Mobile Mapping and Historical GIS in the Field

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iGIS app displaying location at the edge of an Acadian forest, Newtown Cross, PEI

We’ve all heard the pedagogical principle that students retain more information if they encounter it in multisensory experiences. We remember 10 percent of what we read, 20 percent of what we see, 30 percent of what we read, see, and hear, and so on. These figures now represent more myth than meaning for history instructors, but it is probably safe to say that falling into a salt marsh in the Grand Pre after studying historical documents and touring the local interpretative centre with a group of your peers is about as multisensory a learning experience as you can get in environmental history.

This blog post and the related article are based on the experience of organizing a recent series of field trips for environmental history students in the Maritime provinces. These events demonstrated the value of integrating historical maps and historical GIS (HGIS) into pedagogy and groundtruthing exercises. New technologies such as mobile mapping allow teachers and students to bring digitized maps to the field, find their current location in the historical map, observe changes in the natural and built environment, and input those observations on handheld devices for later analysis, writing, and sharing. The process requires a digital copy of a map, a way to georeference it so that it fits real world coordinates, a way to serve it so that it appears as a web map overlay, and a mobile device with an application that can read and geo-locate it in real time. It sounds complicated and resource intensive, but free and open source applications are available for every one of these stages and the documents and devices themselves are becoming increasingly common. Not that long ago, GIS was only for experts and digitized historical maps were not available and certainly not mobile. Now, students can benefit from multisensory learning that integrates digitized documents and spatial data with real world observations and experiences.

In order to experience a place it helps to first know where it is. How does it relate to places around it? What kinds of habitat does it provide to people and other species, and how has that changed over time? What topographical features existed there in the past, and which ones remain in the present? How have these features been represented on maps over time? Visiting a place and studying modern atlases are valuable experiences, but sometimes the best way to acquire spatial information about the place over time is through a trip to the historical map library. This raises a problem when historical maps are concentrated in a handful of urban centres, when handling and copying them can destroy the larger and more fragile documents, and taking them to the place itself is often impossible.

Geographical Information Systems (GIS) are making it increasingly easy to manipulate and explore spatial data, and viewers such as Google Earth and Open Layers are making much of these data available to the general public. Not only can we search for familiar or foreign addresses and map the best way to reach them, but we can also explore the geographic features of those locations. This offers instant access to the cartographer’s opus, the atlas, but also allows us to leverage the power of dynamic databases when we search the internet for information about the place such as user-contributed photographs, Wikipedia entries, YouTube videos, concert listings, and so on. These specialized databases are growing rapidly, and they are beginning to include historical maps and other digital documents from archives around the world. If a document contains historical information about any place on earth, it is a candidate for these spatial search engines. These new tools provide a lot of new teaching opportunities and I hope that my experiences organizing GeoWatch can help others develop useful web mapping and mobile mapping applications for their students.

Joshua MacFadyen, University of Western Ontario

Editors Note:

For more on GeoWatch, visit the event page.
Next week we will publish two more “how to” blog posts from Josh on web mapping and mobile mapping based on his experences organizing GeoWatch. If you’d like to read about the whole project in longer form, you can download the article: Mobile Mapping

You can also learn more about on HGIS on the new NiCHE resource page

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I am an Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair at the University of Prince Edward Island where I teach in the Applied Communication, Leadership & Culture Program in the Faculty of Arts. My research focuses on the history of biomass energy and agriculture. From 2012-2014 I was the NiCHE project coordinator, and I served on the NiCHE editorial board until 2018.


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