New mapping and data technologies rewrite history and reframe the present.
By David Pacchioli • Illustration by Peter Bollinger
David Del Testa, professor and chair of history
It was, he says, a “magic moment,” the kind scholars live for. For historian David Del Testa, the pieces of a puzzle had finally coalesced. When they did, he found, the past had realigned itself right before his eyes. The site of this epiphany was no dusty archive — although there were certainly dusty archives fairly close by. It was Bertrand Library, and the ground-floor office of GIS specialist Janine Glathar.
Del Testa, a professor and chair of history, studies the colonial history of Vietnam. A current project centers on the Nghe-Tinh Soviets, a popular uprising against the French authorities that occurred in three north central provinces in 1930 and 1931.
As Del Testa tells it, scholars generally have concluded that misery, not ideology, drove these Vietnamese workers and peasants to revolt. Until recently, however, there had been no good way to test that theory across all three provinces. The existing demographic, political and agricultural data were too extensive for a large-scale regional analysis. That’s why Del Testa turned to a Geographic Information System, or GIS.
A GIS, he explains, is a powerful analytical tool that uses computer software to link data with maps. Geospatial technologies have become an integral part of how we understand and interact with the world around us — in the navigation system in our cars and smart phones, the “red state v. blue state” maps used on CNN and the buttons we click online to “find the nearest Home Depot.” In academia, faculty and students use GIS to create accurate and nuanced models of real-world systems that they then analyze within broader social, economic, political and other contexts. GIS enables users to discover correlations and associations that would otherwise remain unseen.
Working with Glathar and her team of GIS student assistants, Del Testa developed a historical GIS to tackle the Nghe-Tinh Soviets question. For two years they toiled, digitizing old maps, structuring and inputting numeric data — on everything from rice harvests to religiosity, village by village — and learning their way around the software. Finally they arrived at that culminating moment in Glathar’s office, which, says Del Testa, is when all the hard work paid off.
What the GIS revealed was that the revolts had in fact occurred in those areas where people were wealthiest. “Once we turned everything on,” Del Testa remembers, “in the space of 10 minutes, the whole paradigm was completely reversed, in a way that only the GIS would show. And that was amazingly powerful.”
GIS has been used widely in business, industry and government for decades and is becoming increasingly common in academia. Geologists, geographers and engineers were the first to use the technology, followed by archeologists, historians, literary theorists and social scientists — anyone whose scholarly curiosity involves the dimension of place. With the use of this technology has come important new interpretations and entire new lines of inquiry once literally unthinkable.
At Bucknell, the focus on GIS and spatial thinking is part of a larger effort to integrate digital scholarship into teaching and research. Glathar’s hiring in July 2009 is tangible evidence of the University’s growing commitment in this area. Her full-time role is to support faculty and students in using GIS, and for newcomers to the software her presence is crucial.
As Del Testa explains, his own interest in the technology goes back to his graduate student days at the University of California at Davis in the late 1990s, where he was introduced to G. William Skinner, a China scholar and early advocate of spatial history. Skinner encouraged Del Testa to tie his dissertation research to a GIS.
At the time, however, GIS software was expensive, difficult to learn and administered rather protectively by a handful of departments on the UC Davis campus. Still, Del Testa kept a hand in it, and when he arrived at Bucknell in 2004, his interest was rekindled. “I saw people like geography professors Ben Marsh and Duane Griffin successfully using GIS in ways that I could identify with,” he says. “Others on the faculty were also interested. But what we realized immediately was the need for training. Many people pushed very hard for the position that Janine now fills.”
Glathar had worked for Esri, the California-based leader in GIS software development, and then for a nonprofit think-tank in Philadelphia, where she employed GIS to analyze community risks and resources. With her addition to the Library & Information Technology (LI&T) staff, Del Testa says, “the doors opened to an enormous number of resources.”
A 2011 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation allowed GIS workshops for faculty and research internships for students involved in GIS projects. A second Mellon grant announced this summer will extend these efforts. And last November, the University hosted a conference, “GIS & Spatial Thinking in the Undergraduate Curriculum,” that drew more than 100 faculty and GIS/IT specialists from more than 50 different universities in the U.S. and Canada.
As a result of growing interest in digital scholarship on campus and the success of the conference, three new positions were added to Bucknell’s instructional technology group in spring 2013.
Professors Carl Milofsky, sociology (L), and Ben Marsh, geography and environmental studies, review coal mining maps of Pennsylvania.
“GIS is maps,” Ben Marsh likes to say. “It’s everything else, but it’s maps. And so it has the characteristics of maps, which are spatial ways of knowing.”
