Category Archives: Project progress

In search of Canadian HGIS data

Researchers who study Canada have generated large quantities of geohistorical data for many years. While we reflect on the creation of a national geohistorical infrastructure, it is pertinent to identify datasets at different scales which can become a part of such a portal. We are therefore trying to enhance the discoverability of existing and available datasets. In the long run, it would be preferable to enumerate and describe each layer and each attribute  table, it is not necessary, for the moment, to delve at such a level of detailed granularity. We hope, at this stage, to identify collections which have emerged from different research projects or from the online deposit of previously georeferenced digital data such as:

  • raster geographic maps
  • aerial photographs
  • vector layers
  • attribute data linked to vector layers

We have already identified datasets offered by different types of creators so that we can present diversity in the nature and the type of data which can interest researchers. We have therefore identified:

  • quality international data (FAO)
  • data from collaborative mapping projects (Open Street Map, Natural Earth)
  • data available on GIS company web sites  (ESRI)
  • national data (government of Canada, Géogratis)
  • provincial or territorial data (British Columbia, Yukon, Québec, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick)
  • municipal data  (Toronto, Montréal, Sherbrooke)
  • research team data (CIEQ, NICHE, LHPM, MAP, VIHistory)
  • data from map library and archive centres (Scholars’ Geoportal, MADGIC, GéoIndex+)
  • personal initiative data  (historical railway lines )

Choosing what type of metadata to associate with each dataset has meant achieving a compromise. An insuficient level of detail would prevent effective searches while requirements for overly detailed metadata could discourage data creators who are not trainted to  create metadata which meet international standards. According to Rodolphe Devillers, we can use six criteria to define the quality of a geospatial dataset1.

i. Definition : Allows the user to evaluate if the nature of a datum and of the object it describes, i.e. “what”,  meets his or her requirements (semantic, spatial and temporal definitions);

ii. Coverage : Allows the user to evaluate if the territory and the period for which the data exists, i.e. the “where” and the “when”, meet his or her requirements ;

iii. Genealogy : Allows the user to know where the data came from, the project’s objectives when the data was acquired, the methods used to obtain the data, i.e. the “how” and the “why” and to verify if this meets the user’s requirements ;

iv. Precision : Allows the user to evaluate the data’s worth and if it is acceptable for the user’s requirements (semantic, temporal and spatial precision of the object and of its attributes);

v. Legitimacy : Allows the user to evaluate the official recognition and the legal standing of the data and if it meets the user’s requirements (de facto standards, recognised good practices, legal or administrative recognition by an official agency, legal garantee by a supplier, , etc.);

vi. Accessibility : Allows the user to evaluate how easily the user can obtain the data (cost, delays,format, privacy, respect of recognised good practices, copyright, etc.).

A metadata standard which would meet all of these criteria may seem overwhelming for may people who would like to make their data available. We therefore propose to use the format defined by the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative, an international standard for which the types of fields are easier to understand for people less familiar with metadata. We have applied and interpreted the DCMI based upon its general definition available on Wikipedia2 and on the interpretation of a few fields proposed by the Bibliothèque nationale de France3. This approach can certainly be criticised, because it is geared towards a simple application rather than perfection. Based on how metadata will be entered in this list, we can refine these principles to improve this compromise. The fields do not appear in the same order as in the DCMI and some are subdivided to provide for a slightly finer level of granularity.

Table 1. List of fields used to describe datasets

Élément (French) Élément (EnGLISH) Comment
Créateur Creator The main entity responsible for creating the content of the resource. It can be the name of one or many people, an organisation, or a service.
Format : Last name, First name.
Separate multiple entities with a semi colon.


Contributeur Contributor Entity reponsible for contributing to the content of the resource. It can be the name of one or many people, an organisation, or a service.
Format : Last name, First name.
Separate multiple entities with a semi colon.


Titre Title Name given to the resource.
The title is genarally the formal name under which the resource is known. Indicate the title in the language of origin of the resource.If the resource does not have a formal title and if the title is derived from the content, place the title between square brackets.


Description.Générale Description.General A presentation of the content of the  resource. Examples of descriptions are generally in free form text. As much as possible, use the description provided by the creators of the resource.


Description.Nature-du-projet Description.Project-type A key word which allows us to categoriese projects according to the following typology:

– gouvernemental
– academic
– individual
– commercial
– collaborative


Description.Méthodologie Description.Methodology Free form text which describes the process used to create the resource.


Description.Sources Description.Sources List of documents which were used to create the resource. This field is different from the field Source, which is used to identify where a user can acquire the resource.


Description.Champs Description.Fields List of fields used in the table or database, preferably with a description.


Date.Publication Date.Published Date where the resource was originally created. This is not necessarily the date represented by the resource.


Date.Mise-à-jour Date.Updated Date of an update event in the life cycle of the resource.


Couverture.Temps Coverage.Time Perimeter or domain of the resource, in this case, the date, the year or the period represented by the resource.


