Guest Post by Collin Gilbert ’20 (SDSU Undergraduate Research Assistant), “CONFLICTING TESTIMONIES”

My work on the Soweto Project originally started with the reading of the book Truth, Lies, and Alibis by Fred Bridgland. My focus was to gather testimonies that had anything to do with Stompie Moeketsi and his death at Winnie Mandela’s residence on 585 Eagle Street in the township of Soweto, South Africa on the night of December 31, 1988. These testimonies were to later be added to the already large number of JPEG files (mostly court case documents and newspaper clippings) taken by Dr. Nieves while in South Africa. Something that is important to understand is that with a project with this sort of content and magnitude, a sense of direction is a necessity to the progression of work. We have all this information, but without the big picture in mind, the work we had gathered so far was just words and pictures on paper. Our ideal image of what the project was to achieve relied heavily on the mysterious idea of spatial history, an idea that has no clear definition. Keeping all this in mind, the reading and marking of testimonies proved straightforward as pages could be marked as you went along, and were easy to return to later.

After much debate on the subject, it finally clicked for me that what brings a space alive to most readers is the people within it, so what better way to capture spatial history than with the life stories of those most impacted by it. What this meant for my own work on the project was that we wanted to lock our focus on the life of Stompie Moeketsi. His death is important to that life, but it has only been told through the lens of how it affected Winnie Mandela and the African National Congress. It was a fact that Stompie had been killed that night in the courtyard of Mrs. Mandela’s residence, but that one moment did not define his entire life. Gathering this story will require more than just words from extant texts because those who knew him have to date said little about his life. The discussion of gathering new and original testimonies from those closest to him is exciting, but could also potentially cause problems for those involved. The lack of information about the Mandela property itself is also an issue for our spatial project and gaining access to it is going to be difficult. There are also several technological challenges that are quite daunting, but that is a beast better tackled on its own. One thing is certain to me, I want to tell this story, and I am willing to do whatever it takes as a historian to make sure that it is told.

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Nieves and Sullivan Awarded Mellon Foundation, NHPRC Digital Publication Grant

San Diego State University Associate Professor of History and Digital Humanities, Angel David Nieves, and his Co-PI, Elaine Sullivan (UC-Santa Cruz) were awarded a $100,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission towards the creation of a publishing cooperative for 3D scholarship and digital scholarly editions. The project, “Scholarship in 3D: A Proposal for a Digital Edition Publishing Cooperative,” intends to develop the necessary shared knowledge base and infrastructure for the successful publication of scholarly 3D digital editions, and to create new pathways to publication for scholars working with 3D content.

The planned cooperative will create prototypes to digitally publish and access historical collections for four projects currently in development by participating faculty. Institutional partners on the grant include USC, UCLA, UMass-Amherst, UT-Austin, UVA, Claremont Colleges, Hamilton College, Maynooth University (Ireland), the Alliance for
Networking Visual Culture, and the American Historical Association. Publishers on the grant include Stanford University Press, the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press at UCLA, and the University of Georgia Press.

The project is significant as it joins together two areas of scholarly inquiry in digital humanities that seek to identify and address the long term challenges of digital preservation of historical resources and to provide access to a range of content types, especially in the modeling of 3D reconstructions. The proposed Cooperative first meets at UCLA, Feb. 22-24, to begin their work. Lisa Snyder (UCLA) will host the meeting and act as our Project Director and site coordinator.

Prof. Nieves’s project, Apartheid Heritages: A Spatial History of South Africa’s Townships, brings together 3D modeling, immersive technologies, and digital ethnography in the pursuit of documenting human rights violations in apartheid-era South Africa. Nieves, who has been on leave at Yale University this past year as a Presidential Visiting Associate Professor, returns to the SDSU campus this fall as an active member of the Area of Excellence (AoE) in Digital Humanities and Global Diversity. The work on this year-long planning phase, if successful, anticipates extending other grant opportunities to graduate and undergraduate students working in digital humanities in the Department of History.

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Apartheid Heritages Guest Blog Post

by Jack Hay, Class of 2019

I came to this project from a technical background.  I am a 3D designer and a software engineer but my work on this project has led me from the safe confines of Computer Aided Design into the deep and troubling history of “native housing” on a large scale during apartheid.  It is the design of these houses that gives the project clarity as these rudimentary and hastily wrought plans constantly remind one of their legacy.  

My experience in architectural design software when I joined this project had been centered around upscale homes with the luxuries of sustainable design and other costly construction, but these were no shingle-style summer homes on the ocean.  In Soweto the floors were often packed earth and the furnishings simple and industrial.  Open space was provided for in neighborhood plans to accommodate the military for crowd control.  

