All posts by Byron Moldofsky

Lost Rivers OS site

Lost Rivers of Toronto Web-mapping Pilot Project

The Lost Rivers Walks project ( takes people on guided walking tours around the city of Toronto “…to create an appreciation of the city’s intimate connection to its water systems by tracing the courses of forgotten streams, by learning about our natural and built heritage and by sharing this information with others.” They are one of the community partners of Geohistory-Géohistoire Canada. For many years they have been using historical cartographic and other archival sources, interviews with long-time residents, and on-the-ground encounters with the topographic peculiarities of the city to draw the map of Toronto’s drainage pattern as it must have been before the city-building process forced much of it underground.

With Helen Mills and John Wilson representing the Lost Rivers project, we decided to create web-maps for this pilot project on two different themes:
1. Disappearing Rivers of Toronto:  A map of the city of Toronto showing the original stream network of the city, and how those streams disappeared over time as they were buried for purposes of development.
2. Lost Rivers Ashbridge’s Bay Area Walks:  A series of interactive maps dynamically illustrating the stops along the way for three of the walks offered by Lost Rivers in this area of Toronto’s eastern waterfront, linking the locations of the stops, and pictures and text related to each, in a “map tour” format.
Links to all of the maps are embedded below.

As planned for this project, we designed and produced two different versions for each of these map themes:  one using the ArcGIS Online platform and another using Open Source software and web serving tools, in this case primarily the Leaflet and JQueryUI javascript libraries.

The ArcGIS ONLINE VERSIONS can be found on the Geohistory-Géohistoire Canada Development Portal (technically an ArcGIS Enterprise portal) hosted online by our partners at Esri Canada at: Lost Rivers of Toronto Apps Gallery. To view other Portal content go to: The “Gallery” contains 3 apps. This is because there are two versions mounted of the Disappearing Rivers of Toronto app. One is hosted on the portal itself, using a “standard” timeline slider to turn the rivers off as they “disappear” over time. That timeline slider looks like this:
This version of the app was built using ArcGIS Online Web AppBuilder, which is a very user-friendly tool which allows authors of web maps to drag and drop user interface components like this standard “Time Slider” widget into their web app. The widget can even be configured specifically for one’s map and data, in limited ways, such as the icon that is used for the tool, and whether the time-specific layers are indicated above it.
For more info on the Web App Builder see:

However, more sophisticated customizations which may be desired, or even necessary, are not possible. For example, the slider has two “handles”, set at 1830 and 1840 in the picture above. Each one can slide forward or backward along the timeline independently, to select a “range” of data. This design is very appropriate for some applications – however when the goal is to illustrate a “snapshot” of the environment at a single point in time – like our “Disappearing Rivers” map – it can be confusing, and the resulting map may be unclear. A slider design offering only one handle to the user, identifying a single point in time, like the picture below, simplifies and clarifies the interface.

This customization was only made possible by hosting the app on an independent server (i.e. not on ArcGIS online itself, or the Geohistory Portal) and using the Developer Edition of the Web AppBuilder for ArcGIS ( This is a rather complicated process requiring the installation of the development app on a local computer, registration of the app on the Geohistory Portal so that portal-based web maps may be incorporated, development and testing of the app and customizations on the local computer, deploying the app on the independent server, and then registering the final app on the Geohistory Portal so that it is accessible there.

The OPEN SOURCE software versions of the Lost Rivers maps are being hosted on a server in the Department of Geography at University of Toronto.  The maps are incorporated into a single web page with top-bar links to the Disappearing Rivers map, and each of the Ashbridge area walks. They can be found here:

In contrast to the ArcGIS Timeline slider, the Timeline slider used for the Disappearing Rivers map is one of a set of generic JQueryUI slider tools, adapted for the specific needs and time frame of our map. ( The version we arrived at looks like this:

Working with generic Javascript tools has pros and cons. The advantages have to do with the transparency of the coding related to design. The JQueryUI API documentation is thorough and the techniques use fairly basic Javascript and CSS coding. We were able to adapt the tool and tweak the graphic design of it without much problem. The ArcGIS Web AppBuilder widgets, although fully available for customization, use a more complex design framework and the Dojo Toolkit (, so are not as accessible to less-than-expert programmers. And as described above, the system the ArcGIS templates are embedded within and the workflow required, is rather complicated. In comparison to customizing the ArcGIS Web AppBuilder App, the workflow involved in developing the Leaflet-based site was extremely simple. Documents could be written and tested on local drives, and uploaded to a web server when completed.