Marsh, professor of geography, started making maps in the late 1970s — “and of course I learned on paper, literally pen and paper.” The difference between then and now, he says, is “the difference between typing and word-processing.” Conceptually, it’s even greater.
“Lots of computer methods are incremental steps from things we had done before,” Marsh explains. “We looked things up in the index of Encyclopedia Britannica, and then we had computer indexes. But at some point something new emerges. Google is not Britannica. It’s transformed, and it’s transformative, and GIS is that kind of step for mapping.You can do things you used to do by hand, but the power is such that you can do things you couldn’t do before.”
For Marsh, the technology has allowed him to support civil rights advocacy in new ways. Over the last decade, he has worked with colleagues at the North Carolina-based Cedar Grove Institute for Sustainable Communities to document “municipal underbounding,” a phenomenon whereby municipalities use local land-use powers of annexation and zoning to exclude minority neighborhoods, severing those neighborhoods from infrastructure and services.
“The premise is that local governments make decisions that affect people’s access to political power, resources, police protection, clean water — and nobody really quite thinks about how those decisions are made,” Marsh says. “As it turns out, they’re made really badly. In effect, they create and institutionalize racial discrimination.”
Because of the complexity of factors involved, these disparities, he says, are difficult to detect on the ground. But by mapping census boundaries and race distribution, layered with infrastructure such as water and sewer lines, GIS turns up clear patterns of exclusion. Marsh’s work has been used to great effect in lawsuits, zoning actions and policy discussions around the country, as well as in his own teaching. “We use these cases as examples in environmental justice,” he says. “I also have students doing similar work as projects — mapping food deserts and the siting of parks in Sunbury and other local communities. These are good exercises, and they’re also the kind of thing you can hand off to a local planning office.”
That kind of engagement addresses an issue that Marsh has long pondered: how to bring the power of GIS to the community. “It’s expensive to do,” he says. “Many of the counties that have real problems don’t have GIS facilities or access to the data. We have the resources. We can help, not to give voice, but to give place to under-resourced communities.”
Madeline Lawrence ’14 (L) and Steffany Meredyk ’14 (C) study maps of the Susquehanna River with Professor Katie Faull, German and humanities.
In perhaps a parallel way, Marsh and other faculty are giving place to Bucknell undergraduates. Katie Faull, professor of German and humanities, has been at the center of a regional studies initiative called “Stories of the Susquehanna Valley.” Her research and translation of the 18th-century diaries of Moravian settlers in what is now Sunbury have shed new light on the history of the area, particularly on early interactions between Native Americans and Europeans.
“I can count myriad times when students have said to me, ‘I’ve lived here for three years and I had no idea where the river was or of the significance of this place in U.S. history,’” Faull says. “What these courses we’ve been teaching about Sunbury or the river do is show the students where they are.”
Faull fell upon GIS as an outgrowth of her research in the Moravian archives in Bethlehem. “I was researching a Moravian mission at what is now Wyalusing,” she says, “and found this beautiful hand-drawn map from the 1760s. I showed it to Ben [Marsh], and he showed me how to ‘rubber-sheet’ it.”
As Marsh explains, rubber-sheeting, or geo-rectifying, is fundamental to historical GIS. “The basic process is to take these ancient maps, and if you know where some parts of the map are, you stretch the map out so those parts line up right, and it forces the places on the rest of the map to be someplace. So by knowing a few key points and then adjusting the image you basically look ‘through’ the map and see what the geography is.”
Enthralled, Faull immediately set about incorporating GIS into her work. That experience came in handy when she, Marsh and Professor of English Alf Siewers were drafted by the Conservation Fund for an effort to win federal designation of the Susquehanna River as part of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.
“The John Smith Trail was the first national historic water trail,” Faull says. “What the Conservation Fund wanted was to look at each of the major rivers that flow into the Chesapeake Bay and make them into connecting trails.” With the help of her student, Emily Bitely ’11, the team took John Smith’s 1612 map of the Susquehanna and geo-rectified it to resolve a long-standing argument among archeologists about the locations of Susquehannock Indian settlements along the river. The resulting map “convinced the National Park Service that they should extend the national trail the whole length of the Susquehanna,” Faull says. The designation was formally awarded in 2012.
Faull stresses the importance of introducing students early to both GIS and the Susquehanna. For Presidential Fellow Steffany Meredyk ’14, that baptism was quite literal.
“I think it was the second Saturday I was here,” Meredyk says. “I had already been doing research. Katie offered to take me on a canoe trip to meet some of her Native American collaborators. I didn’t have a chance to tell her that I was kind of afraid of water.”
