Digital Mapping is a cross disciplinary methodology with strong relevance to anyone whose research includes a study of place and place-based data. Digital maps can be used a research method to investigate data and to answer research questions or as a publication output, or both! Many of the software, tools and methods of digital mapping come from geography and related disciplines, but they are now used across many different disciplines in both HASS and STEM. Map making has been part of HASS research from well before the advent of computational methods. They have been pretty common as research and visualisation tools in disciplines like archaeology, but in recent years new tools and software have made it easier for more researchers to try their hand at it.
Why would you use mapping as a research methodology?
Three basic categories, these are not exhaustive and all overlap, but they should help to illuminate some reasons why it might work or not for your research project.
1. To create a visualisation of data connected to a place/s. All maps are abstract data visualisations, whether they show locations guides to road and street locations, natural features, points of interest for tourists, etc. Many of us know this just from the experience of using google maps on our phones. These every day maps also remind us how our perception of place is changed depending on what we are shown, or why we are using it. Eg are we following a route or searching for a business nearby? Maps for research are useful visualisations as often patterns and relationships exist in research data but are difficult to identify from a written list, this might because of the size (reading through a 10 000 line spreadsheet for example), or just because those connections are not readily obvious. This is especially true if you are combining several sets of different data.
2. As a tool to analyse interdisciplinary place-based relationships
Place often plays an important role in understanding the types of questions we ask in HASS. An obviously example is the census, for historians and social scientists, recent and historic census data can be linked to place. If we combine it with other data, such as maps of the locations of services, schools, historic monuments, we can start to see patterns emerge. We might want to analyse the diversity of business types in a street or neighbourhood the different areas that people who belong to religious groups live in, or the relationship between heritage listings and average incomes in a suburb.
3. As a way of understanding change over time
Mapping can be used to track and visualise how places have changed over time. This could be looking at changes to the natural environment, changes to the use of land or shifts in social and cultural uses of a specific site or a collection of sites. Techniques exist to allow researchers to develop layers of historic maps and and combine these with diverse data to see patterns and prompt new questions of research material.
Mapping, like many other digital methods, can actually reshape the direction of your research. The process of converting archival data, or finding complimentary sets of government place-based data, and creating a map from it can make you look at your research questions in very different ways. It is likely that you will come out of map making not just answering your existing place-based questions, but also developing a whole new set of ideas and questions. The process or practice of the method encourages close-looking, helps us to spot patterns and prompts interdisciplinary investigation.
GIS – Geographic Information System. This is a framework for collecting, generating, analysing and displaying spatial and geographic data. Often in digital mapping it is used to refer to software programs used for this purpose. Two common ones are ArcGIS (licensed but many universities have a license) and QGIS (free and open source).
Data – not sure what data you use in mapping? It can be a whole range of different things from photographs, to property ownership records, newspaper stories, a census, diaries and letters, fiction. The key is to understand what format it needs to be in. Some data may be available more or less ready made to be used in mapping software, others may need to be converted using different techniques (including just typing hardcopy documents into a spreadsheet).
Network analysis is often used in conjunction with geospatial analysis as it can provide analytical insight into the significance of locations and individuals and give a statistical confirmation of patterns seen in the visualisations created by geospatial analysis. For more information, see the Programming Historian lesson on creating network diagrams. ↩
Map Projection – Understanding the basics of map projection is useful as you start to make more sophisticated maps, especially if you are working with georeferencing and if you are working with older maps. The following is a useful guide, but I also recommend talking to any friendly geographers you can find. https://kartoweb.itc.nl/geometrics/Map%20projections/mappro.html
Georeferencing – see below
Spatial, place-based, platial – on the back of the increasing popularity of mapping technologies for research across different disciplines is the emergence of a new area of research that focuses on the study of place, these studies might bring together researchers from different disciplines, social sciences, history, archaeology, geography, environmental studies, design and so on to develop richer understanding of landscapes, urban spaces, cities etc. For example a new book by Stuart Dunn explores this idea in relation to the humanities.
PREREQUISITES FOR A MAPPING PROJECT
This depends on your discipline, your research question and your data! If you work on place, sites, landscape you can probably find some utility in digital mapping methods. Do you have research data that is about a place or places? Do you work on a place and want to collect more data about that place to compare with your existing research data? Do you work on historic images of place, including maps? Do you just think maps are cool and want to try making one so that everyone will think you are cool? If you answered yes to any of these questions you should give it a go.
