There's a team building a four-dimensional computer map of Edinburgh

Edinburgh, seen from Calton Hill. Image: Getty.

Its frantic approach made practitioners wince but, through Time Team, Channel 4 made archeology prime time entertainment for over two decades. That fact alone vividly illustrates a widely shared fascination amongst the public for peeling back the layers of the past and peering at the lives of those who came before us.

Now that Time Team is off our screens, cutaway junkies are having to look elsewhere for their fix. Fortunate, then, that the team at the University of Edinburgh working on the Mapping Edinburgh’s Social History (MESH) project are developing a way that anyone, anywhere, can construct a digital historical atlas.

Professor Richard Rodger the project’s lead researcher says that MESH’s founding “philosophy is to make the cartographic information easily available in digital form to the public… Allow historians access… produce maps of the city, mak[ing] Edinburgh’s history known [and] available to its communities”.

That all sounds very worthy – but it’s merely the start of MESH’s ambition.

How the distribution of butchers shops changed over 165 years. Image: MESH.

Since the project received a £633,000 grant from the Arts & Humanities Research Council, it’s mapped between 80 and 90 per cent of modern day Edinburgh has been mapped. This is important, because MESH’s approach blends the picture of contemporary Edinburgh provided by OpenStreetMap with historical geological and cartographic data.

This process makes it is possible to create accurate maps that trace Edinburgh’s development across time. Users can watch as the New Town takes shape, or use traditional historical sources like trade directories to plot the historical location of butchers shops or pharmacies.

Rodger says the maps have “show[n] [him] things [he] just wasn’t aware of”: for instance, he has recently been using them to explore the development of Edinburgh’s financial sector and the way that this influenced patterns of suburbanisation.

MESH is currently developing an array of tools that will allow school pupils “to inspect the city’s [development across time] and ask questions of it”. This is where the “social” aspect of the history that MESH is interested in shines through. By tracing the development of a wide range of activities, for instance “eating and drinking across time”, it is possible for the researchers to humanise the raw data and bring users closer to their forebears.

A sample of the team's research. Image: MESH.

Rodger is keen to point to the potential political implications of the work that he is doing. MESH’s work opens up new dimensions in investigating traditional social history concerns around the socioeconomic and spatial origins of inequality, whilst also pointing at new questions, especially ones about open access to data.

The latter issue is one that harks back to social history’s founding assumption that the decisions of those with power and wealth require scrutiny. In a decidedly Time Team turn of phrase Rodger describes MESH’s work as excavating the “historical data miden”. This doesn’t mean see the data as necessarily belonging to the past. Citing a report by the Danish government, which estimates that its decision in 2002 to make its address files open access, has boosted the economy by  €14m a year, he suggests that free access to contemporary and historical mapping data could offer a myriad of benefits to, for instance, those engaged with the planning and premises licensing processes.


For Rodger the humanities, through initiatives like MESH, can provide a firm foundation and historical underpinning to the development of smart cities. In doing so, the tools MESH are developing offer everyone, whether in an academic chair on an armchair, the chance to develop a historical cuttaway without risking the rain.

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Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.