Faull also encouraged Meredyk, a history major, to take a GIS class. “I didn’t really know what geography was, but I enjoyed it,” she says. The rest is a new kind of history.
For one GIS-based project, Meredyk created a map of the Sullivan Expedition of 1779–80, General John Sullivan’s scorched earth campaign to eradicate the Iroquois from the Finger Lakes region in western New York. “She incorporated old maps and comments from soldiers’ diaries in the National Archives into something that is not just a new interpretation but a new representation,” Faull says. “Maps can tell stories. The convergence of information is powerful.”
Such payoff moments, of course, do not come without significant investment. GIS software is a powerful tool, but in practice it is neither quick nor easy to use.
Glathar says, “Learning how to use GIS software is only part of the battle — figuring out how to apply GIS to ask and answer spatial questions in your area of study is much more challenging. At Bucknell we are able to help faculty and students with both parts of the equation and provide a high level of support.”
In the case of Del Testa’s Nghe-Tinh Soviets GIS, it took two students most of a summer to geo-rectify the needed historical maps and to create usable data from them, she notes. “It took even longer to get the relevant attribute information attached to those features in the GIS. So there was all this legwork that had to go into creating data before Professor Del Testa could even begin to analyze what was going on.
“One of the things that really greases the wheels around here,” Glathar says, “is that L&IT, with great support from the administration, has a lot of funding available for summer research students.” The Mellon grants are important, she adds. “Faculty can get stipends for integrating GIS into a course, and they can get funding for a student to do research to produce materials that will be used in the class.”
As important as devoted resources is a focused, pragmatic approach. Marsh calls it “just-in-time GIS.”
Glathar explains,“At Bucknell we are not focused on providing tech training in how to use GIS from A to Z, but rather in how to help people ask and answer spatial questions.”
Faculty and students have access to ArcGIS, the powerful tool most often used in business and government. But, she acknowledges, “It’s a pretty heavy-duty piece of software. It can be overwhelming when you get your first look at the ArcGIS interface.” The geographer Marsh concurs. “I have been using ArcGIS for decades,” he says, “and I have no idea where the edges of it are.”
Fortunately, there are plenty of other, less daunting tools cropping up, including web-based applications like Worldmapper, Statsilk and Gapminder. In many cases, Glathar says, these are a better fit. She tailors her approach to the project at hand. “Our goal is to integrate GIS and spatial thinking across the curriculum at Bucknell. In some classes we go really heavy into GIS over a period of weeks; in other classes I’m just in there for one two-hour session.”
In one new course this spring, Glathar was co-teacher, with Del Testa, over an entire semester. The idea came to Del Testa shortly after he arrived at Bucknell. “Once I had seen the work, especially Ben Marsh’s,” he remembers, “I said, ‘My students need to have this power. They need to be able to use this for themselves.’ And once Janine was in place I proposed that we develop a course in historical GIS.”
Focusing on the recent social and economic history of the San Francisco Bay Area and using as a database a local television lifestyle program called Evening Magazine that ran from 1976 to 1990, History 201 aimed to help students learn to apply GIS software for historical purposes. “As far as we can tell, this is only the second undergraduate historical GIS course in the country,” he says.
On the day of the final class presentations, a small crowd gathered in a Bertrand computer lab. Five students showed off the interactive web maps they had created for the course, and spoke about what they had learned. Among them was Meredyk.
Her map, she told the audience, incorporated geodata with news articles, interpretations by prior historians and segments from Evening Magazine to create a spatial history of the San Francisco parks system. One of the things she liked about it, she said, was that “the user can interact with the data in ways I don’t anticipate and come to his or her own conclusions. The interpretation doesn’t have to be mine.”
For her four classmates, History 201 was a first foray into GIS. For Meredyk, who had worked on independent projects using the technology for three years, “actually doing it in the classroom was exciting and different. I learned parts of GIS I hadn’t done before.”
The one-time history major, now a dual major in history and geography, pauses to reflect. “If I hadn’t gone to Bucknell,” she says, “who knows if I’d know what GIS was or what I would have done with it?
“It’s been such a big part of my experience here. I can’t imagine Bucknell without GIS.”
David Pacchioli is a freelance writer in State College, Pa.
Judith Plaskow, renowned feminist theologian and professor emeritus of religious studies at Manhattan College, will deliver the annual women's & gender studies distinguished lecture on Thursday, March 31, at 7 p.m. in the Elaine Langone Center Forum at Bucknell University.
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