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Technological Spotlight: Geographic Information Systems

This week, I’m presenting the first installment in a series I call the Technological Spotlight.  Once a month, I plan on making the focus of my weekly blog an emerging or popular technological innovation within the field of digital history and/or the digital humanities.  The overall aim of this series is to increase my familiarity and working knowledge of the selected topic, while simultaneously generating productive and enriching dialogues about said subject among academics, enthusiasts, and industry experts.  With that being said, let’s look at one of the more popular platforms within digital history, the Geographic Information System.

A Geographic Information System, or GIS, is a computerized system used for collecting, organizing, and presenting data about the people and objects that occupy the surface of our planet.  The distinguishing feature of most Geographic Information Systems are their ability to transpose multiple layers of information over a single map or chart.  Geographic Information Systems rely upon data gathered from a variety of sources, such as Global Positioning Systems, topographic software, historical data, and various dedicated networks.  Common applications of this technology include environmental mapping, archaeology, seismological studies, and oceanographic research.

GIS model

The GIS World Model.

Although only recently achieving mainstream status within the fields of the digital history and the digital humanities, GIS is hardly a nascent technology.  Experts typically identify the late geographer, Roger Tomlinson, as the creator of GIS.  Tomlinson, who in the late 1960s was working for a Canadian aerial survey company, had a chance meeting with Lee Pratt, then head of the Canada Land Inventory (CLI).  Tomlinson listened to Pratt’s ambitious plan to completely rework and consolidate the thousands of maps used in inventorying over 2.5 million square miles of rural Canadian mountains and woodlands.  The pair eventually collaborated on the project, which resulted the creation of the first operational GIS.


Dr. Roger Tomlinson, creator of GIS.

Since its inception during the late twentieth-century, educators and academics have incorporated GIS into their studies in a variety of intriguing and exciting ways.  In 2014, for instance, the White House presented a STEM initiative to provide free GIS software to every public school across the nation.  In more recent news, the University of Central Florida teamed up with educators and technology experts to teach elementary school students about the vast potential of GIS and drones.  A bold project, that I’ve been following on LinkedIn, even involves consolidating data from British Royal Navy logbooks and charting the historical passages of WWI-era warships.

HMS Perth

HMS Perth, part of the GIS project.

The sky is the virtual limit for the future of GIS and its manifold commercial, private, and academic applications.  Please feel free to explore the wide array of projects currently emerging within this field and share them here at The Digitorian.

Want to Know More?

GIS (Geographic Information System):

Stanford Geospatial Center:

The Smithsonian’s History of GIS:


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