This week, we’re discussing Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in Digital Humanities. Prior to reading our course materials, when I thought about GIS, generally what came to my mind were images of historical maps overlain modern maps, more generally to show changes in cartography, comparing new natural and human-built structures to old visualizations in maps that were previously nonexistent or measured incorrectly by cartographers. Largely because I confined my thoughts to GIS uses in tandem with my current technological abilities and historical understandings heavily influenced by the early modern period, I thought about how I have read maps over the years. Maps are texts, and as David Ramsay points out, they include meta of “supra” narratives. These narratives have driven my interest because they illuminate relative worldviews. For instance, today, most world maps will include the Atlantic Ocean positioned at the center and the North Pole at the top, which reflects a modern Eurocentric / Western worldview. Conversely, this sixteenth-century world map shows the world “upside down”
and this Ptolemaic-based fifteenth-century map draws on the centrality of trading powers in the Middle East, placing it at the center.
While I considered these sort of historical conceptions of place as shaped by their worldviews, I also thought about these in terms of narratives in relation to one another. And, in relation to the potentiality in GIS, in “The Potential of Spatial Humanities” (2010), D.J. Bodenhamer sums it up rather nicely:
[H]uman activity is about time and space, and GIS provides a way to manage, relate, and query events, as well as to visualize them, that should be attractive to researchers.
This sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? While still blurring the lines between text and image, moving away from simple side-by-side comparisons of maps, GIS allows for what David Rumsay calls dynamic readings of maps. With GIS, we can combine information and visualizations of maps, as multi-stacked-layered visualizations, such as multiple historical maps on top of each other, along with topographical maps, and embedded on Google Earth for digital interaction. See David Rumsay’s 3D of Los Angeles, for instance.
However, while I did indeed think about maps as a means of reading human activity and GIS as multilayered, one aspect I hadn’t considered as greatly was that of what Rumsay pointed out in his DH2011 keynote speech: one of the challenges of GIS is that maps are already in themselves visualizations of information, and GIS techniques essentially create visualizations of visualizations. So it would seem that the interactivity of these visualizations, and thus makes the digital interface, extremely important.
What can we gain from GIS? Like all the other DH methodologies, such as text analysis and topic modeling, it seems that while GIS can most certainly help illustrate “the known” through what Cooper and Gregory (2010) call “mere spatial visualization” and as thinking tools, GIS techniques can also drive new research questions as research tools for “critical interpretation.”
[This was probably my favorite GIS example from David Rumsay’s DH11 talk and his Map Collection, and I wanted to post it here because I thought it was neat… and I love Cassini: Cassini Celestial and Terrestrial Globes]