What's an Un-GIS?

In a abstract just submitted to Digital Humanities 2011, I labeled Pleiades an "Un-GIS". I feel it's important for users and watchers in the humanities, which is going gang-busters for GIS technology, to understand the differences between Pleiades and a ESRI geodatabase, an OGC-style feature/map service, or a conventional digital gazetteer. I don't think it's useful to try to precisely define "Un-GIS", but here are a few qualities that I think distinguish Pleiades from a typical geographic information system or spatial data infrastructure:

  • Aggregation of temporally varying features into conceptual places or spaces that reflect ancient practice or modern scholarly method.
  • Rich toponyms with ancient spellings, transcription details, temporal scope, and links to primary sources and scholarly literature.
  • Identification and representation of geographic features that have no known locations, or that can be located only vaguely, roughly, or in relationship to each other.
  • Embrace of the uneven distribution in quality and density of data that is inherent in ancient world studies.
  • Embrace of web architecture.

Pleiades distinguishes between place and space [1]. In writing "Ephesus demonstrates the potential complexity of ancient Mediterranean urban centers" (an example from the DigitalClassicist wiki), a scholar would not be referring to the coordinates of the footprint of Ephesus, but to a historical entity and also the body of work of which it is the subject.

Primacy of space might be the defining characteristic of GIS, but it's the names of places, not their coordinates, that occur in ancient texts and inscriptions. We model toponyms carefully so that we'll be able to serve researchers mining ancient texts for new insights into ancient geography. We're even going to keep track of what the Barrington Atlas calls "false toponyms": place names attested to in ancient or modern works that are now considered to be erroneous. These include names from Avienus' "Ora Maritima" that are regarded to be not just wrong, but fictitious [2].

More common than these false toponyms are names for unlocated places such as Kritalla, the marshalling point of Xerxes' army [3]. More common yet are places with fuzzy or non-determinable boundaries like the territory of the Salluvii or the Aegean Sea. Pleiades can identify and represent places for which boundary lines would be misleading. The boundaries of the Roman province of Aegyptus shown on map sheet 100 of the Barrington Atlas, for example, are clearly noted by the editors as rough and approximate [4].

The compilers of GIS datasets (a population that once included me) usually aspire to uniform density and quality of data, and for good reason. The ancient world, however, doesn't give up its secrets like that. Data about it is spotty. Some places are truly lost, some are less accessible. Scholars, too, choose the places that interest them whether they fill in the gaps or not. Pleiades embraces the inherently unfinished nature of ancient studies; instead of waiting on precise coordinates from partners, we're rolling out places with approximate locations that will be refined, live, as we get better locations. I think we're lucky to be doing this now after Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap have completely changed the nature of content and geodata creation – not just in opening it up to non-experts, but in freeing data to be improved incrementally.

Throughout this post, I've provided links to Pleiades using the URIs of places. The representations at the other end themselves carry links to names and locations and neighboring places, and soon (we hope) to digital editions of ancient and modern works served from other domains. We take GIS seriously in Pleiades, but whenever there is a question of "what is the GIS approach" vs "what is the web approach" to a problem, we go with the latter.

Most of all, I offer "Un-GIS" as a starting point for interesting discussions at the conference about how GIS technology and methods do and don't directly apply to historical geography.

[1] http://sgillies.net/blog/1032/modeling-historical-places-for-pleiades/
[2] Barrington Atlas, Map 15 Arelate-Massalia, compiled by S. Loseby, 1995.
[3] Barrington Atlas, Map 64 Caesarea-Melitene, compiled by T. B. Mitford, 1996.
[4] Barrington Atlas, xxv.

Comments

Re: What's an Un-GIS?

Author: Jeff Thurston

This is interesting.

I agree. GIS are either raster or vector model based and depend upon the geo-referenced locations of geometry or pixels. This is a large area for study that GIScience has talked about, particularly human geographers who attempt to convey the full range of human behavior that does not neatly fall to a vector.

Eskimos and natives fall into the this group, often traveling long distances guided by inukshuks or landscape forms or even memories of past events (places where births, deaths, marriages happened). Farmers often know places upon their land by soil types. Foresters are guided by large trees or even places where wildlife congregate.

GIS related knowledge is like an iceberg and I would reckon that most of the wealth of what we do not know about (4/5ths) falls into the category you are defining - which is why it is so valuable.

Re: What's an Un-GIS?

Author: Gretchen

Interesting. I've always thought there was an absence of ability to deal with "fuzzy features" - as in features that are not exactly defined in geographic space but generally or relationally defined. Though at the same time I wondered if that would still qualify as GIS. Your un-GIS term captures that dilemma. An issue I've run into (and perhaps you've already touched on this) is dealing with ancient fonts - or rather, special characters in native written language.

Re: What's an Un-GIS?

Author: Sean

Thanks for the comments. What I'm writing about does verge on vernacular GIS, but it's mostly about being able to support careful, precise investigation of imprecise geographies. Contrary to a comment I received via Twitter, I think this approach differs from the mainly scale-free and highly personal "Neogeography", where a point is good enough for just about any event's location.

Gretchen, the situation for ancient map labeling is getting better all the time. A bigger problem for us is incomplete and varying form of place names; our ancestors were just as bad at spelling as we are and have sometimes been less than careful with their cultural heritage.

Re: What's an Un-GIS?

Author: Tim Hitchcock

This is a nice post, and gets at a real issue. But I wonder if you aren't down playing the extent to which the inflexible nature of GIS is being used self-consciously by humanists precisely in order to co-ordinate abstract ideas and categories, that otherwise resist definition. A point or a polygon (however fuzzy at the edges) allows you to relate two absurdly different things - 'ego' and 'roast pork' (perhaps through the nearest identifiable place, or the place of creation, or one of several other possibilities). The nice thing is that geo-referencing would give one answer to the relationship, which could then be compared to measures of the relationship drawn from other disciplines like quantitative linguists (precise measures of distance, for instance, or the nature of textual context).

I believe a lot of humanists are turning the GIS in frustration at the working out of the linguistic turn; and while adding an Un to the front may highlight the problems and distance you from the physical geographers, it might also underplay the opportunities.

Un-GIS, naming, and power

Author: Shane Landrum

I'm no classicist, but I think some of the principles you're describing have much broader applications.

  • Aggregation of temporally varying features into conceptual places or spaces that reflect ancient practice or modern scholarly method.
  • Rich toponyms with ancient spellings, transcription details, temporal scope, and links to primary sources and scholarly literature.
  • Identification and representation of geographic features that have no known locations, or that can be located only vaguely, roughly, or in relationship to each other.

As an Americanist historian, these features are what I need to map, for example, a set of letters from a particular rural crossroads/hamlet/ghost-town which no longer exists. Some of my colleagues would use them to map conflicting place-naming systems and sovereignty claims between indigenous people and European settlers.

GIS lets us map things we can claim certain and precise knowledge about, but the farther away one gets from a kind of hard-positivist thinking about space, the fewer uses I can see for it. There are large, important historical subfields built around critical approaches to conflicting/silent/missing sources, and I'd really like to see mapping software which doesn't grate against those subfields' central insights.