Read, hot & digitized: Librarians and the digital scholarship they love — In this series, librarians from the UT Libraries Arts, Humanities and Global Studies Engagement Team briefly present, explore and critique existing examples of digital scholarship. Our hope is that these monthly reviews will inspire critical reflection of, and future creative contributions to, the growing fields of digital scholarship.
Segregation By Design is a compelling personal project by Adam Paul Susaneck, an architect based in New York City. Through spatial analysis, demographic data, historical photos, and extensive research, Susaneck effectively illustrates “how the American city was methodically hollowed out based on race.” It offers an insightful perspective on an important issue that has shaped the country’s history and continues to impact its present. The project’s goal is threefold: to create a print “Atlas of Urban Renewal,” to create digital materials for local groups opposing ongoing freeway expansion, and to raise awareness through social media.
The website offers a preview of what the print atlas will look like. 180 municipalities that received federal funding from the 1956 Federal Highway Act have been analyzed, and so far, there are 14 cities profiled. Each city has multiple sections, such as “Freeways & Urban Renewal,” “Redlining,” and “Transit.” Focus is given to specific highways, neighborhoods, environmental impacts, or buildings.
For example, the “Chicago: Dan Ryan Expressway (I-90)” section includes an animated swipe map juxtaposing aerial photos from 1938 and 1984 illustrating the “path of destruction” and displacement when the I-90 highway was built in the 1960s. It explains that over 81,000 people, many of whom were BIPOC or recent immigrants, were displaced.
Likewise, the “Chicago: Bronzeville” section profiles a neighborhood decimated by “urban renewal.” Before and after photos of buildings are combined with Susaneck’s transposed line drawings of buildings over present-day photos, masterfully visualizing and mapping redlining of the area.
Redlining is a discriminatory practice that systematically denies services such as mortgages, insurance loans, and other financial services to specific area residents based on race or ethnicity.
Yet another section, “Chicago: Pekin Theater,” focuses on the first black-owned theater in the United States, which was appropriated by the city through eminent domain, a process that left large swaths of the neighborhood cleared for “urban renewal.” The lot has been vacant since 1940.
The project’s second goal is to create digital materials for local groups opposing ongoing freeway expansion. Susaneck states, “As state governments continue to mindlessly widen freeways, community groups in cities across the country have formed in opposition. This project aims to support these groups by creating easily digestible graphics to spread awareness.” One such project is Stop TxDOT I-45 in Houston, Texas. Their mission is “to challenge the status quo of transportation policy and to fight for all people in Houston to be able to participate in the decisions that affect health, safety, and mobility in their communities.” Similarly, the “Houston: Flooding” section of Segregation By Design discusses the environmental impact of highways and urban sprawl and how nonwhite residents are disproportionately affected by natural disasters.
Susaneck is accomplishing his third project objective of raising awareness through social media. In fact, Segregation By Design first caught my eye with an Instagram post that highlighted a striking map of Atlanta followed by bird’s-eye images of highway construction clearance from 1956 to 1990. The caption is lengthy for Instagram but is engaging. Susaneck describes the images in it: “The first image shows the freeway right of way overlaid on the 1936 HOLC redlining map and a 1960 aerial photo. The subsequent images show the destruction wrought by freeway construction.” Susaneck then explains who was affected by the highway construction, gives the names of neighborhoods decimated, and expounds on the history of redlining. Instagram lends itself to the graphic nature of his work, the dynamic swipe maps (often used to illustrate before and after destructive events), then-and-now comparisons, and augmented photos highlighting the significance of buildings as well as homes and communities that have been demolished.
For readers not on Instagram who still want updates, you can sign up to receive new entries via email, including high-resolution images and maps. Supporters can contribute to this largely self-funded project through the subscription-based platform Patreon.
Segregation By Design uses engaging infographics and directness to help explain the complicated policies contributing to systemic racism in our country. It’s invaluable in making these issues more manageable and understandable. I look forward to adding the Atlas of Urban Renewal print version to the Perry-Castañeda Library (PCL) Map Collection.
For the 4th consecutive year, the UT community came together to celebrate geographic information systems and geospatial research at UT GIS Day 2022 on Wednesday 11/16.
The day’s events were organized by the UT Libraries in collaboration with other campus partners including Technical Resources, the Department of Geography and the Environment, and the Department of Statistics and Data Sciences. We also once again joined other GIS Day organizers from across the state of Texas in contributing to TxGIS Day – a joint effort to spread the word about and increase the impact of our individual GIS Day events.