Wondering how to get started? There are four ideas below that you can try on easy-to-use free software or web-based apps to see if digital mapping might work for you. You should also look around at what others in your field are doing, is there an existing project that uses mapping where you could get some ideas?
Georeference a historic map
Curious about how the the place you work on looked in the past? Geoerferencing is a great way to create layered maps. Georeferencing involves taking a digital image of a historic map or aerial photo and assigning parts of the map real world coordinates. Once this is done the map can be viewed as a layer in a GIS program, or on an online map like Google Earth or Open Street Map. Many maps, especially pre-1950, are now freely available from library, gallery and museum collections, you can also use aerial or satellite photos. Georeferencing can be done in using GIS software, but a number of easy-to-learn tools can help you achieve a quicker result and see if this tool is for you before you invest time in learning more complex software. Mapwarper is a free tool from the NYPL, all you need is a decent resolution of a historic map (the higher resolution the more closely in you will be able to zoom without the old map becoming pixelated) and some knowledge about how streets, monuments, natural features on that map can be lined up with a map from the modern day. If you want to try it in a GIS program there is a tutorial here.
Display a data set on a map
This is probably what springs to mind for most people when they think of mapping in research. You will need a data set that can be read by a GIS program or similar, so it will need to have place-based information in it. This can be as simple as a spreadsheet with street addresses, lat/long coordinates are helpful, but some tools will try and figure out the place from text descriptions. If you have a google account you can use My Maps to upload spreadsheets. See an example here.
Create a story map
Are you interested in using maps as an output to share your research discoveries? Story maps are a useful way to do this. Several tools exist that provide scaffolding and allow you to essentially type in your text, upload your photos and point and click to find the places on the map. These can be useful as a presentation tool, they can be embedded on project websites to tell stories that unfold over different geographic locations. A simple example is this map that tracks the diary entries of Jospeh Addison, a British tourist in Italy in the eighteenth-century, as he sailed from Naples to Rome and tried to connect to the myths and histories of the ancient world. Both Esri and Knightlabs offer useful tools for this and clear instructions can be found on their websites.
Encode a narrative or other prose text
Many researchers in the humanities will use ‘data’ that is not in a digital format like a spreadsheet spreadsheets, or a list of lat/long data points, but is a narrative text or a historic text, a letter, a diary, etc. You can pull information out of these and turn it into data sets that can be used with digital tool. A great open source project from Pelagios Commons called Recogito allows you to upload texts (yes you will need it as a digital text) and annotate the place names as they appear, this then generates a map. Try it at their website.
SOME DIGITAL MAPPING PROJECTS
DECIMA project mapping historical census data in Florence
Mapping the Republic of Letters: Interactive maps of the dissemination and the criticism of ideas, the spread of political news, and the circulation of people and objects.
DC Water Atlas A digital atlas of waterways big and small in Washington, D.C., from the eighteenth century to the present.
Queering the Map is a community-generated mapping project that geo-locates queer moments, memories and histories in relation to physical space.
REFERENCES AND THINGS TO READ
See my working bibliography here – it is mostly humanities and arts focused
SOFTWARE and RESOURCES TO GET STARTED ON
Mapwarper – a free online tool for georeferencing maps. It does a solid job and agreta place to start understanding the process (and a useful teaching tool).
QGIS (a full GIS suite but free and open source for PC and Mac, will work best on machines with decent memory and graphics cards. Steeper learning curve but more powerful once you have a handle on it. Lots of tutorials online, for example if you want to try georeferencing in QGIS and then making map tiles try this process http://www.qgistutorials.com/en/docs/georeferencing_basics.html to get a georectified TIFF image.
Google maps and Google Earth – these are free and open up to a point, but be aware if you want to embed and host maps with google it can start to cost money. Google also has a habit of sunsetting and shutting down tools, so always keep a back up and document your porjects using screenshots.
Storymap (JS) excellent for telling the story of a journey or exploring spatial relationships between objects, moments, histories. Need a google account sign in.
Juxtapose (create sliders for photos, maps, etc to compare images of the same place across different times – or other creative uses!) Need a google account sign in.
AURIN – maps and data for Australian-focused research into into towns, cities and communities. Great social science resource.