Jess Goes to the Digital Humanities Summer Institute

Here’s a little post about what I did last week.

Since my thesis includes a spatial history element, I have been slowly learning how to use ArcGIS and how it can be used specifically for the humanities. Scholars in the humanities have been incorporating digital technologies into their research for the past few decades now, and one of the fantastic results of these advances is the Digital Humanities Summer Institute held annually at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.

What is the DHSI? Well, according to their website:

“The Digital Humanities Summer Institute provides an ideal environment for discussing and learning about new computing technologies and how they are influencing teaching, research, dissemination, creation, and preservation in different disciplines, via a community-based approach. A time of intensive coursework, seminars, and lectures, participants at DHSI share ideas and methods, and develop expertise in using advanced technologies. Every summer, the institute brings together faculty, staff, and students from the Arts, Humanities, Library, and Archives communities as well as independent scholars and participants from areas beyond. Described by one participant as an event that “combines the best aspects of a skills workshop, international conference, and summer camp,” the DHSI prides itself on its friendly, informal, and collegial atmosphere. We invite you to join the DHSI community in Victoria for a time of focused practice, learning, and connecting with (and making new) friends and colleagues.”

I attended the DHSI last week in order to gain some intensive, hands-on experience with ArcGIS. The classroom setting allowed me to ask questions and learn from experts about how to use GIS for visualizing both quantitative and qualitative data, and as a form of exploratory analysis for identifying patterns that help us understand our data on a spatial level. I signed up for Lancaster University professor Ian Gregory’s course on how to use GIS in the Digital Humanities and it has given me a deeper understanding of how to use the program, and a much better idea of the potential that GIS holds for my research. I now have a little more direction as I head into the archives this summer. You can check out the wide range of courses offered here.

We learned a LOT in five days. Through daily lectures and tutorials, I learned how to produce high quality maps, use tabular data and join tables, and properly format Excel spreadsheets to input my data into ArcGIS. I learned overlay and buffering techniques for integrating data from different sources, how to find coordinates for place names and convert them into shapefiles, how to georeference historical maps, and how to create 3D visualizations of our data with Google Earth. The best part was that we were encouraged to use our own data by the end of the course, so we could work with our new skills to produce some basic maps specific to our research. Brock University has some great resources in their map library where I have learned a few of these things already over the last year, but the DHSI classroom format was something that I think pushed all of us to the next level in our research.

The DHSI is not just about going to class though; there were a ton of opportunities for us to collaborate, share knowledge and make new acquaintances. There were participants there from every continent but Antarctica! Opportunities included the Conference & Colloquium, offered in a variety of formats from oral and poster presentations to mini workshops during the lunchtime “Unconference.” I presented on my thesis one evening and felt very welcomed by the event organizers and those who attended the talks. Although I was not sharing research conclusions as many other presenters were, this shows the versatility of the DHSI in that they offer a chance for academics at all levels to share knowledge and ask questions. I was approached by a few people after my talk and was given helpful titles of books and papers to read, people to connect with, interactive mapping software, and GIS tools & techniques to try.

I listened to a number of interesting presentations throughout the week. A few people in my GIS class shared the work that they’d completed in the course with their own data, and others spoke about their research during the evening lightning talk sessions. I heard from people in history, english, music, education, and more. During one lunchtime workshop I even learned how to create a virtual museum tour, which I thought could be useful for the work that I do locally with Nelles Manor.

I am thankful to everyone at the DHSI for organizing the event and allowing me to be a part of it, and am especially grateful for the tuition scholarships they offer that helped with this process financially. I definitely recommend the DHSI to anyone interested in learning more about the digital humanities. The conference runs for two weeks, so you can follow along with the attendees for week 2 if you’re interested by checking out the #dhsi2019 and #dhsi19 hashtags on Twitter.

PS: UVic’s campus is beautiful and this was my first time ever visiting B.C. I also got to visit my brother who recently moved out there and do some sightseeing… Here are some non-conference pics!

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…

My First GIS Tutorial

Hello again!

Just thought I’d give you a quick overview of the ArcGIS Pro workshop that I attended yesterday afternoon. It was my first experience with the new software, and I think it went pretty well!

Wednesday, Nov 14th was global GIS day. According to its website, “GIS Day provides an international forum for users of geographic information systems (GIS) technology to demonstrate real-world applications that are making a difference in our society.” Of course, Brock University’s Map, Data & GIS Library participated in this event, offering up some free food, games & prizes, a chance to watch some Esri scholarship contest presentations, and a helpful ArcGIS workshop.

The workshop was lead by the library’s Geospatial Data Cooridnator Sharon Janzen, who led us through a tutorial that aimed to give users a basic idea of what ArcGIS is capable of doing. My initial thoughts are that this is something that I can probably get the hang of… but there is a lot to learn. The software is fairly intuitive, but you really need to know what is available in order to fully maximize the potential of its features. The user interface is similar to what you’d see in Microsoft Word or Excel since it is a ribbon-based application, providing the familiar tabs and tools along the top of the screen. We went through one of the tutorials available on Brock’s MDGL website, and were given the task of choosing a new location for a Starbucks in St. Catharines based on variables like the current locations of coffee shops in the city, and the median average income of each community. You can have a look at the tutorial here.

In order to do this, we were taught the basics of inserting databases, geocoding, adding new data from ArcGIS Online, adjusting symbology, and creating heat maps. One hour later, we each had a finished project that looked something like this:

During the tutorial, I was constantly trying to figure out how these features can apply to my project. The creation of a database with statistics concerning 18th and 19th century merchant activity is going to be a time consuming process, but slightly easier now that I’ve seen examples of data sets that were used in this tutorial. In addition, I will be able to play around with georeferenced historical maps of Niagara that already exist, thanks to the MDGL. Things are slowly beginning to make more sense. I still have a long way to go, but I’m excited about how this software is going to help present my historical information.

Thanks Sharon!