Making Progress with ArcGIS Pro

Hi again!

Just thought I’d give a quick update on how my GIS training has been going. It’s getting towards the end of the Fall semester here, and I’ve been busy writing papers and grading essays, but there’s still been time to squeeze in a GIS tutorial here and there. ESRI’s ArcGIS Pro website has a number of tutorials available to teach users the basics of this new software. Since I already have the program downloaded onto my laptop, I am able to do these practice runs from anywhere, which is super handy. I go to this website here: 

There are a number of different tutorials to choose from. So far, I’ve learned how to navigate maps, add data to a project, import an ArcMap document, convert a map to a scene, and symbolize layers. 

This was a fun one. “Adding Data to a Project” allowed me to visualize how flooding might affect the city of Wellington, New Zealand, based on its current topography:

I don’t know how long each of these are supposed to take… but one will usually take me about 45 minutes to complete. Using this software is like learning a new language… it’s not similar to anything I’ve ever had to do before. I have to click on every single tab, pane, and layer to see what it does, and I have to read about every single function that ArcGIS Pro is able to perform. Historians are trained to be quick readers. When you have to read about a book a week per class, you learn to find those main arguments, and skim over the less pertinent information. (Otherwise you’ll never get anything else done!) Learning GIS is a completely different process. There is no big picture approach to understanding the program… it’s a step-by-step learning process and there is no “skimming” allowed. I am hoping that eventually the process becomes quicker and easier, since right now I look like my 87 year old grandfather when he tries to type an email.

Sharon from Brock’s MDGL just sent over a particularly interesting tutorial entitled “Quantitative mapping for ArcGIS Pro” which is a little more in line with the type of work that I will be doing in the upcoming months. This tutorial explains how to use statistical data, in this case local census data, to map the housing and education profiles of the population of St. Catharines. I will be working with similar types of quantitative data, so this one looks to be very useful.

In addition to tutorials, I’ve been doing a lot of reading over the past few months in order to get a better idea of how historical GIS can expand the potential of analysis for this project. Here’s just a few books and articles that I’ve read so far:

Bonnell, Jennifer and Marcel Fortin, eds. Historical GIS Research in Canada. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2014.

Gregory, Ian and Alistair Geddes. Toward Spatial Humanities: Historical GIS and Spatial History. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2014.

Heasley, Lynne. “Shifting Boundaries on a Wisconsin Landscape: Can GIS Help Historians Tell a Complicated Story?” Human Ecology 31, no. 2 (2003): 183–213.

Knowles, A.K., and A. Hiller. Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS are Changing Historical Scholarship. Redlands, California: ESRI Press, 2008.

Novak, Mathew J., and Jason A. Gilliland. “Trading Places: A Historical Geography of Retailing in London, Canada.” Social Science History 35, no. 4 (2011): 543–7

Wood, Justin. “‘How Green Is My Valley?’ Desktop Geographic Information Systems as a Community-Based Participatory Mapping Tool.” Area 37, no. 2 (2005): 159–70

Digital historians argue that historical GIS was once a creative appendage to research, but it is now directly driving analyses of the past! (Gregory & Geddes, 2014) The investigative capabilities of GIS detect patterns that historical narratives alone cannot, providing a variety of angles for analyzing Niagara’s merchandising networks.

That’s it for now. Back to grading…

A Bumpy Start

So the past two weeks have held the typical grad school workload of reading, applying for grants, reading, TA-ing, reading, writing papers, and of course… more reading. I have been trying to gain  an understanding of the general layout of the historiography of colonial Canadian economics up until this point. This process is clearly going to take a while, but through all this reading I’ve already picked up a few themes and made a few connections where I think my research will make a contribution. Here’s just a handful of the books I’ve read since my last blog post:

Clarke, John. Land, Power, and Economics on the Frontier of Upper Canada. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001.

J. K. Johnson. Becoming Prominent: Leadership in Upper Canada, 1791-1841. Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1989.

McCalla, Douglas. Consumers in the Bush: Shopping in Rural Upper Canada. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014.

McCalla, Douglas. Planting the Province: the economic history of Upper Canada, 1784-1870. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.

Samson, Daniel., ed. Contested Countryside: Rural Workers and Modern Society in Atlantic Canada, 1800-1950. Acadiensis, 1994.

Wilson, Bruce. The Enterprises of Robert Hamilton: a study of wealth and influence in early Upper Canada, 1776-1812. Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1983.

Much of this research was propelled by the deadlines for SSHRC and OGS applications for funding next year. To be honest, working through all of this material was difficult. It was an information overload, and I had a hard time piecing together the authors’ arguments.  I took notes and extracted what I felt was pertinent, but was left with multiple sets of separate notes with no comprehension of how they related to one another.

Thanks to the past four years of university, I knew it was possible to power through this mental block. I just needed to take a step back and start over, assembling one theme at a time. Eventually, a few major arguments became clear and I’ve since gained a basic level of understanding from these Canadian historians. This GIS-driven project is fundamentally about merchant networks, but situates itself within Canadian historiographical arguments about power dynamics in burgeoning colonial societies. I’m excited by the fact that Niagara was a strategic location for the British due to its place within the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes network.

This study also aligns itself with discourse on the “staples thesis” (economic development being driven by staples like wheat, fish, and furs), promoted by Harold Innis in the 1930s, since Niagara was a region that produced materials for both local and national consumption. Debates surrounding the significance of rural consumption have arisen in the past few decades to counter staples theorists’ claims (McCalla, 1993 and Clarke, 2001). The manner by which early local development occurred in Niagara fits into these larger conversations, and due to its significant location on the American border includes transnational, military, and fur trade dimensions. The relationships between the existing merchant elite and the authorities designated by an overseas government are also ripe for further exploration.

This was me on Tuesday, when everything finally clicked:

My advice for other students experiencing mental blocks:

1) Don’t give up! Try another approach, different scenery, take a walk, read something completely different for a while, take some time to recharge, but don’t quit.
2) Ask for help! My supervisor is the one who suggested I take a break and read something else. Guidance in these ways is crucial to your success, and you won’t get as far on your own, no matter how independent you think you are (this is coming from someone whose actual first words were “do it myself”). Don’t be afraid to ask for help- collaboration is key!