My work on this project began with the process of modeling these simple township houses using ARCHICAD.  ARCHICAD is an industry-grade architectural software that I had experienced while working for an architect close to home.  I have also had experience with a number of CAD tools in the past.  After speaking with Professor Nieves about the project I decided that the ARCHICAD toolset and out-of-the-box photo-rendering options would be a good infrastructure to model with.

As I completed each model, I would add more and more detail; bringing complexity and specificity to the industrial building materials.  I used complex profiles to model components in a 2D view before extruding them into the 3rd plane.  I also took advantage of the rendering engine to generate images that added realism to the models for presentation.

The destination and use of these models is still being defined. My goals for work over the summer include creating a larger 3D model to present the individual models in a realistic setting and configuration, an ARCHICAD-centered video tutorial series, and an online 3D library.  Meanwhile, my daytime job this summer consists of work in cloud infrastructure and software development at EBSCO Information Services where I hope to bring some level of experience to the process of building a database from the ground up.  

If you are interested in the 3D modeling side of the project, I urge you to watch my DHi intern’s presentation (~30 mins) which covers the breadth and depth of 3D work on the project.  I also hope to release a video series that covers the tools and techniques that I use which will be available on the DHi website.  This will cover the technical elements of ARCHICAD and the process of drafting from planning to completion.  I hope to document my experiences with the larger visualization and the library as well.

This post arrives early in the evolution of this project. Drafting a 3D model in powerful architecture software is the easy part.    

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Development of the Soweto Virtual Environment

Throughout 2014, Gregory Lord (Hamilton/DHi Lead Designer and Software Engineer) and Kevin Xiao ’15 (Hamilton/DHi Student Intern) began to design and implement the early version of the Soweto Virtual Environment.  This work doubled as both an active DHi development project, as part of the Dangerous Embodiments grant (funded by the NEH, partnered with the University of Arkansas, and later University of Mass., Amherst), and as a student training and development project, training Xiao in the use of 3D modeling and game design tools.

Xiao participated in the project as a 3D modeler and scene designer for the Soweto virtual environment, learning the fundamentals of 3D modeling over the course of his participation in the project, studying under Lord.

To develop this model, researcher and project director Angel David Nieves, Ph.D., provided the development team with blueprints for a variety of houses that comprise the represented section of the Soweto township, along with the Orlando Methodist Church.  Using this data, Xiao and Lord designed 3D models that used these blueprints, making sure to capture both the layout and dimensions of each building.  From there, the team used a combination of both historical and modern photographs and images to texture the houses, bringing them closer to a photorealistic appearance.

Finally, the team imported each of these models into the Unity engine, where they combined the models with tools that allowed them to create an accurate street map from Open Street Maps data.  By putting all of these together, and reconciling the building locations with maps of the region, the team recreated an accurate representation of a particular block of the Soweto township, serving as proof of concept for what will later be the full township.

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First Look: Social Justice History Platform

We’re proud to offer a first glimpse at the upcoming tool for the Soweto Historical GIS Project — a 3D mapping and historical recreation platform built on the versatile Unity 3D engine:

The Social Justice History Platform is a software platform designed to represent geographic and spatial data within an enhanced interface designed to contextualize locations and objects alongside the primary source documents that provide their historical narrative, and a range of related multimedia objects (including video, audio, images, and text).

This platform is built on the Unity engine, and is currently in closed testing.  You can see our first video of the platform in action, at the SHGIS project page on the Digital Humanities Initiative (DHi) website.

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Recent Unity build for Soweto

Developing a User Interface (UI) layer for the Soweto Historic GIS project opens up a wide range of opportunities to integrate contextual information into the 3D virtual environment we have started to build around the township of Soweto in Johannesburg.

In this most recent version, we began to make use of Unity’s new interface system (uGUI) to add features including:

  • Displaying names of regions or buildings when the user enters their boundaries
  • Associating 2D map data (at both the city and building scales, contextually) with the user’s current location
  • Showing contextual information in a scrollable text panel on the side of the screen
  • Adding a playable/pauseable video panel to zones that have related video information

We are also excited to continue developing advanced versions of these features, including:

  • An interactive photo gallery viewer, associated image slideshows with the user’s current zone
  • A scrolling, time-synced transcript, building off of previous DHi software currently employed in the Creative Japanese Film Archive (

These features will help make our large store of archival data more directly available to the user, without having to leave the 3D space in order to browse our repository.  We hope this allows for both deeper delving into the locations users are particularly interested in, and also the chance to discover new areas, and their unique histories, as they explore the space in 3D.

We expect this new interface layer, and the features listed above, to be integrated into our live SHGIS demo by late February, 2016.

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