Digital Mapping and Spatial Analysis

For this week, I took a look at the University of Richmond’s “American Panorama,” an online collection of interactive digital maps related to U.S. history. As someone who has only recently learned about the use of geographic/spatial analysis via the emerging “history of capitalism” field, I’m used to seeing maps through one or more layers of interpretation, as a footnote or summary rather than a stand-alone data set. This isn’t necessarily a complaint about the field; the kind of information that can be conveyed through a complex digital map is impossible to transcribe on a static page, so the authors have to summarize and interpret it for the reader. Digital mapping projects like the American Panorama allow users to interact directly with large data sets and rapidly shift between different subjects, geographic areas, time frames, and forms of visualization, thereby giving users the ability to see and interpret for themselves. This is beneficial both for scholars, who may discover new and useful connections for their own research, and for engaging the general public.

American Panorama presently contains eight interactive maps, with additional ones planned. The “Electing the House of Representatives” map is a simple, cohesive tool to track electoral changes over time, and allows users to switch between several modes of viewing, including a useful button to switch between seeing straight winners and “strength of victory.” For the foreign affairs side of U.S. political history there is “The Executive Abroad,” which maps the foreign trips of every U.S. president and secretary of state. While the map is interesting, I did notice that its focus on frequency may be misleading; for example, Kissinger’s 1973 refueling stop in Tunisia was given the same weight as the Yalta conference. Heat maps tend to be more effective when used with larger data sets, like those seen in “The Forced Migration of Enslaved People” and “Renewing Inequality: Family Displacements through Urban Renewal.”

Unfortunately, I noted several instances where the limited parameters of a mapping project meant that information was presented without vital context. The “Overland Trails” map, for instance, presents white settler-colonial conquest of the American West through (predominantly male) settler diaries, only mentioning Native Americans once – citing an 1854 massacre of U.S. soldiers as an example of “increasingly contentious relations between Indian tribes and white Americans.” The “Foreign-Born Population” map has similar flaws. The map appears to attribute the rise and fall  in immigration from Mexico during the 1950s and 60s to a “modest liberalization of immigration policy” allowing “foreign stock” to bring children and set up families, ignoring the exploitative Bracero program and the violent terror of Operation Wetback. While one might reasonably expect a trained American historian to know this vital context, the same cannot be said for the general public.

American Panorama highlights the benefits and drawbacks of digital mapping. Every one of the maps on the site has great potential as a research tool, even outside the discipline of history. However, several of them have flaws that limit their potential use for education and history outreach. The settler-only trail map and the foreign-born population map both have the potential to reinforce the same problematic view of U.S. history, but for completely different reasons; one excludes non-white and (for the most part) non-male subjects, while the other erases important distinctions by reducing all immigrants to undifferentiated data points. It is certainly possible that digital mapping will soon become better at conveying context and causality, but until then they will remain the territory of the historian.


3 Replies to “Digital Mapping and Spatial Analysis”

  1. I think your post brings one of the biggest issues of digital mapping to light: bias. While this is a issue in all research, it is especially problematic in mapping and other visualization tools. While historians may conduct enough research to write a monograph in creating these maps, they cannot include a monograph’s worth of information in a visualization tool. The creators of these maps can exclude any information they wish in order to serve their narrative. As long as the end product is pretty most people (unless they are already familiar with the subject at hand) will not question it. I agree that digital maps need to be better at conveying context.

  2. My background in the cognitive sciences makes me suspicious of drawing any kind of inference from a single map, graph, or chart. I worry that they make it too easy to rush to conclusions, because relationships between variables are rarely self-evident. That is, I worry that visualizing data can be mistaken for an explanation. At the same time, I’ve been fascinated with spatial thinking (reasoning/imagining) every since I read Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism. Like you said, digital maps have the potential to be a great story telling and interpretive aid, but they also have the potential to make lazy conclusions look very convincing.

  3. I agree with everything said above. All in all maps are tools for providing limited sets of information in a clear, concise, and ABRIDGED manner. This means that narratives, intentionally or unintentionally are cut and can lead to misconceptions or dangerous miscommunications. This is why context or text in conjunction with a map, or multiple tools being used in succession, are more effective at communicating the realities of a situation, though they are harder to digest for casual observers as well. Striking this balance is difficult yet necessary, and I agree that especially for the Overland Map this could have been done MUCH better.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *