May 2007
Socializing Cyberinfrastructure: Networking the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
Patricia Seed, University of California-Irvine


Two other recently honed but competing commercial solutions will likely enjoy success among historians seeking the limited goal of acquainting readers with unfamiliar places. Both ESRI and Google, corporate giants in desktop software and the web, have created relatively accessible means for individuals to display locations on 2- and sometimes 3-D maps. Both put the creation of new maps in the hands of the individual historian allowing her to create specialized or highly detailed maps tailored to a particular subject; maps that would be uneconomical to produce in print. While both ESRI and Google can potentially improve the quality of historical place identification, both have obvious shortcomings.

Both rely upon a different mixture of proprietary and open source software. Mapping software giant ESRI produces costly software to analyze the landscape and its underlying geology, but uses freely available data. Google Earth, on the other hand, uses free software to create maps but retains copyright over the data. Furthermore, it requires that all buildings be added to maps by means of URLS, making the resulting “mashups” inherently unstable. As with all corporate software, the potential to turn both techniques into expensive, fee-based services remains a potential threat to their widespread use in humanities subjects.

However, from the standpoint of improving visualization (rather than place identification), both ESRI and Google Earth are limited by taking the “God’s eye” or overhead view of terrain. At present, neither makes it easy to present a human’s view toward the sky. Traditional CAD tools such as AutoCAD still provide better models for human scale perspectives. Even Google’s recent purchase of the very basic CAD program Sketch-Up has only managed to allow the introduction of a static image without altering the basic perspective of the viewer. A better means of integrating this human-centric perspective into 3-D maps is a development worth waiting for.

While no readymade solution to this latter problem exists, advances in three-dimensional visualization have the potential for shifting identifications from passive to active, and creating new representations of an increasingly important historical subject, the history of human interconnection with the environment. Going beyond human interaction with static landforms, these emergent methods have the potential to incorporate a model of dynamic human activity with a changing environment.

Some historical projects on a geological time scale have already started to address these issues. The history of migrating drainage systems, often buried beneath subsequent accumulations of silt, can explain the appearance and movement of the earliest human settlements. For example, histories of the shifts in river beds have significantly altered our understanding of the patterns of human settlement in China.7

In other areas, an as yet unrealized potential exists and is within reach. The relatively recent progress in three-dimensional mapping of the sea’s underwater shape allows us to understand how and why certain patterns emerged in shipping and sometimes even the reasons for the deadly fate of certain vessels. Using the software program AVS,8 the Australian Navy Hydrographic Service developed a superbly detailed image of the sea floor off the continent’s coast. The Service conceived this map with the aim of identifying safe shipping channels, and protecting the fragile Great Barrier Reef from damage by careless pilots. Yet these same maps can be used to understand why a steel steamer carrying a large cargo of gold broke up off the coast of Queensland in 1875, or actively comprehend the choices Captain Cook made as he navigated through the Great Barrier Reef in 1770.

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Reference this article
Seed, P. "Flat Maps in a 3D World: Visualizing the Past," CTWatch Quarterly, Volume 3, Number 2, May 2007. http://www.ctwatch.org/quarterly/articles/2007/05/flat-maps-in-a-3d-world/

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