Visualizing Water’s Pasts: The Space and Time of Water Uses in the Po River Valley

Last fall I had the chance to speak about “Visualizing Water’s Pasts: The Space and Time of Water Uses in the Po River Valley” at the 2014 edition of the Sagan National Colloquium at Ohio Wesleyan University, entitled ” H2O-Water in Our World”. I am really grateful to the organizers for inviting me. If you are interested in what I had to say, here is the video of the talk.


Aqueducts 1800-1940: An Animated Map

As part of my Marie Curie research project, I am currently developing a historical GIS of water uses in the Po Valley, 1860 to the present. This includes hydroelectricity, irrigation canals, urban waterworks, and so forth. It’s a lengthy – and sometimes tedious – process, which involves digitizing and geo-referencing a considerable amount of different sources: archival records, grey literature, historical cartography, and aerial photography. The historical GIS, however, has proved to be an invaluable tool to analyze the transformation in direction and uses of water flows that is the focus of my investigation.

Among other interesting functions, a historical GIS permits mapping temporal sequences in space. Last summer, I produced a few temporal sequences about the diffusion of hydroelectricity in the Po River basin from 1880 to 1970, which I presented at the 2nd World Congress of Environmental History in Guimarães, Portugal. More recently, I have been developing another part of the HGIS, concerning sanitation in the Po River basin from 1800 ca to 1940. Here is a little experiment in animated map visualizations which draws on data about aqueducts:

Please note that this is just a sample from a much richer database. Moreover, the visualization I present here is a work in progress. I plan to elaborate more on these and other related data, such as the kind of water intake used, the presence of sewages, the number of inhabitants, or the interaction between urban water cycles and agriculture. That said, it is interesting to compare the above visualization with the result of a simple Ngram search of the word “risanamento” (sanitation in English) in Italian sources between 1800 and 1940:

A first, remarkable surge in the use of “risanamento” that starts around 1880 was followed by a second surge around 1920. This periodization corresponds to the findings of historiography on urban sanitation in Italy, and overlaps largely with the periodization of aqueduct building in cities and towns of the Po watershed as revealed by the above map sequence.  What the Ngram cannot show, however, is the spatial dynamics of this process, and the extent to which it involved not only  major urban settlements but also small country towns and villages. HGIS can help visualize that.

Exploring the Po River Delta: An Experiment in Digital Multimedia Storytelling

This post was originally published on Seeing the Woods – A blog by the Rachel Carson Center:

One of the most important things I have learnt over these years of research is that the “archive of the feet” is as vital to history as it is to geography. Historians, and especially environmental historians, should not write of a place they have not seen in person. Once you see the place, breathe its air, talk to the people who inhabit it, explore its overlapping historical arrangements and their traces on the landscape, your perspective on your subject is altered in an extremely productive way.

With that conviction in mind, I decided to make use of a research stay in Italy, in June-July 2014, to quit archives and libraries and do a short field trip to the Po River Delta. The Delta region, and more broadly the easternmost part of the Po watershed, will be the subject of one of my next papers, and I wanted to visit the places about which I will be writing. I drove across the lowlands for an entire day, visiting canals and pumps, early twentieth century settlements, Po river distributaries, and ancient fluvial towns.

It was an interesting experience, and one that has allowed me to gain a better understanding of the history and current state of reclamation and drainage in the region. I thought, therefore, that it was worthwhile to share the results and information gathered during this fieldtrip. Instead of producing a more traditional field report, however, I decided to explore the potential of the alternative forms of storytelling that digital formats make nowadays possible.

The format I have chosen is the multimedia map. With a smartphone to take pictures, shoot videos, and geolocate my position, I documented some of the most salient aspects of the landscape I explored. I then used the Google Maps Engine to create a map of the places I visited. Using the simple functions of the maps engine, I enriched the points in the map with a selection of relevant pictures and an explanatory text. In some cases, I integrated the text with links to external web pages containing historical cartography and other kind of information.

The resulting multimedia map can be explored by following the chronological order of the points, thus retracing the path of the field trip in a virtual tour: clicking on each point in the mask on the left side of the map will open a window containing the pictures, the description, and the hyperlink (when present). It is also possible to explore the map following a different order, by clicking directly on the points in the map.

I find the resulting product an interesting experiment in alternative (digital) forms of storytelling. It presents several advantages. It allows for the integration of several different media formats (texts, pictures, videos, maps, webpages), while giving a better sense of the spatial dimension of the field trip than the simple text. It empowers the readers, giving them the possibility to build their own narrative and opening the possibility for further investigations through hyperlinks. It remains an open format, which I can always expand and enrich in the future, and one that users can share freely.

In the future, I plan to explore further the potential of this and other similar multimedia formats. For the time being, I hope you will enjoy!

This is the link to the multimedia map