art historian, environmentalist, educator

DH Tools: An introduction to GIS

GIS, or geographic information systems, is a significant tool in the workbox of the digital historian.  I had been introduced to GIS ages ago working in the Belizean rainforest in undergrad.  We actually were using early GPS to do preliminary mapping of a tract of land that was to be designated as a preserve.  Back in the 1990s, it seemed incredibly high tech, and in some ways it was.  After being exposed during my research abroad, when I went to grad school and had the chance to take a class in GIS I took it.  I remember my project was epidemiologically focused, looking at breast cancer cluster incidences on Cape Cod, MA.  Like much technology, your knowledge quickly becomes outdated if you don’t keep up with it.  Working for the Federal government, there were specific people who worked up mapping for all of our documentation, so I relied on them heavily while my own skills weakened within this field.

This week we were introduced to the QGIS platform, which was great to learn of an incredibly usable GIS application that is available for free.   Lack of access was a major reason I hadn’t done anyhting with it after my master’s.  Now, having been nearly 20 years since my class, it was still considerably challenging learning my way around the application. Nonetheless, I was able to use the early modern plague data we had been given to create a map of London’s outbreak.  While it is usually difficult learning new technology, the feeling of success after finally getting it to work is encouraging.

GIS is utilized in DH in many ways to visually integrate and present historical data, from recreating ancient places from artifacts and archived documents, to examining the historical boundaries of real estate redlining practices and its implications for today, to mapping militia advances on a battlefield.  The strength of GIS is the connections that can be drawn spatially between existing data and the visual presentation that typically makes the information accessible and implications intuitive.  Loren Siebert discusses this in the article “Using GIS to Document, Visualize, and Interpret Tokyo’s Spatial History,” and particularly how GIS is a tool that can be interacted with and using GIS is an interative process.  So much so, that often the visualization that is produces often brings interpretation of that information simultaneously (556).  For example, Siebert was able to look at railway station line names before and after Japanese provinces were converted into prefectures, and their continued usage despite the political expansion of Tokyo.

Looking at another project example, it doesn’t take much to interpret the Mapping Inequalities interactive map.  Mousing over the U.S. map, you can land on any number of cities and click down to city-level data, and see the actual descriptions given about each area that was judged by the Home Owner’s Land Corporation.  Of particular interest are the areas of “clarifying remarks” which are frighteningly racist.  Looking at these maps it is easy to see the correlation of these areas that were deemed undesireable, largely due to racial makeup, so long ago that now remain depressed, impoverished, and disadvantaged.  So Siebert’s words ring true – one doesn’t need to make difficult assertions – when working with GIS these relationships simply become visible.


Siebert, Loren. “Using GIS to Document, Visualize, and Interpret Tokyo’s Spatial History,” Social Science History 24, no. 3 (2000):537-574.

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