“Decoding Origins” Project seeks to trace origins of enslaved peoples of Africa

Drawings of faces detailing markings
Wednesday, February 13, 2019

OCAD U’s Professor Martha Ladly and colleague Katrina Keefer of Trent University are using visual analytics to help reconstruct the lives of individuals who were victims of the mid-Atlantic slave trade. 

Their project, Decoding Origins: Creating a Visual Language of Marks, is based on the rich history of applying permanent body marks, such as scarification and tattoos, to represent individual’s membership in African kin groups and local societies. The Project seeks to trace origins of enslaved peoples of Africa, and to address the obliteration of identities for enslaved individuals, which is one of the lasting legacies of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The researchers received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

Working in archives in the UK, the US and Sierra Leone, the team is engaged in data gathering, digitization, interpretation, and visualization, using both historical and contemporary data and imagery, cross referenced with records from the 1880s Registers of Liberated Africans.

The researchers are working with these endangered records collected from the archives of Freetown, Sierra Leone, along with open source data, using research analysis tools employed in the Digital Humanities. Ladly’s team is adapting technologies such as Optical Character Recognition, Machine Learning, and eventually, Artificial Neural Networks to build an interlinking relational database, which will assist in analysis, visualization, and reconstruction of events in the lives of African individuals who were enslaved.

This work may assist scholars, and eventually members of the public, to identify enslaved individuals who were transported to the Americas and the Caribbean, and potentially to trace their origins back to homelands in Africa, in an attempt to uncover identities lost in the mid-Atlantic slave trade.

Project collaborators and researchers are a multi-disciplinary, multi-ethnic team of designers, technologists and artists, including graduate research assistants Kartikay Chadha, Georgina Yeboah and Maria Yala (OCAD University) and historians Eric Lehman and Michael McGill (Trent University), working with scholars of the Mid-Atlantic Slave Trade, including collaborators  Paul Lovejoy (York University, Tubman Institute), Dean Rehberger (Michigan State University), Mohammed Salau (University of Mississippi), and Abubakar Babajo Sani (Umaru Musa Yar'adua University, Katsina).

The project is featured on CBC News.

Photos submitted by Katrina Keefer

Three people seated in front of a screen
Cursive handwriting on an old register

OCAD Faculty conduct King Street Pilot Survey

A photograph of the OCAD University survey booth on King Street
Monday, October 15, 2018 - 9:45am

As part of Visual Analytics Lab's large urban design research project, iCITY, researchers have been conducting a survey (the "Walkable Street Survey") for the King Street Pilot. 

iCITY project member Jeremy Bowes, MARCH, AOCA and Professor in the Faculty of Design, states, "It would be great if any of you who visit the art and King street experience, especially now with the 'unzipped pavilion' by BIG architects, could comment. The survey takes about 12 to 14 minutes, so it has a lot of detailed design related questions, and the usual demographic questions from the city at the end."

The survey, which is still open to anyone interested in providing their pedestrian experience of streetscapes in urban Toronto, can be found here: https://bit.ly/2ycrbil

Learn more about the iCITY research project

Visual Analytics Lab's Informational Workshop

Thursday, October 4, 2018 - 11:30am

Are you interested in Data Visualization? Do you have any digital / UI / UX / web design skills?

The Visual Analytics Lab invites all digital / UI / UX / web designers to join the informational workshop about the lab’s projects.

The projects presentation and workshop will take place on Thursday, October 4, from 11:30AM  at the Visual Analytics Lab – 7th floor, 205 Richmond St. W.

Attendees are invited to bring their laptops and resume.

For more information visit: https://www2.ocadu.ca/research/val/home

Or contact Marcus Gordon: v

Venue & Address: 
VAL Lab 205 Richmond St. W. 7th Floor
Visual Analytics Lab invites all digital / UI / UX / web designers

Faculty Talk: Isabel Meirelles- The Visualizing Spirit

Thursday, September 21, 2017 - 1:30pm to 2:30pm


The second half of the eighteenth century saw most disciplines in the sciences and the humanities share a “quantifying spirit” characterized by the systematization of knowledge as well as a preoccupation with measuring all types of phenomena. This is not much different from our current obsession with collecting, quantifying and analyzing all types of data. A “visualizing spirit”, however, better describes the present passion and widespread use of visual-spatial techniques in the already quantified sciences, humanities and the arts. This talk will examine the antecedents and significance of our present “visualizing spirit” and will focus on recent visualization trends, their roles, affordances and limitations in helping us explore, extract and interpret information.


Isabel Meirelles is a designer and educator whose intellectual curiosity lies in the relationships between visual thinking and visual representation. She is a Professor in the Faculty of Design and a principal investigator in the Visual Analytics Lab at OCAD University, Toronto, Canada. In addition to collaborating with scientists and humanists in the development of visualization systems, Isabel’s research focuses on the examination of how information is structured and communicated in different media. She is the author of “Design for Information: An introduction to the histories, theories, and best practices behind effective information visualizations” (Rockport, 2013).

Venue & Address: 
Room 420, 205 Richmond St. W
Free, Coffee and light snacks with be served
Abstract:  The second half of the eighteenth century saw most disciplines in the sciences and the humanities share a “quantifyin


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