Web-Mapping and GIS:

This week’s assignment was an introduction to the world of Web-Mapping and Geographic Information Services (GIS). GIS platforms allow users to display, interact with, and curate spatially referenced data. GIS is an extremely powerful tool used in Business, Health & Human Services, Transportation Projects, Education, Academia, and more. It is also a useful tool for the Digital Humanities. Digital mapping allows Digital Humanities projects to ask new questions and look at old ones in new ways.

The Map:

I created the map below using ArcGIS (provided through Carleton College) and data sets from my Hacking the Humanities Class and the Railroads and the Making of Modern America project. The map is a combination of a list of American Colleges and Universities founded before 1866 and data from the American railroad systems in 1840, 1845, and 1850. I created this map by importing four files: a class Comma-Separated Values (CSV) file containing information about the colleges, and three files of data from the Railroads project I mention above. Then I had to decide what information to display and how I wanted to display it. Because I was using railroad data classified by date, I displayed the colleges in what ArcGIS calls a Counts and Amounts (Color) map, which displays the each college as a color-coded point. Darker points denote older institutions and lighter points mark newer ones. I wanted the display of railroad routes to be stylistically consistent, so older railways are shown as darker lines and newer railways are shown as lighter lines.

The railroad data helps to tell more of an actual story. Visually, the older (darker) schools are more likely to lie along the oldest of the three railroad lines, while newer schools are more likely to lie along the newer railroad lines. This map also shows the American reliance on the rail system as almost all of the schools, particularly older ones, are located either directly along or near major rail lines. Although the rail sample is very limited, you could use this map construct a story of how the expansion of the US rail system facilitated the expansion and geographical accessibility of the country’s higher education system.

There are, however, some problems with this story. Most importantly, this map shows a correlation and not, necessarily, a causation. Additionally, the coloration of the map is potentially misleading. The founding dates of the schools range from 1636 to 1866, while the railways only range from 1840 to 1850. Many of the schools were already founded by 1840, but their specific information only comes up when you select the individual data points. This could lead the viewer to believe, initially, that the two color scales are equivalent and that schools like William & Mary and Yale were founded at the same time that the Philadelphia and Reading railroad line, for example, was completed, which is demonstrably false.

I was excited to learn to use such a powerful tool, and I’m lucky that Carleton has a subscription to ArcGIS. By having to import data sets onto an empty base map and determine how to display them, I was forced to consider the information in ways that I never would have otherwise. The visual element made me have to determine what was important to the story I wanted to tell and what was the best way to tell it. GIS is a complex tool and I have a lot to learn, but I hope that this first foray will not be my last.

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