Highlights of mid-term conference June 20, 2016

On June 20 we hosted the project’s mid-term Conference, at about the half-way point of our 2-year mandate. Interested folks from around the country were invited to attend in person at the University of Toronto, or tune in online to our video webcast. The conference program, with embedded links to many of the speakers’ presentations, can be found here.

Project collaborators reported on progress made to date on the planned white papers, and on how we have been advancing the project’s goals. More about the white papers will be posted in the future, as completed versions are released or excerpts published. Several of the related slide presentations are online, however, again linked through the conference program. Feedback to the authors via email is invited.

We also invited speakers from other related GIS and webmapping initiatives to bring their own unique perspectives to the group. For those of you who could not be there, here are a few of the highlights:

Amber Leahey (Scholar’s Geoportal): Amber gave us some of the background on the Scholar’s Geoportal, a GIS data portal/discovery engine run by the Ontario Consortium of University Libraries, and housed at the University of Toronto Library. Their experience with storing and linking to large GIS data sets, and the process of improving the discovery, extraction and data preview aspects of this site can provide our project with significant help in organizing and designing our own pilot Historical GIS data portal over the coming year.  Amber’s presentation slides may be viewed at this link.

Iain Greensmith and Jonathan Van Dusen (Esri Canada): Esri has been an enthusiastic partner and collaborator in this project, and Iain outlined some of the capabilities of their GIS data portal “sandbox” installation that has been set up for experimentation by collaborators. He once again asserted the capabilities of Esri’s portal options to link to data stored remotely, as well as in Esri Online, and make these available to those with or without an Esri license, under certain configurations. He highlighted the customizability of the portal’s front end, and touched on the geovisualization possibilities of their software. These were explored in more detail in an afternoon session by Jonathan, who reviewed Arcgis Online and Story Maps strengths and options for customized web-mapping. Iain’s presentation slides are linked here; Jonathan’s slides are found at this link.

Caitlin Blundell (Geoalliance Canada): Caitlin is the director of communications at GeoAlliance Canada. GeoAlliance is built on the foundation of the Canadian Geomatics Community Round Table, and its mandate is to raise the profile and efficacy of the Geomatics sector in Canada in 3 main areas: Sector Identity, Education and Data Access. When asked in the Question Period how Historical GIS could fit into their framework, Caitlin responded with her own question: “Do you think the Historical GIS community would benefit from a national population that had a greater awareness of the value of GIS and  geomatics and geography in general?” (audience murmured general agreement…) “If you walked into a historical conference and said ‘I do historical GIS’, and people said oh I know what that is, GIS is neat and really helpful…’ Does that happen now?” GeoAlliance has a “rising tide lifts all boats” type of approach, and are welcoming to all GIS sectors, but we will have to figure out how to work with them to everyone’s advantage. Caitlin’s slide presentation is found at this link.

In the afternoon we enjoyed a number of presentations related to HGIS research and teaching. Robert Sweeny outlined his White Paper giving an historical perspective on the evolution of HGIS in Canada, with particular reference to urban HGIS projects like “Montréal l’Avenir du Passé”. Geoffrey Cunfer then outlined what he characterized as “an alternative history of Historical GIS in Canada… another path through environmental history…”, more focused on rural environmental HGIS projects. Interesting contrasts indeed! Following that, Marc St.-Hilaire, Josh MacFadyen, and Don Lafreniere with Dan Trepal spoke about their research and teaching experiences over the last few years. Again, several of these are accessible as slide presentations (and Robert’s as a paper, to which he invites comments) linked through the conference program.

Subsequently the session on Historical Geovisualization featured a couple of guest speakers, as well as some drama.

We had scheduled Jonathan Marino, from Mapstory.org as a key speaker in this session, since Mapstory.org is a fascinating example of a geovisualization “storytelling” project that appeared well funded and utilized open source mapping tools, and had gained a lot of traction in the U.S. a year ago. In spite of this, the project decided to do a complete re-design of their user interface. This caused an interruption in service of almost a year, and they are just getting re-launched now. If that wasn’t dramatic enough, Jonathan emailed us the day before our conference, and explained that he had just returned from Africa the previous day, and appeared to have a virulent strain of the flu – or perhaps malaria. In any case, he was in no shape to travel. We were very disappointed, and wondered if he might be open to presenting remotely. With some help from the U of T Media Tech staff, in the few minutes before his time slot, we managed to get him online with slides and sound working fine – and so he presented from Washington, D.C. Despite a hacking cough, Jonathan gave us an interesting outline sketch of Mapstory’s genesis as “The atlas of change that everyone can edit”, a place to communally store and share geographical data, and build narratives. It appears that the main reason for their re-boot was the need for more sophisticated group editing tools – the need for Wikipedia-style capability to track changes and curate the data in “consensus” data layers. Jonathan was able to go into some of the details behind this transformation, technical and political, and answer some of our questions. Jonathan’s slide presentation can be accessed here.

A different approach to geovisualization online, also unique, is the Neptis Geoweb. (www.neptisgeoweb.org/) The Neptis Foundation (www.neptis.org) is one of our project partners, and Marcy Burchfield, the executive director, reviewed the evolution of this webmapping platform, which was designed to examine urban growth at the regional scale, primarily working in the Greater Toronto Region to day. A sophisticated interface, the Neptis Geoweb does offer customized depictions of regional planning issues (including historical urban development) but is also interested in the integration of VGI or “volunteered geographic information”. They have tried to do this by allowing people to create their own “User stories” – but, similarly to Mapstory, it is here they have run into some challenges. We hope to utilize the experience of Neptis personnel in working through our project’s design of our pilot webmapping site.

The day concluded with reactions from some participants, and then a discussion of “Where we go from here?”. A wide-ranging conversation about the strengths and weaknesses of HGIS in Canada seemed to crystallize a few important principles for the project:

  • Making HGIS data available, including national historical base data, should be the priority for the project, to be as open-access as possible, to the academic and non-academic community
  • The data does not need to be in a central repository, but metadata and discoverability need to be robust and prioritized in the portal design
  • We need institutional partners to support these efforts, rather than ephemeral grant-based support, and libraries and others with the mandate to preserve data are natural allies

These ideas were followed-up in the project business meeting the next day, and the collaborators as a group are determined to make sure we take these ideas through to a successful conclusion. We will keep you all informed and continue to get your input as we pursue these goals over the next year!

This post is also available in: French