The disadvantage of working in the simpler generic environment is a reduction in functionality, what could be termed the native intelligence of the application. In this context, using GeoJSON for the Rivers overlay there is no concept of “time-aware” data. The line data is displayed based on a simple query of the integer field value, in this case the “Year last seen on map”. This worked fine for our year-based attribute data, but any more sophisticated queries based on chronology, or using a variety of time formats, could be very problematic to code, or at least more complicated to integrate into the interface.

There is not enough space here to go into the production of the Lost Rivers Ashbridge’s Bay Area Walks web maps, but a similar process occurred regarding ArcGIS Online and parallel Open Source development. For more detailed information about the work done on these pilot project web maps, we have mounted technical development documents on this site, linked below.  Also, for the Open Source coding we have posted the code used and some examples on GitHub. For further questions about the projects, please feel free to post comments and discussion below, or to contact the author at


Lost Rivers Toronto “Disappearing Rivers” Map Open-Source Development Document

Lost Rivers Toronto “Disappearing Rivers” Map ArcGIS Online Development Document

Lost Rivers Toronto “Ashbridges Walks Maptour” Open-Source Development Document

Lost Rivers Toronto ” Ashbridges Walks Maptour ” ArcGIS Online Development Document

For the code for the Open Source site, see: Lost Rivers Toronto Github Open-Source Repository

North Saskatchewan River flowing through Edmonton, Alberta

Whose ‘Ribbon of Green’? HGIS and the Histories of Edmonton’s River Valley and Ravines System

By Mo Engel, Shannon Stunden Bower, Andrew Tappenden, and William Van Arragon

Cross posted from

Our colleagues and friends at NICHE (Network in Canadian History & Environment) and The Otter/La Loutre have just published an interesting article on an Historical GIS project based at the University of Alberta. They have generously offered it for cross-posting here. The project’s partners share many of the same goals as our Geohistory/Géohistoire efforts, and we hope to work with them closely in the future.

Part of the article reads as follows:
“The primary goal of our project is to build understanding of the complex and conflictual histories of Edmonton’s river valley. We are working toward that goal in several ways. One major effort is directed toward the production of a digital atlas highlighting the lesser-known histories of Edmonton’s river valley. Conceived as a work of public history and animated in part through the use of Geographic Information Systems [GIS], the atlas is aimed at a general audience. Over the past few years, project participants have been working to develop a purpose-built platform to display compelling historical evidence (photos, documents, film, maps, etc) within spatially-oriented narratives. The effort has involved computer scientists and digital humanists collaborating with historians to produce software intended to provide a more satisfactory means of framing arguments about the significance of particular spatial and historical processes. Once sufficiently functional, the software will be released in an open source format. In this way, it will position non-experts to deploy advanced GIS tools in the service of community-based research and dissemination.”

Demonstrating one of the capacities of our digital atlas, this clip integrates an 1882 Map of Edmonton as a tile layer with varying opacity over the current (2017) OpenStreetMap data. The annotated regions highlight 1882 state-sanctioned land ownership and are displayed in juxtaposition to the current land usage. All materials are in the public domain.
Demonstrating one of the capacities of our digital atlas, this clip integrates an 1882 Map of Edmonton as a tile layer with varying opacity over the current (2017) OpenStreetMap data. The annotated regions highlight 1882 state-sanctioned land ownership and are displayed in juxtaposition to the current land usage. All materials are in the public domain.

You can read the entire article at this link.


Update on Historical GIS web-mapping pilot site

Last June at our mid-term conference we presented preliminary results from our research on Geovisualization methods for Historical GIS in Canada. That presentation along with a number of the others presented that day are available on this website, via the program document with embedded links AVAILABLE HERE (Scroll down to Whitepaper update: HGIS Geovisualization (Byron Moldofsky)).  Since that time we have been working on revisions to the paper reviewing that research – and we also decided to change the titling of it from “White paper” to “Working paper” – reflecting the exploratory character of some of the research and the speculative nature of its results. The full “Working paper” is now available AT THIS LINK.

The paper may appear discouragingly long, but please do not be put off – about two thirds of the text is a reproduction of the online questionnaire we administered (Appendix 3: Canadian Historical Web-mapping User Needs Survey) and detailed reporting of some of the results of that survey (Part 4. Results of Canadian Historical Web-mapping User Needs Survey.) Many of you went online to take this survey – so you may be interested in what your peers have had to say, in the aggregate (see chart above, for example), and in selected comments. Thank you again for sharing your experiences and thoughts.

