Basics of Mapping for the Digital Humanities

To start, navigate to this page via the URL below:

“What is a map? What is in a map? How do you map?”

In the Humanities, mapping can be defined in so many different ways, there is no easy answer to these questions. In fact, your research can dictate the parameter of choices that define your map. Below are a few examples of just how multi-faceted mapping can be for the humanities, and how the digital can help scope and develop innovative approaches to projects. How then might your project utilize these tools?

Lecture on Mapping Space and Time

“Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.” -Waldo Tobler

Waldo Tobler’s statement defines his first law of geography, in ways stating the obvious correlation between objects in space, paving the foundation behind spatial dependencies. Equally important, we may argue, is that the same dependencies that exist in space also exist in time. Chronology is a representation of sequential data as spatial overlays, often visualized to show relationships, dependencies, and causation through time.

As mentioned at the top of the syllabus for this course, space and time are dimensions that are forever intertwined due to their ontological nature. So far, we have mastered the skills necessary to put objects onto an interactive map, but how then, can we combine the temporal dimension into our visual representation of our subject matter? More importantly, is temporality not the single most important component to complete our spatial narrative?


The representation of 3 dimensional space onto a flat, 2 dimensional platform–a map–brings with it many challenges and compromises (e.g. projection systems). Every “flat” map in existence compromises on one geographical element: Shape, Area, Distance or Direction. So too, does the representation of the “fourth dimension”, or time, bring about much to contemplate on how best to summarize and eventually effectively visualize geo-temporal data. Historically, inventive methods employed in visualizing change over time has produced infamous graphics such as Minard’s map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign in 1812.

Minard Map


Equally inventive and in ways revolutionary to the modern day digital world was the wizardry employed by the exuberant “Jedi Master of data visualization”, Hans Rosling. His legendary TED talk in 2006 was premised by a tool he created called Gapminder, later to be bought out by Google in 2007. As a data visualization tool, Gapminder cleverly incorporates temporal global data on a 2D bubble chart, utilizing choreographed animation sequences to depict change over time. Spatiality is defined by a bubble-per-country, and via the colors of the bubbles, each swath representing a geographic region. Yet, what makes this representation of information compelling is not just in its ability to animate data over time, but more so in its ability to interact with time, pausing, rewinding, forwarding, slowing down and speeding up.

gap minder



I turn off Google Maps and start to drive. I wonder: what would it mean to drive downward, into the buried pasts that persist somewhere—in the imagination, in the archive, in the memories of others, in the traces of places long gone and lost? Who used to live here? What used to be there? What’s buried under this freeway, under this skyscraper, beneath these overpasses? What has vanished imperceptibly from the surface of the earth? What voices and ghosts haunt, however imperceptibly, these concrete landscapes? Why do I care? It’s a past which is, ostensibly, not my own. I don’t recognize it. It’s not mine. Time is out of joint. – Todd Presner (HyperCities, Thick Mapping in the Digital Humanities)

Perhaps one of the most innovative geotemporal platforms born and created within academia is HyperCities, the brainchild of our very own Todd Presner. In his words, here is how Todd describes the Hypercities platform:

Built on the idea that every past is a place, HyperCities came to life as a digital research and educational platform for exploring, learning about, and interacting with the layered histories of city and global spaces. Developed though collaboration between UCLA, USC, CUNY, and numerous community- based organizations, the fundamental idea behind HyperCities is that all histories “take place” somewhere and sometime, and that they become more meaningful when they interact and intersect with other histories. Through the Google Maps and Earth APIs, HyperCities essentially allows users to go back in time to create, narrate, and explore the historical layers of city spaces and tell stories in an interactive, hypermedia environment.

The idea that we can spiral downwards–or upwards–from any location to navigate into the past or future is at the core of the HyperCities platform, to the degree that technology can allow such a concept to manifest.

Google Earth

The obvious choice to represent time via a web-based interface is to provide some sort of time dial, a time-machine of sorts that allows you to punch in a past (or future) date, and navigate to that time to present information relevant to that temporal space. Web-based time representations are made possible via a myriad of functional visual widgets. Most popular are the time sliders that allow users to navigate into the past by “sliding” a set of handles to go back (or forward) in time. Google Earth uses such a slider effectively to navigate time:

google earth time slider

The advantage of dynamic time sliders is that they are malleable, they adjust to the time spans dictated by the content material. In the screen shot from Google Earth, the time slider itself is indicative of the content being provided, in this case, we can depict that this particular location has historical satellite image dating back to 1992.


