Digital Mapping for History

Digital mapping is one of those delightful tools in digital history that allows new avenues for research and not solely new communication.  Computers allow for the compilation and visual organization of mountains upon mountains of data; from these organized data, human interpreters can recognize patterns that were previously obscured by noise.

ArcGIS Story Maps provide a new opportunity for scholars to create interactive projects without them having to know the intricate technical details that have long been a hallmark of GIS software. Created in much the same way as a WordPress website, one can make a Story Map to present findings from an array of disciplines.

This conference clip shows the ease with which an ArcGIS Story Map can be made.

Sean Fraga demonstrates the versatility of digital mapping with a variety of valuable interpretative graphics based upon a single (albeit data-laden) source alone.  In his examination of the Puget Sound Customs District’s ledger, he and two research assistants complied the handwritten document into machine-readable spreadsheets.  From this document, Dr. Fraga applied a number of lenses to the data from simple origin/destination studies to more complex correlations with tonnage and its use in identifying individual vessels in the data set.

“Looking at thousands of voyages in the aggregate turns our attention away from the significant, the important, the charismatic—the usual subjects of histories. Instead, it reorients us to the larger currents of movement and exchange that shaped this place and this period.”

-Sean Fraga, “Waves of Ink.”

As a data-driven bureaucrat, this kind of history is right up my alley.  Knowing the sort of insights that can be gleaned from seeming noise, projects like these excite me for the ways we will be able to employ digital tools going forward in the discipline.  While Fraga is quite right that digitizing what are effectively analog spreadsheets is distinctly unglamorous work, putting data in machine-readable formats is an endeavor that yields many times over the insights one might originally have hoped and is a gift not only to the current generation of researcher but future ones as well.

Also by Fraga, “Digitally Mapping Commercial Currents” goes further in its examination.  Using not just geographic tools, Fraga generates tables and other media from the digitized data allowing him to write a convincing narrative in article format.  He reviews steam-powered vessels against sail, origins against destinations, and shows connections to other historical events not directly captured by the ledger.  From a digital standpoint, particularly interesting is his inclusion of an animated map showing the development of trade over time.  In a traditional publication, this could only be shown by putting each individual “slide” of the map next to the others, taking up space on the page and the reader’s time in making “A/B” comparisons.  By animating the map, the development of relative hotspots are readily apparent.

Some projects, like this map comparing an 1812 map against one from 2013, are effectively novelties, or at best, tools for telling broader stories.  They are limited in that they tend to require additional interpretation; the story is not apparent from the graphic itself.  Such a creation stands in stark contrast to a project like the “Neolithic Mystery Tour,” which is almost inundated with interpretation to the point that one almost has to search for the map.  Of the two extremes, however, it seems wise to err on the side of interpretation.  Curious folks can always skip over what they find uninteresting, but it is hard to invent an explanation where there is none.  Nor is the story map a tool solely of historians: archeologists, geologists, and geographers are more than happy to employ it as well.  The story of “London’s Lost River: the Tyburn” is heavy with archaeological data, computer modeling, and hydrological debates, and yet because of its story map structure it can hold the attention of a lay person with relative ease.

The San Francisco 1906 Earthquake & Fire, by Chris Ingram.

The middle ground between pure interpretation and pure graphic can be found in the story map of the 1906 San Francisco fire.  This piece takes users through the official report of a San Francisco Fire Department captain, locating the places mentioned within.  This tour through shows how the fire spread and, importantly, provides some temporal context in addition to spatial.  By anchoring the primary document to an interactive medium, not only is the accessibility of the resource expanded but the source of historical knowledge is exposed and non-historians may be subtly shown how historians do their work.

For me, the most exciting part of emerging digital mapping tools for history is the ability to conduct research in new ways that more readily reveal otherwise latent patterns.  Its utility in communicating history to others, while clearly of great potential, needs additional experimentation and refinement to truly come into its own as a medium.  GIS has for years been obscured behind a veil of training requirements and technical limitations; it is exciting to see some of these old obstacles be overcome and a powerful technology made more readily available.

One Reply to “Digital Mapping for History”

  1. Great post Neil! I appreciate you pointing out the temporal aspects of the SF fire website. I think that contributed a lot to the narrative. It’s interesting the extent to which maps take a back seat in your examples of the Orkney Island and Tyburn projects. With GIS we’re essentially talking about tools that can break new analytical ground for research, but in public-facing applications are most useful in their flexibility.

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