These “Results…” are the main addition to what was presented last June, along with a more developed “Part 5: Next steps: Developing principles of practice and for Canadian HGIS web-mapping activities, and plan to implement these in our Partnership development pilot website.” (pp. 45-48.) In this section we make the following proposals for principles of practice in developing our project’s collaborative web-mapping resources, which I would like to highlight here:

(Proposed) Principles of practice for Canadian HGIS Partnership web-mapping activities

  1. Support long-term sustainability and sharing of data and mapping
  2. Support of visualization for both presentation purposes and data exploration and analysis
  3. Support transparency of the web-mapping process, through good meta-data and documentation
  4. Support of multiple platforms, both technical (OS, browsers) and mapping (including proprietary and FOSS4G technologies)
  5. Working collaboratively to avoid duplication of effort and competition among current collaborators and potential partners

These principles are my interpretation of the responses to the User Needs Survey, and the discussion among the project members at meetings including the mid-term meeting last June. I would very much like to gather reaction from potential users and collaborators – so you are invited to respond by email or in the Comments section below this post.

Principles, however, are not of much use without a plan to implement them. The working paper proposes a three-pronged approach to supporting project HGIS web-mapping goals:

(Proposed) CHGIS Partnership development web-mapping pilot website activities

  1. Analytical evaluation framework: A set of questions to consider and evaluate in deciding on historical webmapping approach and technology
  2. Historical web-mapping technology profiles: Standardized descriptive comparison of technologies, incorporating “reviews”
  3. Comparative examples of web-mapping approaches: Examples of historical web-mapping projects using the same data and citing the same goals but using contrasting technologies

These three approaches are laid out in some detail in the concluding section of the working paper (Part 5, pp. 45-48), with tangible results proposed for each. If you have time, please take a look at this final section which outlines these pilot project activities, and suggests sample data sets, and let me know if you have any concerns or suggestions, either in the Comments section below, on the email listserv discussion thread or by personal email.

As we all know, such activities can consume large amounts of time and resources. We have reached consensus that the priority on the web-mapping side should be 3. Comparative examples of web-mapping approaches, while not completely neglecting the other two activities. Over the remaining months of the project we will work to create sample projects online for several of the data sets suggested within the paper. We have already started on these, and enlisted some of our partners and collaborators for data and technical assistance. We will try to provide one or two progress reports via these News and Notes posts, as soon as we have some neat web-mapping to show you!

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 as a key speaker in this session, since 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. ( The Neptis Foundation ( 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!

Preview of mid-term conference June 20, 2016

The Canadian Historical GIS Partnership Development mid-term conference coming up this June 20 looks like it will be a landmark day. We have invited a number of folks – some collaborators and some from outside our group – to talk about their own projects, and how these relate to historical GIS data and mapping in Canada. Just as a few examples – Marcy Burchfield from the Neptis foundation ( is coming to speak about how their research into urban growth and planning in cities across Canada benefits from incorporating historical land use and development data, and their experience with engaging the public with online mapping. Geoffrey Cunfer is the director of the University of Saskatchewan Historical GIS Laboratory ( and will give us some insight into how this successful facility contributes to environmental historical research on the North American plains, as well many other historical GIS-based international studies. Caitlin Blundell is Communications Director for GeoAlliance Canada ( and will share what happened at their “Map to the Future” meeting in Calgary last March and discuss how GeoAlliance Canada will support the geomatics and geospatial community in the coming years. What is the place for historical GIS in this broader geo community initiative? And Jonathan Marino is coming from, to talk about how their project has created “The atlas of change that everyone can edit” – and some of the achievements and challenges along that path.

We also expect to have participants, in-house or online, from Statistics Canada, SSHRC, libraries and universities across the country, and (we hope) lots of non-professional history buffs. If you can make it to Toronto, please register and join us in person at the corner of St. George and Bloor (see Conference Program for the address.) And if not, please join us online – login details to come later.

Byron Moldofsky
Project Manager
Canadian Historical GIS Partnership Development Project

A Canadian Historical Web-mapping User Needs Survey

As you know, the Canadian Historical GIS Partnership Development project is underway to develop resources for conducting historical research in Canada using GIS and other methods, and to explore ways of publishing the results of that research. A prevalent and popular method for doing this is through online mapping technologies. However, many different design approaches and software solutions are being used. We are conducting a survey to investigate current and emerging trends in the use of these technologies, evaluate your experiences and needs as web-mapping users (or potential users), and understand what kind of tools or services you desire for the future.

The survey should take 10-20 minutes of your time, depending how many of the optional questions you answer. It will provide valuable input to direct the efforts of the project. To find out more please go to the survey invitation page on our website:

Thank you for considering filling out the survey.
Marcel Fortin, Principal investigator
Byron Moldofsky, Project Manager