Lit 80, Fall 2013

ORBIS Evaluation

September 16th, 2013 | Posted by David Hemminger in Uncategorized

We chose the ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World digital humanities project to critique. As an interactive software model of Ancient Roman infrastructure, ORBIS is a collaborative effort between historians and information technology specialists at Stanford University to augment modern research about Ancient Rome. The project attempts “to understand the dynamics of the Roman imperial system as a whole” [1] by allowing scholars for the first time to analyze Roman transportation costs in terms of both time and expense.

The mapping application works by allowing users to choose a start and destination location from the 751 sites, prioritizing based on fastest, cheapest, or shortest, and selecting from network and transportation mode options. The application then outputs distance, duration, and cost in denarii based on the options selected. Rebecca J. Rosen, writing for The Atlantic, describes ORBIS as “Google Maps for Ancient Rome” [2]. ORBIS was designed as a tool for scholarly study of the Ancient World but has garnered popular interest on the internet as well as a fun tool for people to explore history.


ORBIS gives a distinct impression of being the product of the rigor and attention to detail expected from academic work. The entire creation process of ORBIS has been outlined clearly on the ORBIS website. The creators acquired all their data from previous scholarly works, and all outside contributions are explicitly credited. Furthermore, the ORBIS mapping tool is available for public use online, and there are plans to make the ORBIS API public.

The creation process of ORBIS and ORBIS itself have had a significant impact on the study of the Ancient Roman world. Not only was the project horizontally integrated in the sense that it brought together history and the digital humanities, but it was also vertically integrated in that tenured professors and graduate students worked together to create the final product. Despite the fact that it was only recently created, ORBIS has already been a key feature of 5 papers and 15 presentations. In addition to allowing historians to have a better general understanding of Ancient Roman transportation systems, it has also been applied to specific problems such as explaining maritime freight charges.

ORBIS does a great job of explaining both the historical and modern sources from which they formulated the aspects and assumptions of their model. The 751 sites included in the interactive map were chosen and named based on Talbert’s Atlas of the Greek and Roman World. The three modes of transport incorporated into the model (sea, road, and river) are all evaluated based on routes, time, and expense. All of the metrics included in evaluating these factors are clearly explained by ORBIS and sufficiently enriched by supporting media. For example, the sea transport time variable is determined by winds, currents, and navigational capabilities. Monthly wind data for the Mediterranean and the Atlantic were derived from the National Imagery and Mapping Agency 2002. Additionally, the algorithm employed in accounting for navigational capabilities was compared against over 200 historical documents of sailing times.

In order to determine the central thesis that the ORBIS project asserts, we examine the choices that the creators made regarding what include and emphasize in their model of the world surrounding Ancient Rome. As mentioned above, the authors themselves say that the goal of their project is “to understand the dynamics of the Roman imperial system as a whole”, so we consider their decisions within this context. The only clear decision that the authors made for what to include was that the authors chose to focus on financial and temporal transportation costs to, from, and surrounding Ancient Rome, which implies that they believe that transportation costs are an important aspect of understanding the dynamics of an empire. This is not a particularly bold thesis, as the vast majority of the historical community would likely agree that transportation costs are a fundamental part of understanding an empire. Furthermore, the form of the work (i.e. software that allows for the creation of maps modeling Roman transportation costs) mostly takes this assertion for granted, rather than functioning to further contribute to the argument. It is therefore not as productive to evaluate ORBIS as a humanities work that is creating an argument. Instead, we can think of ORBIS as a powerful tool for augmenting research regarding Ancient Rome and evaluate it as such.

One weakness of the ORBIS project is that it has not been formally peer reviewed. While a more traditional academic paper would need to be evaluated by independent researchers in order to be published. ORBIS has not been held up to such standards because it was simply published online. While ORBIS is now being used to create more traditional papers that will necessarily be peer reviewed, it is not clear that ORBIS and the software it uses will be held up to the same levels of scrutiny. All things considered, however, this weakness is not as concerning as it would be for other academic works, as it is likely that the only reason ORBIS has not been peer reviewed is that there is not currently a formal system for peer review in the digital humanities

In January of 2012, programmatic access to some routes and site data was opened via API release. “Thanks to the efforts of the Pelagios Project, by mapping many ORBIS sites to place name entries in the Pleiades digital gazetteer, ORBIS is now (modestly) a part of the Linked Open Data cloud.” This moderate attempt at open sourcing some aspects of the project have now made ORBIS more open to independent critique or analysis and opened up the project to contributions from outside sources. The ORBIS web mapping application also operates with a lot of open source software. The website, including both the web map and text ‘article’, are described as a work in progress so ORBIS has plans for continuing development.

— Written collaboratively by Craig and David

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