Mapping, digital humanities, and the disciplines

The digital humanities have a number of common specialties, among them text mining, network analysis, public history/humanities, and mapping. As Stephen Robertson has pointed out, mapping is one of the most commonly used techniques in digital history, whereas digital literary studies has often focused more on text mining. But while digital history may have a special affinity for mapping, mapping and the spatial turn more generally have had a significant impact across the humanities disciplines. For an introduction to spatial humanities and the disciplines, you can read Jo Guldi’s introduction “What Is the Spatial Turn?,” which discusses the importance of the spatial turn for eight academic disciplines, and Richard White’s essay “What is Spatial History?,” which provides an introduction for the historical discipline. The list of projects on the mapping literacy page provides many example of how mapping has influenced humanities research and teaching.

Mapping has many uses for humanities scholars. Humanists sometimes use maps to tell stories by tracking the movement of individuals and groups through space and time. Another kind of humanities mapping focuses on “deep mapping,” which seeks to demonstrate how the multiple meanings of places is constructed. A third kind of humanities mapping is driven by data analysis: it seeks to use information, often but necessarily quantitative, to understand spatial patterns in our sources. Most of these forms of maps can be thought of either displaying or discovering knowledge. Sometimes the aim of the map is to present the answer to a question, other times it is to attempt to ask a question and find out the answer. Like any research process, mapping leads to a cycle of asking and answering questions, which in turn lead to new questions.

Digital maps—both through desktop GIS software and web mapping—have put the tools of mapmaking directly into the hands of scholars and their students. Digital maps provide a number of affordances that aid scholarship. First, their availability and relative accessibility means that the researchers who have not been formally trained in cartography are able to make maps for themselves. Digital maps can be rapidly iterated, so scholars can create experimental maps and maps that are likely to “fail” as part of their process of asking and answering questions. The interactivity of digital maps permits scholars to filter the data that is displayed, to change the scale of the map from the globe to the individual building, and to embed other kinds of sources within map. More generally digital maps let scholars organize abundant sources spatially in order to bring together disparate sources that might not otherwise be comparable, and to extract additional information from scarce sources. However, these techniques take time to master, and once the techniques are mastered, you must reflect on how maps will influence your teaching and research. It is the aim of this workshop to provide you with the necessary skills at making maps in order to use them within your discipline.

As you go through the workshop, consider which kinds of maps are most likely to be useful to your students. Do you want them to explore a dataset, and perhaps even create the spatial data themselves, in order to do their own research? Do you wish them to present their arguments to you in the form of a map? Or do you wish them to think about the construction of place in a novel, or a historical source, or a painting?

How the workshop will proceed

There is a common problem in working with spatial data (or really, any kind of data at all). Once one has gained a reasonable competence at making maps, the actual process of making the maps can go very quickly. Far more time is spent creating, cleaning, and preparing data. Furthermore, the process of creating maps is repeatable from one map to the next. Once one has learned how to make a certain kind of map, making the second or third or tenth map is much easier. But every new project brings the same challenges of finding and preparing data. This work is highly specific to the datasets or primary sources in question. The skill of creating, cleaning, and manipulating data can be learned, but the techniques are hard to distill down to a tutorial or set of steps, since it requires your own judgment. This reality should offer a certain kind of comfort to humanities scholars. The work we do as scholars in finding and interpreting data consumes the major part of the time we work.

This does present a pedagogical challenge in learning about mapmaking, however. Once one has learned how to make maps, one still might stumble in learning how to prepare the data. For this reason, this workshop will work backwards from the workflow diagrammed above. We will begin by with literacy: the skill of reading and interpreting maps, both modern digital maps created by scholars and maps as sources. Having gained that skill, we will work on creating simple maps using cleaned and prepared data. Then we will work on the skills of acquiring, cleaning, and preparing spatial data. We will also learn how to manipulate data: that is, to change its projection, to join spatial data to other data, and so on, so that the data can be readily mapped.

You will have to decide for yourself which of these skills you wish to introduce to the classroom. I recommend focusing on map making for shorter assignments and and then gathering data only for longer assignments. You should distinguish between necessary complexity (which requires scholarly insight) and incidental complexity (which requires putting up with the cruft around technology). Whatever incidental complexity can be eliminated, must be eliminated.

But for this workshop will not hide any of the unglamorous or tedious, sometimes frustrating work that goes into preparing maps. If you wish to successfully teach mapmaking to your students, you will need to develop those skills. This will be even more the case if you use these techniques in your own research. But at the same time, you may also choose in the lessons that you prepare to focus on the mapmaking and the generating of humanities insights, so that your students receive the most reward for their effort.

The spatial humanist’s toolbox

Working in the spatial humanities requires you to use a wide range of tools. Even though some programs will claim that they can do everything, they can’t. Cultivating knowledge of what kind of tool to use to do what job is crucial, especially when deciding what tools you will use in your courses, and which tools you can rely on for your research.