Our events this year were dedicated to recognizing, discussing, and learning about GIS technology and all that it enables for UT Austin students, faculty, and staff. UT GIS Day 2022 was also notable for being our biggest GIS Day celebration yet and featured a full lineup of events including a career event, lightning talks, geospatial health research panel discussion, UAV demonstration, lidar visualization event, PCL Map Room tour, and more. Some of the highlights of the day’s events included the very interactive and well attended GIS poster session and the announcement of the student recipient of the 2022 UT Libraries Map & Geospatial Collections Explorer Fellowship which was awarded to graduate student, Stephanie Zeller.
Many of our events were held in and around the Perry-Castañeda Library which proved to be a fantastic venue for bringing members of the campus community together in a hybrid format that allowed us to enjoy the advantages of gathering in-person while also being able to stream and record many of our sessions using Zoom. These recordings can be accessed at https://guides.lib.utexas.edu/gis/past-event-info-and-downloads which will allow these events to continue to benefit the campus community moving forward.
A project to provide digital access to an important collection of geologic cartography from the Walter Geology Library has been completed.
The Deep Time Maps are a collection of paleogeographic maps showing the landscapes and oceans of ancient Earth through hundreds of millions of years of geologic time. These maps are an extraordinary resource for geoscientists, but have been inaccessible to users due to limits on the technology available for allowing access to this large of a collection.
The project to make this resource accessible online through the Libraries’ online presence was an idea that had been sitting around collecting “digital dust” for quite some time due to limits on the technology available for our use.
Senior Content Management Specialist Stacy Ogilvie took lead on the project to provide digital access to views of the Earth’s continents over the course of millions of years through the Libraries’ unified management resource system component Alma Digital. Adding this collection to Alma Digital is a significant step in increasing its accessibility to our users and fulfilling a goal that our late colleague Dennis Trombatore had in purchasing the materials.
“The process also served as our first big test of adding a large collection to Alma Digital and the experience Stacy gained from working on this from scratch will help inform how we work more closely with SRD and add additional large collections to the Alma Digital workflow,” says Head of Content Management Corey Halaychik. “Her work on this front is invaluable to our team.”
Over the past five years, great strides have been made in enhancing access to the UT Libraries (UTL) maps and geospatial collections. The UT Libraries has for decades been committed to making copyright-free maps from its collections freely available online. This commitment has resulted in the scanning and sharing of tens of thousands of maps from the renowned Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection (PCLMC), which have been made available for download online for over 25 years. The Libraries’ focus on sharing its geospatial data has also more recently led to the development of the Texas GeoData portal in 2019, which has been a game-changer for enhancing discovery and use of geospatial data and maps from the UT Libraries’ collections. This portal enables access to a wide variety of geospatial data types available for download, including georeferenced scanned maps from the PCLMC and geospatial datasets developed from collections in the Alexander Architectural Archives and the Benson Latin American Collection.
In 2021, the UT Libraries Map & Geospatial Collections Explorer Fellowship was created to incentivize engagement with the Libraries’ geospatial materials like those shared through the PCLMC site, the Texas GeoData portal, the UT Libraries Collections portal. This Fellowship has been designed to both support the work of UT researchers and scholars who utilize UTL map and geospatial assets in their projects and to encourage further enrichment and promotion of the UT Libraries’ map and geospatial collections. The Explorer Fellowship is now offered annually, with two separate award categories: one for UT students of all levels and the other for faculty and post-docs.
On August 22, UTL launched the call for proposals for the 2022 Fellowship awards. Proposals are due October 3, and the Faculty and Student award winners will be announced on GIS Day, November 16, 2022.
Here are some fast fun facts about the Explorer Fellowship to pique your interest:
Fellowship awards are $1500 each, with half distributed upon announcement of Fellowship recipients and half distributed after completion of Fellowship requirements.
Two Fellowships are offered annually, one for active UT students and one for UT faculty and postdocs in current paid appointments.
Researchers selected for Fellowship support will join the nascent ranks of previous recipients doing impressive work whose projects are described below.