In the open source community, various temporal widgets have surfaced, none more prominent than the SIMILE Timeline Widget. Funded by the Mellon Foundation in 2003, Simile was a joint research project run by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C),Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries and MIT CSAIL. Despite the fact that the project ended in 2008, the tool remains available and popular today–via open source channels–a testament to the longevity of well documented, interoperable and functional open source platforms. It also speaks to the difficulty of building time-based visualization platforms.

simile crime

The LA Times uses the SIMILE timeline to effectively show crime over time.

Timeline JS

Temporal platforms seemingly entered a lull after SIMILE, signaling an end of an era for innovations in time-based visualizations. Several notable libraries have emerged, most notably Timeline JS, produced by Northwestern Univesity’s Knight Lab, which capitalizes on the increased usage of cloud technologies by academics and journalists alike. Timeline JS capitulates on the popularity of Google Docs, cleverly utilizing the Spreadsheet API to link data directly into its visually appealing timeline, allowing one to manipulate data dynamically, effectively utilizing it as a database driving the web interface. However, its dependency on Google, coupled with the timeline’s inability to scale time beyond a single day.

Timeline JS


Perhaps signaling a new wave of geotemporal platforms, CartoDB emerged onto the scene in 2012, when it’s platform was launched at the Where 2.0 conference. Unlike other emerging online mapping platforms such as Leaflet and Mapbox, CartoDB prides itself in its database driven mapping approach, built on an open source backend of PostGIS and PostGRESQL.



It may come as a surprise to conclude this segment on temporal visualization platforms with a little-known open source project called vis.js. While more prominent libraries such as D3 and Palladio have stolen the limelight in recent years, vis.js delivers as an all-encompassing, dynamic, visualization library. More intriguing is that unlike similar libraries that are born within academia, vis.js was created by an R&D team from a Dutch company Almende, whose mission is “to empower human beings to better organize their lives in an increasingly complex world”.

Similar to the Simile project, vis.js offers several libraries for different visualization techniques. Their Timeline library offers to create “fully customizable, interactive timeline with items and ranges”. Perhaps the beauty lies in its lack of any spectacular looking interfaces. Rather, it focuses almost singularly on function… function that allows you to navigate through time–from milliseconds to decades–in a matter of yes, seconds.

[full screen]

Further, its claim as a “fully customizable” tool is justified by the ease of which in incorporates JSON data, allowing the timeline to co-exist with other visual components, such as maps.


Now that you have a better understanding of the spatial and temporal components of a map, you may wonder how can I extract locations from my data?

One way to do so is to use Google Fusion tables on data fields such as “Address” or “City Name”.

First go to and import your CSV table (Sample Coin Data Set here):


Then click on next, after choosing your header row.2fusion

To start the geocoding, go to “File” then “Geocode”:

2015-11-04 12_04_11-Finally, choose the field with your location data, it can be either city name, latitude/longitude, addresses, etc.

2015-11-04 12_04_47-S Coupland Carolingian Hoards - AD 751-987vAlbert - Google Fusion Tables

The geocoder will attempt to match the field to a coordinate then you can click on “Map” to view your results.

2015-11-04 12_15_29-S Coupland Carolingian Hoards - AD 751-987vAlbert - Google Fusion Tables

You can tell the Google Fusion Table to treat any field as a “Location” by clicking on the arrow next to the field header and clicking “Change”:

2015-11-04 12_06_23-S Coupland Carolingian Hoards - AD 751-987vAlbert - Google Fusion Tables

In this case we are going to make “NAT” (which is Nation) the location: 2015-11-04 12_06_36-S Coupland Carolingian Hoards - AD 751-987vAlbert - Google Fusion Tables

Now you can geocode it:

2015-11-04 12_13_50-S Coupland Carolingian Hoards - AD 751-987vAlbert - Google Fusion Tables

And there you have it!

2015-11-04 12_23_41-S Coupland Carolingian Hoards - AD 751-987vAlbert - Google Fusion Tables

Mapping Maps

Mapbox: | port data

2015-07-09 18_03_50-Mapbox _ Design and publish beautiful maps

ESRI Story Map: | port data

2015-07-09 17_24_54-Ancient Port Tour

GoogleEarth: | coin data

2015-07-09 17_55_41-Greenshot image editor

NYPL map warper:

2015-07-09 18_08_31-NYPL Map Warper_ Viewing Map 17518

CartoDB: | coin data

2015-07-09 17_50_57-CoinHoards

Visualizing Data

Google Fusion Tables: | coin data

2015-07-09 18_14_17-S Coupland Carolingian Hoards - AD 751-987vAlbert - Google Fusion Tables

Palladio: | ship wreck data

2015-07-09 18_38_08-Palladio