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Computers marry maps, data and produce new insights


(Above) From "Map and Illustrations" in Salem Witchcraft by Charles W. Upham (1867), W.P. Upham, the author's brother, researched and drew the map, which purports to represent the locations of major landmarks, farms, land grants, physical features and the dwellings of prominent and important residents in Salem during 1692. It can be viewed online at http://fisher.lib.Virginia.EDU/projects/salem

There's also an animated, visual recreation of Salem in 1692 at this new web site -- "The Salem Witchcraft GIS," created by Mike Furlough of the Geospatial and Statistical Data Center, along with the project's primary researcher, Benjamin Ray (

(Right) An illustration of the Salem witch trials, from a related web site produced by the Danvers Archival Center, in conjunction with U.Va.'s Electronic Text Center.



By Dan Heuchert

Geographic Information Systems?" What's wrong with calling them "maps"?

It's a natural question to ask while looking for the GIS lab in the Geospatial and Statistical Data Center of Alderman Library. Upon arriving at the third-floor facility, though, the answer is clear: what's found on the computer monitors there goes far beyond mere paper brochures that fold out.

Of course, it all starts with a map. But then users can overlay data like toppings on a bowl of ice cream: census numbers, geographical features, weather measurements, cows per acre -- the possibilities seem limited only by the creativity of the user and the availability of the data.

What emerges are patterns, trends, answers.

"It's definitely more than creating a map," said Michael Furlough, associate director of the center, called the Geostat Center for short. "It's using spatial visualization to answer questions."

The applications for GIS technology are widespread. History professor Edward L. Ayers uses it in his renowned "Valley of the Shadow" project to show the movements of various military units during the Civil War. The Virginia Coast Reserve uses it in its Long-Term Ecological Research program to track coastal erosion, among other things. Outside the University, GIS is used to train local planners. Less academically, the University's Facilities Management maintains comprehensive maps of the Grounds and its buildings, and can, for example, display the location of every magnolia tree on Grounds and list who is responsible for its maintenance.

"They make me look good," said Benjamin Ray, the Daniels Family/NEH Distinguished Teaching Professor, who is using GIS technology in researching the 1692 Salem witch trials. Starting by scanning a hand-drawn map, he has now developed computer maps showing the residences of various principal figures during the trials and their relationships to others, with links to documents involving them. Another map juxtaposes the hour-by-hour chronology and geography of the various accusations.

"Maps give you context and historical content when you're dealing with events that happened in a small town over 300 years ago," Ray said. "You can get closer to what that means by seeing where they live and whom they live next to."

Ray first became involved with the Geostat Center through his work with the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. "This is from scratch," he said. "It was kind of a sense of my asking, 'Can you do this?' and their responding, 'Let's see.'"

" 'What if?' is really the interesting part of this," said Wallace Reed, an associate professor of environmental sciences and unofficial leader of the University's GIS community.

In 1992, he and colleague David Phillips of urban and environmental planning drew up plans for developing and extending research, teaching and administrative applications for GIS technology. U.Va. at the time was one of only "two or three" libraries in the country focusing on GIS technology, Reed said. They and Furlough head up the informal UVAGIS group that oversees the program, which Reed calls "one of the largest, if not the largest, interdisciplinary research, training and administrative programs of the University."

The GIS program is a unique partnership between the library, Information Technology and Communication and six of the nine schools of the University. The library provides space and staffing; ITC offers hardware, maintenance and computing support; and ITC and the schools share software licenses and supply financial support. Four schools (the College of Arts & Sciences, Engineering, Architecture and Commerce) offer GIS courses.

"It is a thoroughly unusual partnership," Reed said.

The cooperative spirit extends beyond U.Va., too. The University often shares its expertise with local governments, for example, in exchange for access to data that may prove useful to University users. For instance, one locality sought the Geostat Center's help in determining the relationships between the locations of private schools and public school districts, in order to determine from where the private schools were drawing their students.

"Using GIS, we were able to generate this within a couple of minutes," said Patrick Yott, director of the center.

"We give back from where we have strength, and they give to us from where they have strength," Reed said.

The center's next focus is developing three-dimensional mapping technology, Phillips said. Already staffers are working on 3-D maps of the Grounds, and the city has expressed an interest in extending those efforts to include West Main Street. Other applications could depict the line of sight for proposed cellular communications towers.

Kathy Poole, an assistant professor of landscape architecture, is working on a 3-D map that would predict and model how plant growth rates in wetland areas might be affected by a number of variables. Though her research focuses mainly on the Back Bay Fens area of Boston, she hopes the programs she creates could be applied to other situations in a simpler, straightforward format that could be used by designers and ordinary citizens, she said.

Whatever direction it takes, it appears GIS will make major contributions in a variety of fields. Already, the old hard-copy maps that once filled the Geostat Center have been packed away in favor of computerized versions.

"Throughout this, it's been fun," Reed said. "Everyone who started it has stayed with it and had a lot of fun."


The Geospatial and Statistical Data Center will hold a "GIS Day" open house Nov. 19 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., marking the end of National Geography Awareness Week. The center is located on the west wing of the third floor in Alderman Library. Information is available at:

The main center's Alderman location is ideal because of its proximity to the Government Documents Depository, a rich source of data, and its visibility to the high volume of traffic that comes through the library. There are also satellite facilities in Wilson Hall and the Architecture and Engineering schools.


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