Using GIS to study Gettysburg, the Holocaust, and the American iron industry

Smithsonian takes a look at a historian who uses GIS to get a new perspective on important historical events:

Her principal tool is geographic information systems, or GIS, a name for computer programs that incorporate such data as satellite imagery, paper maps and statistics. Knowles makes GIS sound simple: “It’s a computer software that allows you to map and analyze any information that has a location attached.” But watching her navigate GIS and other applications, it quickly becomes obvious that this isn’t your father’s geography…

What emerges, in the end, is a “map” that’s not just color-coded and crammed with data, but dynamic rather than static—a layered re-creation that Knowles likens to looking at the past through 3-D glasses. The image shifts, changing with a few keystrokes to answer the questions Knowles asks. In this instance, she wants to know what commanders could see of the battlefield on the second day at Gettysburg. A red dot denotes General Lee’s vantage point from the top of the Lutheran Seminary. His field of vision shows as clear ground, with blind spots shaded in deep indigo. Knowles has even factored in the extra inches of sightline afforded by Lee’s boots. “We can’t account for the haze and smoke of battle in GIS, though in theory you could with gaming software,” she says…

Though she’s now been ensconced at Middlebury for a decade, Knowles continues to push boundaries. Her current project is mapping the Holocaust, in collaboration with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and a team of international scholars. Previously, most maps of the Holocaust simply located sites such as death camps and ghettos. Knowles and her colleagues have used GIS to create a “geography of oppression,” including maps of the growth of concentration camps and the movement of Nazi death squads that accompanied the German Army into the Soviet Union…

Aware of these pitfalls, Knowles is about to publish a book that uses GIS in the service of an overarching historical narrative. Mastering Iron, due out in January, follows the American iron industry from 1800 to 1868. Though the subject matter may not sound as grabby as the Holocaust or Gettysburg, Knowles has blended geographical analysis with more traditional sources to challenge conventional wisdom about the development of American industry.

Sounds pretty interesting. Having detailed geographic data can change one’s perspective. But there are two things that need to happen first before researchers can take advantage of such information:

1. Using GIS well requires a lot of training and then being able to find the right data for the analysis.

2. Using geographic data like this requires a change in mindset from the idea that geography is just a background variable. In sociology, analysis often controls for some geographic variation but doesn’t often consider the location or space as the primary factor.

While GIS is a hot method right now, I think these two issues will hold it back from being widely used for a while.

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