2021 Student Fellowship:
Bailey is studying critical watersheds in Puerto Rico (PR) and their downstream fresh-water reservoirs in order to quantify sediment accumulation rates and identify environmental controls on erosion. She is using maps from the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection to characterize past land use in PR and determine their influence on sediment accumulation. She plans on publishing a database of bathymetric data in the UTL repositories with pre-existing bathymetric data from government agencies as well as new data she will be collecting using a bathymetric hydro-drone.
2021 Faculty Fellowship:
Dr. Ginny Catania
The threat from sea-level rise to the Texas coast, which produces ~$400 billion in economic value, is increasingly visible with widespread impacts across human, built, and natural environments. This project plans to build a map of coastal change for the State of Texas to enable the detection of the regions of greatest change (hotspots). By studying hotspot locations in conjunction with environmental data, we can understand the processes responsible for change and how such regions might be impacted from future sea level rise. Map data will be superimposed with demographic data to determine the coastal populations most at risk from sea level and associated threats.
Take a look at the Call for Proposals document for ideas about using geospatial collection items in research you’re planning. It’s possible your project could be elevated by these materials, and incorporating them would enable you to meet the Fellowship application requirements. Please also feel free to share this information about the Explorer Fellowship with any friends or colleagues that you think might be interested in this opportunity.
Read, hot & digitized: Librarians and the digital scholarship they love — In this series, librarians from the UT Libraries Arts, Humanities and Global Studies Engagement Team briefly present, explore and critique existing examples of digital scholarship. Our hope is that these monthly reviews will inspire critical reflection of, and future creative contributions to, the growing fields of digital scholarship.
“Join us as we Defend the Sacred” is the first thing you see when you visit the Tāp Pīlam Coahuiltecan Nation website. They are defending remains found under and around the Alamo in Yanaguana, commonly known as San Antonio, Texas. Despite being born and raised there, I did not learn about the Tāp Pīlam “People of this Earth” Nation growing up in San Antonio. Rather, I found out about them on Native Lands Digital, an ongoing project that puts those left off the map through colonization back on the map.
Native Land Digital is an interactive map of Indigenous territories, languages, and treaties that documents native lands across the globe but particularly in North & South America and in Australia. It is available on the web or as a smartphone app (iOS and Android). The app uses basic geolocation to retrieve information from the website.
The initial map, Native-Land.ca, was created in 2015 by Victor Temprano, a settler hailing from Okanagan territory in what most call Canada. Temprano writes that he began Native Land in late 2014 as a hobby project after attending pipeline protests and looking more into the traditional territories of different nations in relation to resource development. Cognizant of being a settler, Temprano reached out to the community of users for input and corrections to the map. Since, Native Land Digital has evolved into an Indigenous-led, not-for-profit organization that “strives to go beyond old ways of talking about Indigenous people and to develop a platform where Indigenous communities can represent themselves and their histories on their own terms.”
Before you are taken to the Native Land map, a pop-up disclaimer encourages further investigation and corrections. Once you click “Go To Map,” it loads without the clutter of borders and the labels we are used to seeing on political maps. Instead, layers of colorful polygons represent Indigenous territories over a basemap that emphasizes terrain. Type an address, zip code, or placename, and the map will show both present and historical Nations in the area. For example, type the address for the Perry‑Castañeda Library (PCL). You won’t see the unmistakable shape of the building with the labels you are accustomed to until you click the buttons on the bottom right-hand side of the map marked “Colors” and “Settler Labels.” The map shows that the PCL is on Jumanos, Tonkawa, Ndé Kónitsąąíí Gokíyaa (Lipan Apache), Coahuiltecan, and Nʉmʉnʉʉ Sookobitʉ (Comanche) land.
You can toggle or search territories, languages, and treaties on the left-hand side of the map. Also, there is an option to “Contact local nations to verify” with links to web pages for each Nation. You will find links to Nation’s website, related maps, images, sources, a changelog, and a form to share thoughts and corrections. This openness to improvements and amendments has led to many enhancements to the project and built a community of scholars and activists invested in the project. A former member of the Board of Directors began her relationship with the project by submitting a boundary correction, for example.
Native Land Digital goes beyond the map, territory, and treaty pages. Following a link that encourages you to “think critically about this map” takes you to the Teacher’s Guide page with a downloadable guide titled “The Land You Live On” and a Historical Primer written by Shauna Johnson, a member of the Board of Directors. The teaching guide introduces the project, explains how to use both the website and mobile application, introduces the concept of “Land as Pedagogy,” and provides exercises to engage students of all ages, including those that are intended for use outside the classroom. The Historical Primer is a concise essay that skillfully explains why this work is so important, namely colonization and the erasure of indigenous people and their relationship to land.