Couverture.Espace Coverage.Space Perimeter or domain of the resource, in this case, the territory. It is recommended to use a value from a controled vocabulary.


Couverture.Niveau Coverage.Level A key word which identified the level of the spatial coverage of the resource:

– international
– national
– provincial
– regional
– municipal
– local


Sujet.ISO Subject.ISO A keyword which allows us to link the resource to one of the ISO categories of geospatial data.

– agriculture / farming
– biota / biota
– limites administratives / boundaries
– climatologie / climatology
– économie / economy
– élévation / elevation
– environnement / environment
– information géoscientifique / geoscientific information
– santé / health
– imagerie / imagery
– intelligence / intelligence (militaire)
– eaux intérieures / inland waters
– localisation / location
– océans / oceans
– urbanisme / planning
– société / society
– structure / structure
– transport / transportation
– services publics / utilities

Voir :


Sujet Sujet One or several keywords which can be used to categorise the resource.


Format Format The physical or in this case, the digital manifestation of the resource, ie, the MIME type of the document :

– shp
– kml
– kmz
– zip
– csv
– other formats used in GIS


Langue Language The language of the intellectual content of the resource.
It is recommended to use a value defined in RFC 3066 [RFC3066] which, with the ISO 639 [ISO639] standard, defines 2 letter primary language codes, as well as optional subcodes.
Exemples :- en
– fr


Type de ressource Type Type of content.
By default, the resources identified as part of this project are part of the dataset type.


Droits.Licence Rights.License Brief indication of the type of licence which applies to the data:

– copyright
– CC (or one of its variations)
– public domain
– open


Droits.Accessibilité Rights.Access One of the following termes will allow us to indentify how the data can be accessed.

– free
– one time payment
– free subscription
– paid subcription


Droits.Conditions d’utilisation Rights.Terms of use Text copied and pasted from the web site where the data is deposited to specify the creators’ terms of use.


Source Source Location from which a user can obtain the resource. This will generally be a URL.  A Source.URI could be added should it become pertinent.


Relation Relation Link to other resources. A resource can be derived from another or can be associated with another as part of a project.
Exemples : isPartOf [other resource number]
isChildOf [other resource number]
isDerivedFrom [other resource number]


Éditeur Publisher Name of the person, organisation or service which published the document.


Commentaire Comment Any additionnal information which can help users better undertand the resource.



A list of identified resources is available here: Some of the notices are incomplete and we are working on completing them. If you would like to propose a dataset, you can fill out the form available here:

1  DEVILLERS, Rodolphe (2004). « Conception d’un système multidimensionnel d’information sur la qualité des données géospatiales », [En ligne], Ph. D., Université Laval <>.

2  Collaborateurs de Wikipédia (2016). « Dublin Core » <>.

3  Bibliothèque nationale de France, Direction des Services et des Réseaux, Département de l’Information bibliographique et numérique (2008). « Guide d’utilisation du Dublin Core (DC) à la BnF : Dublin Core simple et Dublin Core qualifié, avec indications pour utiliser le profil d’application de TEL », version 2.0 <>.


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!

On Partnerships

Historical GIS (HGIS) is a challenging and demanding discipline. At the best of times, selecting, scanning, geo-referencing, digitizing and vectorizing the right historical material for a project is a long and arduous investment in both time and money. Because of this investment, researchers are motivated to find pre-built and available data suitable for their projects.

As digital scholarship in the humanities and social sciences evolves, it’s clear that finding others who have done the work of digitizing what you want to digitize, or have scanned what you want scanned, is becoming a necessary part of the academic process. Connecting with other scholars doing what you do is probably more important than ever in an age where digitizing material is only one part of a digital project.

Avoiding duplication is extremely important in many respects. Securing public dollars for undertaking digital scholarship is never guaranteed, and these are getting scarce, so ensuring we are efficient in academia by not duplicating effort is a definite necessity.

Connecting with other scholars and forming partnerships are now necessary to most digital scholarship. This was confirmed to me again recently in the presentations and discussions of the two full-day meetings I participated in this past week with historians, geographers and librarians.

At the Jackman Humanities Institute’s Digital Mapping Workshop, “Mapping Sense, Space, and Time” ( on April 28th, in a session called Collaboration Across Boundaries, presentations by Caroline Bruzelius of Duke University and Natalie Rothman at University of Toronto at Scarborough reminded me of why our group applied to SSHRC to put this Historical GIS partnership together.

In her presentation called “Visualizing Venice: The Life and Times of a Digital Collaboration”, Bruzelius listed seven things digital scholarship requires to move forward. A few of the points she made especially resonated with me.

In her first point she argued that scholars need to be trained in a variety of digital tools. While this practically ensures that scholars do not become experts in most of these technologies, it does, however, lead to better scholarship through asking different questions and thinking differently as a result of varied inquiry.

I think it’s important, as we move forward with our partnership, to remember that GIS is only one tool historians and geographers use in telling historical and spatial stories. GIS needs to be combined with other tools to fully understand the subject at hand and to disseminate our analysis and discourse.

