Featured Resource: QGIS, a Free, Open Source Mapping Platform

This week, geographers around the globe took some time to celebrate the software that allows them to analyze, well, that very same globe. November 13th marked the 20th annual GIS Day,  an “international celebration of geographic information systems,” as the official GIS Day website puts it.

the words "GIS day" in a stylized font appear below a graphic of a globe with features including buildings, trees, and water

But while GIS technology has revolutionized the way we analyze and visualize maps over the past two decades, the high cost of ArcGIS products, long recognized as the gold standard for cartographic analysis tools, is enough to deter many people from using it. At the University of Illinois and other colleges and universities, access to ArcGIS can be taken for granted, but many of us will not remain in the academic world forever. Luckily, there’s a high-quality alternative to ArcGIS for those who want the benefits of mapping software without the pricetag!

the QGIS logo

QGIS is a free, open source mapping software that has most of the same functionality as ArcGIS. While some more advanced features included in ArcGIS do not have analogues in QGIS, developers are continually updating the software and new features are always being added. As it stands now, though, QGIS includes everything that the casual GIS practitioner could want, along with almost everything more advanced users need.

As is often the case with open source software alternatives, QGIS has a large, vibrant community of supporters, and its developers have put together tons of documentation on how to use the program, such as this user guide. Generally speaking, if you have any experience with ArcGIS it’s very easy to learn QGIS—for a picture of the learning curve, think somewhere along the lines of switching from Microsoft Word to Google Docs. And if you don’t have experience, the community is there to help! There are many guides to getting started, including the one listed in the above link, and more forum posts of users working through questions together than anyone could read in a lifetime. 

For more help, stop by to take a look at one of the QGIS guidebooks in our reference collection, or send us an email at sc@library.illinois.edu!

Have you made an interesting map in QGIS? Send us pictures of your creations on Twitter @ScholCommons!

 

Digital Humanities Maps

Historically, maps were 2D, printed, sometimes wildly inaccurate representations of space. Today, maps can still be wildly inaccurate, but digital tools provide a way to apply more data to a spatial representation. However, displaying data on a map is not a completely new idea. W.E.B. DuBois’ 1899 sociological research study “The Philadelphia Negro” was one of the first to present data in a visual format, both in map form and other forms.

map of the seventh ward of philadelphia, each household is drawn on the map and represented by a color corresponding to class standing

The colors on the map indicate the class standing of each household.

Digital maps can add an interesting, spatial dimension to your humanities or social science research. People respond well to visuals, and maps provide a way to display a visual that corresponds to real-life space. Today we’ll highlight some DH mapping projects, and point to some resources to create your own map!

(If you are interested in DH maps, attend our Mapping in the Humanities workshop next week!)

Sources of Digital Maps

Some sources of historical maps, like the ones below, openly provide access to georeferenced maps. “Georeferencing,” also called “georectifying,” is the process of aligning historical maps to precisely match a modern-day map. Completing this process allows historical maps to be used in digital tools, like GIS software. Think of it like taking an image of a map, and assigning latitude/longitude pairs to different points on the map that correspond to modern maps. Currently, manually matching the points up is the only way to do this!

A map from a book about Chicago placed over a modern map of Chicago.

A map of Chicago from 1891 overlaid on a modern map of the Chicago area.

David Rumsey Map Collection
The David Rumsey Map Collection is a mainstay in the world of historical maps. As of the time of writing, 68% of their total map collection has been georeferenced. There are other ways to interact with the collection, such as searching on a map for specific locations, or even viewing the maps in Second Life!

NYPL Map Warper
The New York Public Library’s Map Warper offers a large collection of historical maps georeferenced by users. Most maps have been georeferenced at this point, but users can still help out!

OpenStreetMap
OpenStreetMap is the open-source, non-proprietary version of Google Maps. Many tools used in DH, like Leaflet and Omeka’s Neatline, use OpenStreetMap’s data and applications to create maps.

Digital Mapping Humanities Projects

Get inspired! Here are some DH mapping projects to help you think about applying mapping to your own research.

Maps provide the perfect medium for DH projects focused on social justice and decolonization. Native-land.ca is a fairly recent example of this application. The project, started as a non-academic, private project in 2015, has now transformed into a not-for-profit organization. Native-land.ca attempts to visualize land belonging to native nations in the Americas and Australia, but notably not following the official or legal boundaries. The project also provides a teacher’s guide to assist developing a curriculum around colonization in schools.

map of florida with data overlay indicating which native tribes have rights to the land

The state of Florida occupies the territory of multiple native tribes, notably those of the Seminole.

Other projects use digital tools that show a map in conjunction with another storytelling tool, like a timeline or a narrative. The levantCarta/Beirut project uses a timeline to filter which images show up on the connected map of Beirut. We can easily see the spatial representation of a place in a temporal context. A fairly easy tool for this kind of digital storytelling is TimeMapper.

For a more meta example, check out this map of digital humanities labs by Urszula Pawlicka-Deger. Of course these DH centers do projects other than mapping, but even the study of DH can make use of digital mapping!

If you’re interested in adding maps to your humanities research, check out our workshop this semester on humanities mapping. There are also great tutorials for more advanced mapping on The Programming Historian.

And as always, feel free to reach out to the Scholarly Commons (sc@library.illinois.edu) to get started on your digital humanities project.