Digital Mapping

Why Engage in Digital Mapping?

Ryan Mattke

▪  Relates qualitative and quantitative information to space (and time)

▪  Dynamic representations of place and space

▪  Complements traditional interpretive narratives

▪  Enables researchers and students to explore data in new ways and ask new questions

▪  Students from GWSS 3590:  Environmental Disparities & Sustainability worked with the Minnesota Pollution Control agency to map population demographics like race and class alongside environmental features like sites of toxicity and emissions levels


Digital mapping allows researchers to georeference or geolocate their idea. Using a geographic information system (GIS), scholars relate information to space (and sometimes, time, too). As Gregory & Geddes (2014) put it, “GIS can be thought of as a type of software that provides a way of representing features on the Earth’s surface and a suite of operations that allow the researcher to query, manipulate, visualize, and analyze these representations.”

Digital mapping allows for both qualitative and quantitative data to be mapped ‒ in this way, mapping can be part of a mixed methods approach.

“A humanities GIS-facilitated understanding of society and culture may ultimately make its contribution … by creating the simultaneous context that we accept as real but unobtainable by words alone … In sum, it promises an alternate view of history and culture through the dynamic representation of memory and place, a view that is visual and experiential, fusing qualitative and quantitative data within real and conceptual space. It stands alongside ‒ but does not replace ‒ traditional interpretive narratives, and it invites participation by the naive and knowledgeable alike.”

-Bodenhamer, Corrigan, and Harris (2010)

But while digital mapping can expand the ways in which scholars analyze the subject matter of their disciplines, GIS poses challenges. Researchers must learn how to effectively move data into a GIS database and then learn how to effectively utilize the maps, web applications, and other outputs to display this new knowledge.

One key aspect is mapping data in a way that allows the researcher to ask new questions of the data, rather than mapping the data with a specific output in mind.

“The challenge, then, for humanities GIS is to use technology to probe, explore, challenge, and complicate, in sum, to allow us to see, experience, and understand human behavior in all its complexity. As in traditional humanities scholarship, the goal is less to produce an authoritative or ultimate answer than to prompt new questions, develop new perspectives, and advance new arguments or interpretations.”

-Bodenhamer, Corrigan, and Harris (2010)

By incorporating digital mapping techniques, researchers are able to view their data through the lens of geographic analysis, allowing for both new interpretations of data and the ability to pose new questions of existing data.

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Exemplary Projects

Support Guides and Tutorials for Digital Mapping Tools

U-Spatial TrainingU-Spatial Help Desk

Tufts GIS Tutorials & Tips (search for “gis” and limit to “Beginner”)

Esri Training (contact U-Spatial for access to courses)

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