Bruzelius also discussed the importance of open and shared databases of what work has been done. Again, this is something we in the Canadian HGIS partnership felt was one of the most important parts of developing a community of HGIS users and practitioners in Canada. By identifying and helping with the discovery of historical spatial data, we are hoping to prevent duplication and help concentrate efforts efficiently.

Professor Rothman echoed the need for open and shared databases in her discussion on the building of the Serai web site in her presentation called “Building the Serai Collaboratory”. Serai is a free and open online collaborative working platform for scholarship on encounters across ethnolinguistic and religious divides in the pre-modern era (before 16th century.) Serai aims to be a one-stop aggregation for cross-border interaction in the pre-modern world.

Another important point Professor Bruzelius made in her discussion was that Humanists need to tell the public better what it is they do and that they should do this by not only publishing in scholarly journals, but by also making their work accessible to the larger public.

In our partnership, it has been clear from the start that we need input from the public. Historical mapping and GIS is no longer the purview of just academics. Demand from the public for historical maps and digital data was made clear to me during the development of the Don Valley Historical Mapping Project ( and the Ontario Historical County Maps Project ( With the release of both projects we saw a large demand for more information and access to maps and data generated through the project. Not a week goes by without someone asking me for higher resolution images of the Ontario Historical County Maps!

Because of this public desire for access to historical mapping sources and data, we have in our initial Partnership public participation through The Toronto Green Group, the Neptis Foundation, ESRI Canada, and several academic libraries. Several other public organizations, we hope, will be joining us as the Partnership develops.

From a practical point of view, SSHRC has also made it clear that partnerships with the public are important when applying for grants. We shouldn’t take this requirement as a burden, but instead as an opportunity for community groups and individuals to help us develop better projects through their experiences and by learning from their digital information and data demands.

One of the points Nathalie Rothman also made about the Serai collaborations, struck a chord with me as well. Professor Rothman argued that it is difficult to sustain digital projects such as the ones being presented during the JHI workshop for the long-term without the involvement of librarians. This point was also reinforced in another presentation at this event by Professor Steven Bednarski from the University of Waterloo who relies on the work of librarian Zack MacDonald for the digital mapping of his work on climate and landscape change in medieval England.

I think this is where our Partnership has benefitted from a good start. Not only is our group made up of a humanists and social scientists, it is also loaded with a dedicated bunch of librarians from across the country. Academic Map and GIS Librarians, and now also Digital Humanities Librarians as well, tend to be specialists. Not only can they support digital projects through long-term preservation, but they can also, in many cases, contribute to the scholarly undertaking of many projects.

Earlier this April, At the annual meetings of the Ontario Council of University Libraries’ (OCUL) Geo group, I was also reminded of why our group undertook this Partnership Development Project. In this forum, where all GIS and Map librarians from universities meet to discuss common issues across the province, I was struck by the similarity of the discussions we were having to those in the partnership group. Not only do we also struggle with the demands of digital scholarship and project development, but we also struggle with our approaches to making our work visible to the public.

In 2015, the Geo group applied and received funding from OCUL directors to scan and geo-reference 1:25,000 and 1:63,360 federal historical topographic maps of Ontario held in our collections. The project is winding down as most maps have now been processed through work at McMaster University, Ryerson University, the University of Waterloo, Western University, and Carleton University. The interesting part of the discussion during the day surrounding this project was that the group felt it may be a good idea to partner with other organizations in order to develop a data dissemination tool. A tool that would make the data available to not only OCUL schools, but to the rest of the world, especially in light of public demand for historical maps and data.

As well, the group discussed at length the issue of the growing interest in the topic of Research Data Management for spatial data created at Universities. One of the points that was made was that it is difficult to make data, once ingested in data curation systems, discoverable and accessible to the rest of the world. It is a growing concern as all institutions will most likely be building their own repositories using a variety of technologies as demand grows. In building these repositories, will discovery and interoperability be required? We are not sure. If discovery is not at the forefront of requirements in building these repositories, much of the work by researchers and librarians to build datasets could potentially be lost without systems that branch out over a variety of institutions and locations to allow for interaction between search tools.

Part of the reason for our Partnership is to investigate building discovery tools that do speak to one another and that will avoid duplication. ESRI Canada has partnered with us and we are hopeful that, following the two years of this grant, we will be in a position to recommend how we can build data discovery tools that connect to each other for maximum visibility and that will ensure data sustainability and re-use.

It’s reassuring to know that the academic and librarian communities are both having similar discussions on the topics of partnerships and data discovery. It’s also reassuring that the purpose and needs we had identified in building this Canadian HGIS partnership last year, are the same these two communities are expressing.

Some thoughts on the state of HGIS visualization

A couple of months have passed since the CHGIS partnership met for the first time, and progress is underway as we have begun the initial research phase for the various white papers we have planned. As the research assistant under Jim Clifford and Byron Moldofsky, who are working on the white paper focused on data and information visualization for online HGIS, Continue reading Some thoughts on the state of HGIS visualization