Visiting scholar Carroll Parrott Blue maps Houston’s stories of Hurricane Harvey

Carroll Parrott Blue is a big fan of collaboration. The award-winning filmmaker and scholar has devoted much of the last four decades to documenting neighborhood histories by bringing together those who live, work and study in those communities. A decade ago, Blue employed a then-new technology to preserve the stories of the Third Ward — story mapping, which plots the oral histories of residents captured on audio or video on a map of the area — to great acclaim. With the help of Rice University, she has been using similar technology to tell the stories of Hurricane Harvey.

Visiting scholar Carroll Parrott Blue collaborated with Fondren Library's GIS/Data Center and Digital Media Commons to produce a story map of Hurricane Harvey's oral histories.

Visiting scholar Carroll Parrott Blue collaborated with Fondren Library’s GIS/Data Center and Digital Media Commons to produce a story map of Hurricane Harvey’s oral histories.

As one of the Lynette S. Autrey Visiting Scholars at Rice’s Humanities Research Center (HRC) between 2016 and 2017, Blue worked closely with Fondren Library on creating a Community Five Park Plan story map that featured a dangerous toxic waste dump close to two schools and two parks, which Blue first noted in Rice Design Alliance’s Cite Magazine’s 2014 article, “Saving Grace.” Beginning in July 2017, her status as an academic visitor at Fondren afforded her the chance to put Fondren’s Geographic Information Systems (GIS)/Data Center and Digital Media Commons (DMC) to good use.

As an academic visitor, Blue began sifting through 200 oral histories of Hurricane Harvey along with the help of collaborators from the Houston Chronicle, the Story Maps Division of software company ESRI, University of Houston’s Bauer School of Business and others. In the end, Blue and her team selected 45 stories, each plotted with ESRI’s ArcGIS software on a map of Greater Houston and tied to the exact location where it was first told.

The resulting story map of Hurricane Harvey, “Damaged and Defiant: Houston Stories,” was published in the Houston Chronicle in December. The map shows short narratives gathered by Chronicle staffers from people across the area — from Crosby to Kingwood to Katy — each a unique perspective on the storm; told together, they’re the collective account of a city that experienced one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.

“Everybody flooded — the rich, the poor, the in-between, the immigrants, no one was spared,” Blue said. “Houston has now become a different kind of city, and that’s one reason why this project is important.”

It’s just one of the story maps Blue is currently working on for the newspaper using the resources available at Fondren’s GIS/Data Center and the DMC.

Blue and her team selected 45 stories, each plotted with ESRI’s ArcGIS software on a map of Greater Houston and tied to the exact location where it was first told.

Blue and her team selected 45 stories, each plotted with ESRI’s ArcGIS software on a map of Greater Houston and tied to the exact location where it was first told.

Lisa Spiro ‘92, Fondren’s executive director of digital scholarship services, oversees the GIS/Data Center and DMC and shares Blue’s passion for digital humanities scholarship. “After her fellowship with the HRC ended, she became a visitor with Fondren because we wanted to continue to support her work and work with her,” Spiro said.

“One of my interests on campus is to stimulate and support work in the digital humanities, exploring the application of technology to research and publishing in the humanities,” Spiro said. “I also really admire Carroll’s interest in looking at ways scholarship can serve the local community and how they can have a voice in scholarship.”

Story mapping is only one of Blue’s current pursuits; she stays busy with her work as the founder of nonprofit The Dawn Project, which uses community-based media training, production and distribution techniques for citizen engagement in neighborhood development. She also is the co-founder of the Southeast Houston Transformation Alliance, which uses creative placemaking like documentaries to create strong, vibrant communities with a sense of history that the residents themselves have helped to tell.
Although Rice may be just another collaborator Blue has brought into the fold along the way, she’s adamant that her time here as a visiting scholar was instrumental in bringing these story maps together for the Chronicle — and not just because of the mapping expertise available at the GIS/Data Center or the resources at the DMC.

“What Fondren has done,” Blue said, “is given me the freedom to do the work.”

Blue, a San Diego State University professor emerita and former University of Houston research professor, is now Rice’s 2018 Center for Engaged Research and Collaborative Learning (CERCL) Scholar-in-Residence at the African-American Library at the Gregory School and Fondren Library’s Woodson Research Center Special Collections and Archives where she is now categorizing and digitizing 50 years worth of her archival materials while continuing her work on an upcoming storymap — this one focused on two of Houston’s toxic waste sites and their vulnerability to floods.

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.