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Reposted from the Digital Summer Institute Blog

I introduced mapping as a research and teaching process to James [Ford] (English), Brandon [Lehr] (Economics), and Richard [Mora] (Sociology). Presenting the digital map of musicians’ social networks that I created for my dissertation, I talked about the ways in which this geo-spatial (GIS) visualization helped me contextualize my ethnographic finding and raise further questions about religious and musical identities in transnational settings. With this example, I illustrated the value of a rather labor-intensive visualization project (that took 8 months to complete). Read more about this mapping project.

I then introduced Google My Places as a basic tool to engage students in spatial thinking. Google enables users to create a personal map. [Unfortunately, we found out Oxy’s version Google doesn’t have My Maps. One would have to register separately for a non-Oxy Google account in order to use My Maps]. In My Maps, one can create a new map with a title and description. On this map, one can drop pins in locations found by entering either a street address or latitude and longitude coordinates. One can label this pin (with specific color and shape assignment) and insert a narrative (including images and links). Google has provided a  pretty good tutorial for My Maps. I showed them an location-based narrative example of My Maps: my autobio-musical map, a test-run for an ethnographic/interview method that I conceived for my musician-based ethnography. James suggested that he may map hip-hop performances, venues, and conference sites using My Maps.

In addition to desk-top mapping, map creation can be done in a mobile environment. In particular, these geo-reference pins can be dropped using GPS-enabled devices such as smart phones and tablets (ipad and alike). These live recorded geo coordinates can be added to My Maps. I mentioned to Richard the possibility of using this tool in his immigration course cluster this semester. Students performing fieldwork in communities outside of Oxy campus could utilize Google Maps to create geo coordinates as they work in the field. Alternatively, Ever Note could be a solution for geo-tagging field recordings and notes in field work situations. I would also suggest Broadcastr, “a social media platform for location-based stories”, as a possible field recording tool for digital and geospatial storytelling.

Brandon pointed out that there is a huge gap in terms of work and technical knowledge between boutique visualization tools (OpenLayer as in the case of my musician network map) and the basic mapping tools like Google My Maps. He showed us Gapminder, a collection of dynamic visualizations (used by many TedTalk speakers) illustrating social facts in time. Gapminder can be used to animate statistics available on the site, but it doesn’t render geospatial information. Gapminder as a platform can be downloaded for user to animate their own data.

James shared with us WorldMapper, a web archive of world maps “where territories are re-sized on each map according to the subject of interest.” This a good teaching tool to illustrate how social facts (such as money spent on war) can shape and alter the contour and size of territories and countries, ultimately highlighting social and political differences in the world. According to James, the developers at WorldMapper take data requests from users.

Responding to James, I showed Social Explorer, a site that supports interactive demographic data explorations in GIS terms. And ESRI, the company that makes ArcGIS, the standard mapping application for urban planners and geographers, provides a free dynamic mapping service on their website.

Over lunch at Sycamore Glen, Brandon, Maryann [Horowitz] (History) and I continued our conversation on mapping. We discussed the possibility of overlaying historical maps (Ortelius!) onto modern maps. I mentioned how this can be accomplished using either ArcGIS and Google Earth.

I will continue to explore various digital mapping tools throughout the year. Let’s talk GIS some time!