Public Lab Wiki documentation

Unearthing Providence

This is a revision from January 24, 2020 20:58. View all revisions

A platform for historical data-driven analyses of industrial land use, story-mapping, and community organizing.

Social scientists and computer scientists at Brown University have assembled a unique database that contains information on every manufacturing facility that operated in Rhode Island since the early 1950s. The database also contains information on other environmentally risky land uses such as gas stations, dry cleaners, and auto repair shops as far back as 1936. We have also collected information on “green” land uses such as urban parks, playgrounds, schools, and community gardens dating back to 1915. Taken together, these data tell a complex and dynamic story about socio-ecological change in one American city and state over the past century.

Now, we are looking to add your stories, memories, and experiences to the project. Join us and contribute!

featured sites other analyses data related sites about map

Add photos and memories to help tell the story of these sites and their legacy.

Featured sites

The industrial sites cataloged include both currently operating and long-closed factories, jewelry manufacturers, gas stations, laundromats, and many other land uses, which may have a lasting impact on the land.

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A collection of in-depth research and analyses of the database are presented here, providing examples of the kinds of work the dataset makes possible.

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Where do the data come from?

We use computational techniques to extract information from historical manufacturing directories and old city directories. From these data, we can identify where industrial and other environmentally risky land uses occurred in the past, investigate how the same sites are being reused today, and identify potential sources of legacy contaminants.

Here’s a short video that explains our basic approach:

Our data collection efforts are ongoing and can be replicated in other cities and states. Technical information on data sources, coding, and data management for academic and government researchers can be found at the Brown Digital Repository

The full dataset is available here (GeoJSON format, 4.6mb)

One interesting part about the project we’ve developed is that it can be used as a foundation for new storytelling projects, which overlay narratives or new datasets on top of the industrial sites database (above).

By being a part of the Public Lab network, this project links into dozens of other local environmental projects around the world, as well as a range of environmental topics of concern and the grassroots communities of interest that have formed around them.

Here are some of the projects which have built on the Unearthing Providence dataset:

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About the project

The Socio-Ecological City Project (SECP) is an intensive data collection effort focused on assembling a comprehensive longitudinal geospatial dataset to better understand the changing relationships between people, industrial hazards, and nature. Focused on socio-environmental change in the city of Providence, RI over the past century, the SECP has compiled information on every manufacturing facility operating in the state since 1953. We have also collected information on all parks, playgrounds, cemeteries, and schools that have existed in Providence since 1915. Currently, we are compiling additional geospatial data that inventories hazardous retail sites such as gas stations, dry cleaners, and auto repair shops.

When complete, the data and related visual and statistical analyses will become available to the public through this website. Our hope is that by making visible a treasure trove of lost historical knowledge about urban land use (residential, industrial, and commercial) the website will function as a platform and research tool for strengthening and forging new relationships with policymakers, planners, regulatory agencies, and community and social justice organizations. The SECP is committed to working toward environmental justice and the reduction or elimination of environmental exposures, and promoting public health by assisting state regulators and legislators with systematic analyses of proposed and existing environmental health policies and regulations.

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This project has been made possible through support from the Brown University Superfund Research Program and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, and seed grants from Brown University Office of the Vice President for Research, and Social Science Research Institute. This website is the result of a collaboration between Public Lab and the Brown University team.


This site is under development, and we would love your feedback; please use the form below. Thank you!