Crossposted from my HASTAC blog; you can find my original post here at the HASTAC site.

Yesterday’s University of Iowa Digital Studio for Public Humanities lunchtime talk, “Iowa on World Map”, was given by Professor Colin Gordon of the Department of History. Professor Gordon provided an overview of WorldMap, an open source web mapping platform that is being developed by the Center for Geographic Analysis at Harvard to allow scholars to visualise and share geospatial information.

Professor Gordon’s talk focused mainly on the interactive mapping project hosted on WorldMap which he created as an accompaniment to, and extension of, his book Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City. Mapping Decline examines the causes and consequences of St. Louis’s urban crisis, arguing that both private and institutionalised racism and classism, as well as subsequent attempts at urban renewal, resulted in “white flight” from the city’s centre. Gordon briefly discussed other mapping platforms which he had considered at the start of his project, such as Map Story, ESRI/Story Maps and Hyper Cities, some of which he liked but all of which he found limited in that they are designed for use with a single, discrete data set and are not necessarily scalable. He far and away prefers the WorldMap platform, and listed the following as its pros:

  • Open access and open source
  • Ability to host multiple maps on one digital ‘globe’
  • Plug-ins for Google Earth to allow 3D views
  • Accepts geo-rectified historical maps, and has access to scanned and geo-rectified maps from the David Rumsey Collection
  • Can import data from other geo-servers
  • Sustainable and scalable, and does a pretty good job at accepting different kinds of data layers
  • Allows for links with geo-referenced YouTube and Picasa feeds
  • Layers can be public or private, and if the former scraped and reused for other maps.

Certainly both the St Louis mapping example which Professor Gordon showed, and his most recent project (Digital Johnson County, bringing together digitised historical maps and other data to do with the county in which the University of Iowa is located) are impressive examples of the kinds of projects which can be carried out using this platform. There’s a real sense of immediacy which comes from being able to connect the visual with the interpretive so readily—with being able to compare, say, a map of St Louis in 1900 with one of the city in 1950 and to do so on multiple scales, from the metro level down to individual streets or neighbourhoods. History does seem to be taking a spatial turn at the moment (it’s something I’m trying to do with my own work, and I’m excited at the prospect of being able to incorporate the maps that I’ve gathered of medieval France into this platform and seeing if it helps me discover new connections about my data).

However, there are still some downsides to the WorldMap platform:

  • Data layers must be created somewhere else and then uploaded to the site; no real editing capability in the platform
  • No true inbuilt feature that provides temporality as yet; current revision should add feature to allow for time slider
  • 1900+ projects already on the site, but no real way to search for completed/active projects, etc.
  • No double-checking for layer/data accuracy, so scrape layers at your own risk!
  • Adding narrative/interpretive panes only possible in very limited, clunky fashion

That last element is the one which gives me particular pause. Professor Gordon at one point said that he thought the future of historical research was digital projects like this—that “the book is dead.” Now, you can tease me for being a Luddite if you want to, but I don’t think that statement’s true. Maybe it’s just that being a medievalist means I spend a lot of my time working with very ancient texts which have survived centuries more or (admittedly sometimes often) less intact, but if you take the long view, the codex form is pretty durable, and it does offer a lot of advantages which I just don’t think digital texts have yet surpassed. Many of these mapping platforms haven’t yet figured out a good way to marry visual and textual explanation—and sometimes complex ideas do require more than just an infographic in order to convey them. I have a Kindle, and it’s great for travel, but when I’m reading and taking notes I still default to physical book, paper and pen. For me, I think digital projects like this are fascinating, but I think they are complementary to the monograph/extended textual essay (and vice versa); just as radio didn’t replace live music, or TV the radio, or so on.

What do you guys think? Are you likewise taking the spatial turn with your research? What do you think are the pros and cons?