imagineRio lets users visualize five centuries of change in a modern megacity | Rice News | News and Media Relations

A screenshot of a story map created using imagineRio’s new story tool, available in English and Portuguese.

Imagine being able to pick a corner in a city you once knew, zoom in on a map, and see in detail what that block looked like in the past, preserved in a photo or painting. This is just one of the creative visualizations imagineRio allows for the city of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. And now Rice has redesigned the site with even more powerful tools for teaching and learning.

Initially developed by Professors Farès el-Dahdah and Alida Metcalf in collaboration with the Space Studies Laboratory of the Center for Research Computing, the imagineRio platform – a searchable digital atlas of Rio in space and time – illustrates the evolution of the Brazilian city over five centuries of maps, site plans, photographs, watercolors and more.

From left to right: Deborah Fontenelle, Bruno Baccalon and Alida Metcalf.
From left to right: Deborah Fontenelle, Bruno Buccalon and Alida Metcalf.

A recent update from imagineRio, supported by a grant from the Getty Foundation, which funded a collaboration between Rice and Instituto Moreira Salles (IMS) in Brazil. The update added more than 3,000 geotagged photographs of the city from the 19th and 20th centuries. Taken by some of the country’s most iconic photographers, the images were drawn from IMS’s extensive collections and show many of Rio’s most famous sights over time, from Christ the Redeemer atop Mount Corcovado to the beach of Copacabana.

But to add the photographs, el-Dahdah, Metcalf and their team had to rethink certain aspects of the project and, in doing so, created an entirely new version of it. Like the first two, this third version of imagineRio is fully bilingual, available in English and Portuguese.

“This is a major rebuild, and it’s really important for a digital humanities project because they can be outdated, the grants run out and then they don’t get updated and so on,” Metcalf said. “It was very exciting to update the site and make images and photographs searchable within imagineRio.”

Two Rice-affiliated Brazilian scholars are also excited about the update: visiting scholar Deborah Fontenelle, assistant professor of history at Rio de Janeiro State University’s Fernando Rodrigues da Silveira Institute of Application, and Rice Department of History graduate student Bruno Buccalon, former project leader of the Getty Digital Art History “Situated Views” Fellowship.

Their new web environment offers scholars, students and Rio residents creative ways to visualize the past using historic and modern imagery on an interactive map that accurately showcases the city since its founding in 1565.

“It’s Sugar Loaf,” Buccalon said, pointing to a rough mound on a map that depicts a fledgling Rio drawn by Renaissance cartographer Jacques de Vau de Claye in 1579.

The site imagineRio orients the map and overlays its perspective on a current map of Rio, just like its other plans, photos and paintings. They are stored in IIIF format, which Buccalon insisted on; it is an open standard for making high-quality attributed digital objects available online at scale.

“Another feature of this new version is that you can change the year of the map while selecting a range of image types you are looking for, the time period you are looking for and filtering the results on the base map,” Buccalon said “You can also see everything about each building in the various photographs and discover other information about them in the database.”

Rio has “extensive iconography,” Metcalf said, available in books, photo collections, museums and elsewhere. “But the key was to tie it to the map and to specific dates so you really saw it in context.”

screenshot of the imagineRio digital atlas
A photograph taken circa 1890 by Marc Ferrez shows Sugar Loaf, the entrance to Guanabara Bay, and Morro do Castelo among other iconic Rio landmarks.

Switching between antique views and newly added photos from the 19th and 20th centuries reveals a city that has changed rapidly and drastically over five centuries.

Rio has remade itself in its lifetime, Fontenelle said. Events like the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympics have led to both demolitions and constructions, while the population has nearly tripled since 1950, when just 5 million people lived in the city. Today, many of Rio’s more than 13 million residents have never known the favelas that were plowed or the mountains that were literally moved to create the Rio of today.

“We not only see this change, we also feel it, as people who live in the city; suddenly you have to move because it’s too expensive, or because they’re going to build something and demolish your house,” Fontenelle said.

This displaced mountain, Morro do Castelo, was the center of Rio’s economic, social and political life during the city’s first centuries. Rio razed the mountain and all the historic buildings that were built on top in 1921, citing the need to “clean up” and modernize the city.

“It’s crazy to think about the fact that the first place where the city started to be built no longer exists,” Fontenelle said. “It’s a big part of our history that no longer exists, and we have a lot of things like that in Rio.”

With imagineRio, you can also visualize Rio as it could have been – a city in which Morro do Castelo may still exist.

“What’s exciting about our project is that you can go back and see the city as it was, but we also have plans for the city here, showing how the city was envisioned to be restructured, rebuilt, reformed,” Metcalf said. “It’s part of imagineRio; you imagine the past but you also imagine the way Rio was imagined in the past.

screenshot of the imagineRio digital atlas
A screenshot of a story map about the demolition of Morro do Castelo.

Last semester, Metcalf and el-Dahdah taught a course on Rio that used another upgrade: a new narrative tool available in English and Portuguese.

During the course, students chose topics related to Rio such as 19th century cafes, samba schools, plague and cholera outbreaks in the early 20th century, Jewish cultural institutions in Rio, beaches and the displacement of the favelas during the construction of the highway for their final presentations. Using imagineRio’s storytelling tool, the students created story maps that displayed their spatial data in an engaging visual format.

“We think it’s going to be very useful for teaching,” Metcalf said. “I think it would also be very interesting for students in Rio, because they will get to know the city in a much more intimate way.”

Fontenelle accepted. Having worked and researched at Rice since September, she is looking forward to returning to Brazil next month.

“I can’t wait to use it in my classes in Rio,” she said. “It’s such a powerful tool, and it’s changing the way we learn to teach and they learn.”

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