The Humanities Are Going Digital & Spatial

Mapping the Salem Witch Trials Benjamin Ray, the director of the Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive at the University of Virginia, wondered why witchcraft charges spread so rapidly and widely in 1692, affecting 156 people — 15 times more than in any other incident — across 25 communities in Essex County, Mass. When he plotted the accusations on a digital map that showed their progression over time, it struck him that the way in which they spread mimicked that of a disease. The image at right is a single screen shot taken from an interactive map that traces the sequence of accusations from February through November 1692. It shows the moment at which the accusations began to spread rapidly, when the Rev. George Burroughs was accused on April 20, 1692.

Every day brings increasing proof that the humanities are going digital and spatial.

As today’s NY Times article on digital maps of the Gettysburg battlefield points out, “advanced technology similar to Google Earth, MapQuest and the GPS systems used in millions of cars has made it possible to recreate a vanished landscape. This new generation of digital maps has given rise to an academic field known as spatial humanities. Historians, literary theorists, archaeologists and others are using Geographic Information Systems — software that displays and analyzes information related to a physical location — to re-examine real and fictional places like the villages around Salem, Mass., at the time of the witch trials; the Dust Bowl region devastated during the Great Depression; and the Eastcheap taverns where Shakespeare’s Falstaff and Prince Hal caroused.”

“Mapping spatial information reveals part of human history that otherwise we couldn’t possibly know,” said Anne Kelly Knowles, a geographer at Middlebury College in Vermont. “It enables you to see patterns and information that are literally invisible.” It adds layers of information to a map that can be added or taken off at will in various combinations; the same location can also be viewed back and forth over time at the click of a mouse.

On another front, David Rumsey, whose collection of more than 150,000 maps is one of the largest private map collections in the United States, recently announced his intention to donate it to the Stanford University Libraries for long-term preservation and scholarly access. With his growing online collection of more than 26,000 maps, available to all in high resolution and with expert cataloging, Rumsey is one of the most visible and important modern distributors of historical treasures for the common good. As Rumsey argued recently in his this week in his keynote address Reading Historical Maps Digitally: How Spatial Technologies Can Enable Close, Distant and Dynamic Interpretations to the Digital Humanities 2011 Conference

Maps are dense, complex information systems arranged spatially. While they share similarities with other visual artifacts, their uniqueness as spatially arranged visual information both allows for and demands special digital approaches to understand and reuse their content. Georeferencing, vectorization, virtual reality, image databases, and GIS-related tools all work to unite our eyes, minds, and computers in new ways that can make historical maps more valuable and accessible to humanists concerned with place and space over time.

Geographic Information Systems Help Scholars See History – NYTimes.com.

“Geography Report Card”: Geographic Knowledge Declining

Winnie Hu’s recent NY Times article, “Geography Report Card Finds Students Lagging” (July 20, 2011) laments the fact that fewer than in one in three American students are proficient in geography–to the point where they can’t even identify the American Southwest on a map, according to report of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The article is rich in irony, quoting Penn State’s Roger Downs, that “geography’s role in the curriculum is limited, and, at best, static.”

That is ironic given the convincing case that can be made for the importance of geographic literacy,” Mr. Downs said. “But it is doubly ironic given a world in which adults and now children have smartphones and tablets that can download maps on the fly, provide directions to places, and give your location to your friends.

The article also cites the concerns of  David P. Drsicoll, the  National Assessment Governing Board chair:

“Geography is not just about maps,” said Driscoll…who expressed concern that students were not doing better in geography. “It is a rich and varied discipline that, now more than ever, is vital to understanding the connections between our global economy, environment and diverse cultures.”

Geography Report Card Finds Students Lagging – NYTimes.com.

Seattle is nation’s sixth-best city for walking: Walk Score

Seattle is the nation’s sixth-most walkable city, according to Seattle-based Walk Score, a website that rates cities on how walkable they are.

New York is the country’s most walkable city, according to Walk Score, followed by San Francisco, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia.

Walk Score ranks cities from zero to 100 based on a resident’s proximity to stores, restaurants, schools and other services.

Walk Score Description
90–100 Walker’s Paradise — Daily errands do not require a car.
70–89 Very Walkable — Most errands can be accomplished on foot.
50–69 Somewhat Walkable — Some amenities within walking distance.
25–49 Car-Dependent — A few amenities within walking distance.
0–24 Car-Dependent — Almost all errands require a car

In Seattle, the highest-ranked neighborhoods, according to Walk Score, are:

1. Denny Triangle — 98.

2. South Lake Union — 97.

3. Belltown — 97.

4. Cascade — 95.

5. Ballard — 94.

6. First Hill — 94.

7. Downtown — 93.

8. University District — 92.

9. Waterfront — 92.

10. Capitol Hill — 91.

Of Seattle’s 103 neighborhoods ranked by Walk Score, Rainier View has the lowest score, at 22.

Here’s a link to the Seattle neighborhood Walk Score rankings.

Seattle is the state’s best city for walking, according to Walk Score, with an overall Walk Score of 74. Tacoma ties with Kirkland for next best, at 59. Frederickson, south of Tacoma, has the state’s worst Walk Score average, at 12.

‘Seattle Geographies’ aims to decode the city’s many contradictions

Professor Emeritus Richard Morrill and Professor Michael Brown

The Seattle Times has profiled the Geography Department’s new anthology, Seattle Geographies, edited by professor Michael Brown and Emeritus Professor Dick Morrill. The book, which is being unveiled this week at the AAG Conference in Seattle,  emphasizes Geography’s unique spatial perspective on the Seattle region’s many “paradoxes”, including:

• Seattle may have a reputation as liberal and tolerant, “but it can also be quite controlling,” Brown says. For example, it has adopted stringent rules about social behavior that give police the authority to exclude people from parks if they violate rules or laws.

• The area has a long-standing fear of big government, but voters seem willing to tax themselves significantly, Morrill says.

• Though Seattle has a reputation as a high-tech mecca, one-third of the local economy is still fueled by manufacturing, notes Professor Emeritus William Beyers.

The book includes article by faculty, graduate students and undergraduates, and addresses such diverse cultural, social and ecnomic isues as voting patterns in presidential elections across the region, to relatively small, such as the politics of locating and building a skateboard park, and what that issue says about social and generational tensions.

The Seattle Times article also talks about the UW Geography Department, pointing to a “renaissance” in the discipline, and emphasizing our  accountability to place, field-based research, and community engagement.