As Land Acknowledgments, or Territory Acknowledgements, have become a more common practice here at UT, Native Land Digital is an excellent tool for researching a location. The Territory Acknowledgements page can also help you explain the importance of acknowledgments to skeptical people and help yourself think beyond Land acknowledgments. The Next Steps section explains, “Territory acknowledgements are one small part of disrupting and dismantling colonial structures. You may also want to get in touch with local Indigenous nations or organizations to build relationships and support their work. Use our tools to find some contacts!”
Native Lands Digital is updated daily using a combination of technologies. WordPress, an open-source platform for self-publishing, is used to update map data, media, and links for each individual nation, language, or treaty page. Geospatial updates are then pushed to Mapbox, a tool for creating custom online maps, to update the map and associated API. Native Lands Digital API are free of copyright (CCO 1.0). Learn more about Native Land APIs from their blog post, Our Wonderful, Wily API.
Further reading about counter-cartographies, decolonizing the map, and Land as Pedagogy from these resources:
Every year the United States honors women and men who have served the U.S. armed forces during war and peacetime on the anniversary of the end of World War I, November 11. Originally called Armistice Day, Veterans Day celebrated and honored the soldiers that lost their lives in World War I. In 1954, after World War II and the Korean War, the federal holiday was officially expanded to celebrate and honor all veterans.
The UT Libraries honors veterans by telling their stories, preserving their legacy in our collections, and making the materials that meant something to them available to researchers for generations to come.
This Veterans Day, we are highlighting a collection of field maps and charts that belonged to Colonel Roland T. Fenton, a veteran of World War I and World War II. We are excited to tell part of his story through the maps he used in the field with an online exhibit, the Field Maps of Colonel Roland T. Fenton.
Aside from some basic biographical information, we know very little about Col. Fenton. We know that he spent 28 years of his life serving in the U.S. Army, and in that time, he was infantry and infantry support in both World Wars. And he managed to preserve some essential tools of his deployment, his maps. The fact that these maps survived the treacheries of war is incredible. After Col. Fenton died, his family donated his military effects to the Army Heritage Center who offered UT Libraries the maps to fill in missing maps from our online Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection. They exceed our expectations. The field printing and annotations alone make them exceptional, but also many were classified. We are fortunate to be able to preserve and share them with generations to come.
Visit the UT Libraries’ Exhibit to learn more about Col. Fenton and the context of his collection. The images accompanying this post and the exhibit are a fraction of the 84 maps in the Field Maps of Colonel Roland T. Fenton in the UT Libraries Collections portal.
Thirty five years ago, Dennis Trombatore arrived at the UT Austin campus, and from the start he was highly conscious of the long legacy of the Geology Library and that of the formidable librarians who had preceded him in the charge of that major collection. Despite feeling the strong gaze of Thelma Guion (https://guides.lib.utexas.edu/geo/about), the singular personality who ruled over the geology information sphere as librarian between 1940 and the early 1970s, Dennis jumped in, immersed himself, and never looked back.
A self-described “professional generalist,” Dennis was formally educated in philosophy, but quickly developed a natural affinity and deep appreciation for the esoterica of geosciences information: geological survey reports, rocks, gems and fossils, maps and field trip guides. He loved working closely with and learning from faculty and students in the Jackson School of Geosciences.
“A good library is a place to go, and a person to talk to, who understands what you’re doing, who sympathizes with your worldview, who talks your language, and who is looking out for you in the world of information all the time.”
Ever-curious and always ready to help, his definition of what a library, and a librarian, should be, epitomized Dennis’s approach to his work in the Walter Geology Library.
Several defining objectives consistently guided his efforts to amass and share a wealth of information about all of the things of interest to his faculty and students, community experts and generalists like himself. Those were collection-building, access to collections, and the relationships that served as the fuel for the continuously-enhanced cycle of learning and sharing that positioned Dennis as an information hub within the Jackson School for more than three decades.
