This week’s readings focused on the uses of GIS for the humanities. For this post I’d like to focus on what both Nate and Kirk also picked up on, and a point we discussed this summer in the new media minor field readings Nate and I took: visualizing uncertainty.
As the authors of the concluding essay of Spatial Humanities note, GIS and other data-driven technologies demand a degree of precision and certainty. They argue that this is different from the medium–text–in which we are most used to working. This medium allows us to display the uncertainty and imprecision that we get from our sources–the uncertainty and imprecision inherent in the humanistic venture. I’d take that argument a step further though–it’s not just text but much analog media that allows for us to show uncertainty or at least allows for imprecision.
I’ll take the example to which I frequently return: the different maps that I’ve created of the journey of Antonio López de Santa Anna to Washington in 1837. When I did my first map, for my website in Dr. Petrik’s Clio 2, I was able to mask that I didn’t have, for example, all of the exact routes that my travelers took or places they stayed. It was enough that I could show the general route on a 700 pixel-wide, non-zoomable, non-GIS map. The map was just trying to show the bigger picture.
But when I put this map into Google Maps this summer, that wasn’t the case. Rather, I found the map taking an incredible amount of time because it required extra research–due to the sophistication of detail the mapping application required (not even the most sophisticated GIS!). It wasn’t enough to just say that my travelers spent a week in Lexington, Kentucky, in late December 1836. One could zoom into the map and just see a marker in the center of Lexington. So, since a previous scholar had found their hotel in Lexington, I was able to locate it–and place the pin there. Thus, I added to the interpretive experience for my end-user.
But this was not the case with all of the stops. For those, I had to infer. For example, the travelers went through Frankfort, Kentucky, and according to one source visited the Kentucky state legislature. Since I didn’t have a hotel where they stayed, I just placed my pin at the site of the present-day Kentucky state capitol. Looking back, I should have colored that pin differently, to show the uncertainty inherent in my data.
This semester I plan to do a print map of that journey–one of three that I will chronicle together in my atlas piece. Again, I won’t have to worry about the precision that the medium of Google Maps or a more sophisticated GIS program requires. For all of my travelers, I can show only so much on a non-zoomable map that takes up part of an 11″x13″ page. I am plotting their locations in some cities, and showing those in separate maps–but this still won’t be as sophisticated as the map I created this summer.
But for my purposes, this may be better. I’m mainly trying to demonstrate with these maps the routes these travelers took and the places they visited–places where I will be looking for archival information about their visits as I write my dissertation. But in presenting the broad sweep of their journeys, neither my reader nor I can, or need be, distracted by the level of detail that I included in the Google Map–where they stayed in Lexington is not so essential to the broader story I am trying to tell. So in this case, the lack of detail the analog medium provides actually will help keep the story focused.
Addendum: This week I commented on Nate’s blog post.
Addendum #2: To make all of us feel inferior in our own reconstructions, check out this reconstruction of London before the Great Fire of 1666. H/T to Lynn Price for tweeting a link to it.