You can think of spatial tools as lying on a spectrum from consumer to professional tools. Consumer tools are intended to be “user friendly” (though they rarely live up to that claim). They invariably feature a graphical user interface (GUI), which makes common actions fairly easy to perform but which makes uncommon actions impossible to do. They almost always assume that you are working with data which is clean and ready to use. Often, but not always, they are intended to have a flatter learning curve, but skilled users are not generally much more productive than intermediate users. With notable exception such as ArcGIS, professional tools are often open-source, and so free. Professional tools often have a steep learning curve, which is repaid by flexibility of us. Professional tools respect their users by letting them inspect what is happening at any given point and by letting them control every option. To do any real work beyond canned examples, you will need to use professional tools to prepare the data. As a teacher, however, you may choose to prepare data for your students so that they can use consumer tools exclusively. When working with spatial data you will almost certainly need many tools, but as a teacher, you should probably limit the number of tools you teach to your students.

These are the types of tools that you will use during this workshop.


The archetypical tool for doing spatial work is the geographic information system from which the discipline of GIS takes its names. These GIS tools are large GUI programs installed on a computer. They are as near to being comprehensive as any tool, and handle data from its raw stage to the final presentation of maps. The best known GIS system is ArcGIS, a Windows-only, very expensive commercial program from ESRI. If you have access to ArcGIS, it probably comes through your university. An alternative is QGIS, an open-source GIS program available on Mac, PC, and Linux. This application has matured in recent years so that it is a viable alternative to ArcGIS. While there are differences between the two programs, what you learn in one will be generally applicable to the other. For this workshop, we will use QGIS to make maps.

QGIS running on Mac OS X.

QGIS running on Mac OS X.

Web mapping tools

The online counterpart to GIS software are websites which offer the ability to create maps. These range from free consumer tools like Google Maps, to mapping tools written specifically for humanists such as Palladio, to services for web mapping such as Mapbox, to online versions of desktop GIS software such as ArcGIS Online, to tools that aim to replace GIS software entirely such as CartoDB. Such tools are often easier to use than GIS software, though considerably less powerful. They can be an especially good choice for teaching, since they do not require students to install any software and since they produce maps intended for the web. For this workshop, we will use CartoDB to make data maps.

Creating a map in CartoDB.

Creating a map in CartoDB.

Command line tools

For many tasks involving spatial data, it can be more convenient to use a command line tool. By specifying a commmand at the terminal, one can quickly and reliably peform very powerful actions. For instance, the command below uses a program from the Geospatial Data Abstraction Library (GDAL/OGR) to convert a file from one format to another using a command like this one:

ogr2ogr -f "GeoJSON" countries.geojson ne_110m_admin_0_countries.shp
Converting a shapefile to GeoJSON using a command line program.

Converting a shapefile to GeoJSON using a command line program.

While command line tools have a steep learning curve, they are essential for performing certain tasks, especially preparing data. For this workshop, we will use GDAL/OGR to manipulate spatial data.

Programming languages

The most advanced yet most powerful way to create maps is using computer programming langagues. Languages such as R, Python, and JavaScript, along with popular libraries such as Leaflet and D3.js permit you to create your own custom maps. In this workshop, we will use R to create web maps.

General purpose tools

As in any serious work involving the computer, it is necessary to have a few simple general purpose tools—the hammer and screwdriver of computer work. These include a plain text editor, and some program to edit spreadsheets and comma-separated values (CSV) files.

What you should install for this workshop

In addition, there are a few things which it would be nice to have but which are optional.

  • A website/blog hosted on a server that you can control. This will let you publish your maps to the web without the security restrictions of free hosting. If you don’t have one already, Reclaim Hosting is a web hosting provider that serves academics and students well. If you use Reclaim Hosting, you may wish to install WordPress using Reclaim’s installer.
  • An FTP/SFTP client for accessing websites. On Mac and Windows I recommend Cyberduck.
  • GDAL/OGR. This set of command line programs offers many tools for manipulating spatial data. Note that if you install QGIS on a Mac according to the instructions above, you will already have install GDAL/OGR.

A note on operating systems

There are three common operating systems (or families of operating systems): Windows, Mac OS X, and GNU/Linux and Unix. While there are major differences between Macs and Linux, they are more alike than different in that they share the same foundational *nix underpinnings. Windows, on the other hand, is a world apart, as different from Macs and Linux as English is from Mandarin. When working with web-based tools in the browser, this should make no difference. But if you are working on Windows, you might consider installing Virtual Box and Ubuntu Desktop.

What you should use in class

For use in class, I recommend trying to keep as much of your work in the web as possible. Students will come to class with every variety of technology, from Windows tablets to Mac laptops to Android phones. The web is the one common denominator that all of these platforms can use at once. As you go through the workshop, consider what kinds of software you would be able to support as you teach. This will depend in large part on which kinds of maps you ask your students to create and which kinds of technologies you feel comfortable supporting.