Dennis’ collection-building, through relentless painstaking searches and world-wide acquisition efforts, coordination of gifts, and tracking of UT research output, was always front and center in his activities. Maps were an integral part of that work, and Dennis curated a truly exceptional collection of map materials in support of teaching and research in the geosciences, the Tobin International Geological Map Collection (https://guides.lib.utexas.edu/geo/tobin-maps). He led the effort to build on UT’s existing map collections, through the acquisition of geospatial data sets, GIS technology, and the expertise to fully utilize the details therein. And he was a tireless advocate for and user of the UT Libraries renowned PCL Map Collection (https://texlibris.lib.utexas.edu/2015/05/22/you-are-everywhere-the-pcl-map-collection/). His understanding of the power and value of maps was evident not just in his efforts to build the Libraries collections, but even in references to maps in his own creative output (https://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/handle/2152/82153) which in turn was shared openly with the world using the Libraries’ repository infrastructure.
Ensuring access to what he curated was key for Dennis. His strong desire to make the rich, multi-faceted fruits of his collection-building work discoverable prompted his early interest in web-based tools to ensure the discoverability and preservation of his efforts, including Texas ScholarWorks (TSW), our digital repository, our Texas Data Repository (TDR), and our nascent Texas GeoData portal.
Our Head of Scholarly Communications, Colleen Lyon, recalls that, “Dennis was instrumental in so many collections in TSW – he was one of the most active liaisons in referring users to us.” Several stand-out examples of unique submissions for Colleen include:
Memoirs on the Extinct Wingless Birds of New Zealand. It may have existed as HTML on the Walter Geology Library website, but she remembers, “Dennis wanted it to have a more permanent home and one that was easier to cite. He didn’t want to lose all the functionality that comes with having something as a website, so we uploaded all the pages/images and then created an image index that allows you to jump around to the different images (plates) within the work. This work has the most amazing drawings in it! That plate index has had over 1100 downloads.” You can see this in TSW at: https://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/handle/2152/16251
The Virtual Landscapes Collection. This collection of Dumble Survey reports and many other documents was Dennis’ labor of love over many years. The content was migrated from the UT Libraries legacy website to TSW earlier this year, bringing all of the related documents together in a single location. Read more at: https://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/handle/2152/69304
Another project that Dennis coordinated was the digitization of theses and dissertations. He sought out alumni to grant permission to digitize their master’s and doctoral theses and make them available through TSW. Thanks to his efforts, there are hundreds of geology theses in the repository, about half of which pre-date its launch in 2008 (https://texlibris.lib.utexas.edu/2018/09/26/happy-10th-birthday-texas-scholarworks/). Rather fittingly, quite a few of the theses and dissertations available in TSW include Dennis’s name in their acknowledgements sections, along with their authors’ heartfelt expressions of gratitude and appreciation for the guidance and assistance he had provided. One such acknowledgement aptly describes Dennis as someone “whose work and efforts are immeasurable and irreplaceable” – a statement which accurately captures the value of his contributions and the strength of the impression he left on others.
Dennis delighted in telling stories and connecting people via the relationships he fostered, all of which enriched his contributions to UT’s research ecosystem. Mentoring students, both those doing research and those who were employees, was an ongoing part of who Dennis was, the role he played in the Jackson School, and how he remained in contact with so many graduates over the years. He was the type of person who would be proactive in reaching out to someone new on campus to welcome them, who would find a way to rearrange his schedule so that he could travel across town to attend a colleague’s presentation. His sincere enthusiasm for sharing knowledge and building real connections with others across the university community and beyond, was clearly evident in both his actions and words.
“The collection is an important component of what it is that we do in libraries, but it is the social network that the library represents that is the most significant, to me, aspect of librarianship. Three or four good people can do a lot more than an empty roomful of books in terms of helping people to advance their research.”
Some of his stories were about former Geology Librarian Thelma Guion’s stern demeanor and soft spot for the many student employees whom she supervised. (https://guides.lib.utexas.edu/geo/about) The irony there is the similarity between Thelma and Dennis: while he suffered no fools, Dennis was always open to teaching his students about things and providing them with resources that would help them both with their research and in life. Establishing the Guion award fund for Geology Library employees was one of Dennis’ proudest achievements.
Ms. Guion’s close relationship to many faculty helped to expand and deepen the library’s collection in ways that would simply not have been possible with regular budgets, and Dennis modeled his collection philosophy after hers. Those relationships paid off in major gifts of unique and valuable materials for many years.
