A Brief Reflection on Two GIS Projects

Last week, the Digital Public History class had a workshop on GIS at Western’s Map and Data Centre. Although it was many of my colleague’s first foray into ArcGIS and was likely an exciting time, I already had some experience with the software thanks to my summer employment with the Huron History Community Centre and Defining Moments Canada. I thought I could take some time and briefly describe and reflect on the two GIS projects I worked on. Both the Loyalist Migrations project and the Stories of the 1918 Flu Pandemic story map were wonderful experiences that illustrated how spatial history could be used to present history to the public.

For the first six weeks of my summer employment, I worked with Dr. Tim Compeau on laying the groundwork for the Loyalist Migrations project. With help from Liz Sutherland, we designed a GIS readable excel sheet template that would map where a loyalist was at specific points in their lives. (place of birth, before the American Revolution, after the American Revolution, place of death and place of burial.) My job was largely data entry. I was tasked with moving information on Loyalists from the United Empire Loyalists’ Association of Canada (UELAC) Loyalist Directory to our GIS readable template. Basically, that meant ensuring all data followed a consistent format and adding coordinates to each location.

While there were some issues in moving the loyalist data to our template, it was an overall fun experience in a sort of a detective way. For instance, I found that many burial sites of loyalists were not listed on Google Maps, so I had to use photos or coordinates of the cemetery alongside Google Earth to locate the site. Similarly, I found myself often researching the history of towns/counties, as the locations loyalists settled at amalgamated or no longer exist.

By the end of my six-weeks, I moved 451 loyalists from the UELAC database to our GIS template. While it is a relatively small number, I think the result is a great starting point for visualizing the movements of American loyalists. As the years go on, it will be interesting how/if the map changes as more loyalists are added from the UELAC directory and other sources.

In the second half of my summer employment, I worked with Neil Orford and Defining Moments Canada on creating a story map for their 100th Anniversary of the Spanish Flu Project. Throughout 2018 and 2019, Defining Moments Canada produced a series of microhistories on the 1918 Flu Pandemic. My assignment was to condense the histories and present them on a story map to demonstrate how the pandemic affected the lives of people across Canada. With some guidance from Liz Sutherland, we divided up the histories into four themes that examined a different aspect of the pandemic. The final result is essentially four-story maps merged into one.

The biggest challenge in the project was figuring out how to transform the textual histories into an interactive multimedia experience. Throughout the story map, I included photographs and videos to convey points or themes brought up in the original stories. For example, in the “The Spanish Flu and Canadian Internment Camps” story, I included a video interview with Dr. Luciuk that quickly describes many of the key issues of Canadian internment camps in the First World War. Therefore, I could focus my text on how the Spanish flu impacted life at the camps. Additionally, many stories contain interactive maps with additional information on points that users can click.

Overall, I highly value the knowledge I gained working on both GIS projects. Understanding how to create an ArcGIS story map is a useful tool for any Public Historian. Perhaps most importantly, however, I gained an understanding of the cooperative nature GIS projects often entail. As Richard White points out, many spatial history projects are collaborative efforts between historians, geographers, GIS specialists, and computer scientists.[1] Both of the projects I worked on involved collaborations between Public Historians, Academic Historians and GIS specialists. As someone who is used to independent research/essay assignments, it was great to gain collaborative work experience as I prepare for a career in the public sphere.







[1] Richard White, “What is Spatial History?”  Stanford University,  February 1, 2010, http://web.stanford.edu/group/spatialhistory/cgi-bin/site/pub.php?id=29

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