Digital Harrisburg: Winter 2017 Update

It has been a long time since our last update on the work of the Digital Harrisburg Initiative, so long that visitors may have concluded this is a dead project. Our work in fact has continued on a number of fronts and has continued to expand in ways we could not have anticipated when we initiated these projects in 2014. Here are some of the recent highlights that come to mind.

1. Federal Census Data, Harrisburg and Steelton, 1900-1930

In our last update, we noted that Rachel Carey (now a graduate student in public history) had input all the census records for 1900-1930 for the city of Harrisburg. A momentous accomplishment which promises to unlock a wide range of uses for researchers, teachers, and the broader public. After that update, she also keyed census data for neighboring Steelton. We now have about 400,000 names and associated census data for a small city and an immigrant town. We hope to write some interpretive pieces about this material in coming months. This is a phenomenal dataset which would warrant multiple levels of analysis.


2. CIS Faculty and Students join the Team

Last spring faculty and students from the Department of Computer and Information Science at Messiah joined the collaboration by refining and analyzing data sets. Students from a database class as well as two students working on their senior projects (see their post here) began to experiment with data cleansing software (Open Refine) as well as data analysis and visualization software (Tableau) to make something of the data. The student involvement, which began as an experiment, has evolved in interesting ways this year. We now have a CIS major, Kelly Hopkins, on our small team of student work studies who make up the Digital Harrisburg Working Group. Kelly is making excellent progress on cleaning up data inconsistencies and preparing our database for public dissemination by 2020.

At the same time, Professor David Owen has begun work on a computer vision project that would automate the work of transferring images of federal census schedules to binary, machine-readable data. Have a look at a typical census chart and you will see how complex this project will be. If even partially successful, it would open up the door for researchers and history buffs everywhere to create census data from scanned images– to do nearly automatically what it took us (and Rachel Carey) hundreds (thousands?) of hours to do manually. We’re still in the imagining stages of this project, but David has been working with a student to make some progress on it. David and his students will also be working on programs to create longitudinal connections between individuals across census years, which would unlock new possibilities for assessing local mobilities of geography, occupations, and social status.

Finally it is worth noting that Professor Bob Kilmer kindly devoted part of his class in Business Operations to help our initiative think through and prioritize the work we are doing with digital Harrisburg. Student groups interviewed humanities faculty involved in the projects and asked basic questions about our vision, mission, resources, and strategic plan. All of these are important for us as we attempt to maintain focus while also expanding our efforts.

3. Geographic Information Systems

Two successful movements with our  GIS front. Our history work studies, Rachel Williams and Sarah Wilson, have been diligently working since last spring to expand our GIS coverage of a map of Harrisburg dating to 1901, which former engineering student Rachel Morris first developed back in 2014.  We’ve added more information and categories to the building footprints including materials and property owners. We are nearly finished with this project and will begin to tackle the problem of mismatches between census data and GIS maps.

Second, Professor Sarvis of Harrisburg University of Science and Technology continues to work with his students on digitizing the 1929 Sanborn maps. Albert reports great progress here as well. We should soon have two maps that match our census data sets for 1900-1930.

Below you’ll see three work studies diligently at work on a Tuesday morning in Boyer Hall.


4. Church Histories

Messiah students and faculty have partnered with churches in Harrisburg to document and save their histories through memory harvests, oral histories and digital storytelling. Last spring a public history class worked with Bethany AME church, conducting oral histories and digitizing and archiving their significant historical documents. A multimedia story telling class and Center for Public Humanities student fellows conducted oral histories and digitized and archived documents for Capital Presbyterian USA, as well as St. Paul’s Episcopal. Related projects of collecting oral histories are underway for other churches of the city, including Lutheran and Presbyterian communities.

5. Research and Presentations

We have several more public and conference presentations in the works for 2017-2018. Abstracts are submitted. We’ll publicize once we hear more. We are also preparing a special issue on Harrisburg’s City Beautiful movement for Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies. I am working with Professor Kostis Kourelis of Franklin & Marshall College to document the Greek towns of Harrisburg, Lancaster, and Philadelphia using census data, documentary evidence, and oral histories.

6. Public Humanities Fellows

Meanwhile Dr. Jean Corey, Messiah College alum Jonathan Barry Wolf and nine talented humanities students continue to work on amazing projects in Harrisburg such as Poetry in Place . You can find essays and blogs discussing their work at their website Humanities in Place. I will try to post a more complete update on their work sometime soon as their projects relate to the digital Harrisburg Initiative.

7. Funding

We continue to do all this work through the shoe-string budget dependent on work studies as well as student projects carried out as part of courses. So much we have been able to accomplish with so little. How much more we might do with funding. We continue to seek external funding from agencies that would allow us to take our project to the next level. We have some ideas in the works which we’ll spell out in future posts.


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