For its BRC pilot, the EBBDA team focused on the creation of digitized maps and datasets related to the distribution of the black population in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood in the mid-19th century.
- The Encyclopedia of Greater Boston is a digital encyclopedia of Boston that will provide entries for the people, institutions, locations, and events that have shaped the city, building upon and supporting the work of other BRC projects. The project team, comprised of faculty and graduate students in Northeastern’s public history program, created some mockup topics, which include the public executions of Native Americans on Boston Common in 1676 during King Philip’s War, the Morgan v. Hennigan 1974 court decision and the fight for integrated education in Boston through busing desegregation.
- The Mission Hill 100 prototype explores the intersections between journalism, oral history and archival practices, and community partnerships. The project team included faculty members and students from Northeastern’s School of Journalism working to develop methods for digital reporting that can link interviews, data, narratives, and archival materials. The profiles of 100 Mission Hill residents served as a focal point for research on major themes presented in interviews, such as affordable housing, gentrification, and immigration.
We encountered several challenges during this prototype phase, which gave us a better understanding on how to further build the BRC. Some included ensuring ethical community engagement and use of data and community materials, the efficient and effective meshing of archival resources and data from diverse locations, and addressing the incompleteness of the historical, archival, and data records of Boston. A few technical challenges involved the heterogeneity of the primary sources and the city’s remarkable change over time.
Still, the prototypes gave us significant insight on how to address research topics initiated by both community members and scholars. We repeatedly saw the importance of community relationships, and how we might be able to strengthen them through better outreach, processes, policies, and workflows. We also saw how the BRC could be a compelling pedagogical tool in undergraduate courses and in Boston schools. Finally, by thinking of the prototypes as parts of a whole, we got a much better sense of their interrelationships, and how future BRC projects, and the technical systems that power them, could work together. The extensibility of BRC materials and projects — meaning their ability to be built upon and re-used by others — will be essential going forward.
Having this year of planning and preparatory work on the Boston Research Center has given us a clearer vision of the next stage, where we will partner with Boston-area non-profit organizations outside campus to develop a second set of prototypes. By focusing our next round of prototypes on the needs of local partners, we ensure that the collections and systems we develop are relevant and usable to city residents as well as our campus community. We will next seek to develop not just prototypes, but sustainable working partnerships and systems to bring together these different elements — data, archives, and narrative; communities and neighborhoods, academic and cultural heritage institutions; and the right technology — to support both public and scholarly research, as well as the understanding of a city and region.