One such recent gift was from a prominent member of the local caving community, Bill Mixon — former book review editor for the National Speleological Society and friend of the Walter Library — who donated his unique collection of over 1000 books and more than 1000 periodical issues related to cave and karst research, literature, and culture, enhancing the Geology Library’s notable existing holdings (https://texlibris.lib.utexas.edu/2019/02/21/area-spelunker-donates-cave-collection/).
Over the years, gifts of materials included items from major oil company libraries, UNOCAL maps, materials from the American Geosciences Institute, Bureau of Economic Geology and Institute for Geophysics, and the Edwards Aquifer Authority in San Antonio, to name a few. All donations of materials required careful review and curation, as Dennis only retained items to augment areas of focus within the Walter Geology Library and research interest at UT Austin.
The symbiotic, reciprocal relationship between collections and the people who use, learn from and contribute to them often needs a catalyst, someone to prompt attention, encourage exploration and entice action at just the right moment. Dennis was that energetic, compelling force that spurred the dynamic flow of information to nurture productivity throughout the Jackson School, and that will continue to pulse through electronic arteries for decades to come.
Read, hot & digitized: Librarians and the digital scholarship they love— In this series, librarians from UTL’s Arts, Humanities and Global Studies Engagement Team briefly present, explore and critique existing examples of digital scholarship.
This Is Not an Atlas is a continuation of a book of the same name, subtitled “A Global Collection of Counter-Cartographies.” Critical geography proposes that maps are never neutral, but rather reflect views of the map maker, often those in power. Counter-mapping, or creating counter-cartographies, refers to the use of maps to reframe the world in such a way as to challenge dominant power structures and to articulate alternative, progressive and even radical interests (Kitchin, et al., 2011).
In the spring of 2015, kollektiv
orangotango, a self-described network of critical geographers,
friends, and activists who deal with questions regarding space, power, and
resistance, sent out a call for maps in English, German and Spanish.
Overwhelmed by the response and realizing that many of the maps submitted are
dynamic, they decided to create a website to, not only highlight projects from
the print edition, but also to “continue to share maps, struggles, projects,
texts, and inspirations online.” Here I highlight a counter-mapping project
that successfully deals with the politics of in/visibility, as described
in Emancipatory Mapmaking: Lessons
Map Kibera was initiated after a group of
geographers attending a mapping conference in Nairobi, Kenya noticed that
Kibera, one of Africa’s largest informal settlements, was not mapped. In fact,
they discovered that authorities had labeled and designated the Kibera Slum as
a forest. How could a community with an estimated population of 250,000 people
be omitted from official maps of Nairobi? Two geographers who were also
interested in open source mapping decided they wanted to change this. In
October 2009, Mikel Maron and Erica Hagen started the Map Kibera project to
address “the glaring omission of roughly a quarter-million of Nairobi’s
inhabitants from mass communications and city representation and policy
decisions” (Hagen, 2011).
Kibera is too densely populated to rely on satellite data
for mapping. Maron and Hagan knew they would need to map it from the ground.
They recruited a dozen young residents to be “mappers,” gave them GPS devices,
and sent them to collect data by creating “traces,” a GPS-enabled process that
tracks and records your physical location. The mappers interviewed residents
and collected observational data, such as the names of clinics, schools, and
businesses, locations of water pumps, public baths, and other “points of
interest” along their routes as well. The team then added the data to OpenStreetMap (OSM),
a crowdsourced world map that relies on user-generated content to create
geographic data that is relevant and available to everyone. And within three
weeks they had created an incredibly dense map of Kibera for the world to see. But
more importantly, a map of Kibera that was extremely useful to residents.
The project did not stop there; they immediately created,
printed, and distributed maps of clinics and schools within the community. And
a security map of Kibera warning of areas to avoid and illustrating places to
get help. And have since formed the Map Kibera Trust,
created the Voice of Kibera, a platform for citizen
reporting, and replicated their model in other marginalized communities in
In the same way that the internet and digitization have created new ways to make books more discoverable and facilitated new ways of exploring text, so, too, have they opened avenues for a greater exploration of maps and their underlying data.
As what has been a deliberative process, the UT Libraries have tended toward later adoption of new currents in libraries and librarianship in order to take advantage of the trial and error mechanics that so often are part of embracing untested technologies and frameworks. Geographic information systems (GIS) technology has been in the ascendant for several years now as a burgeoning area of expertise in libraries, and with the expansive cartographic resources we have at UT and the evolution in the growth of local datasets, it was time for the Libraries to embrace GIS as part of its overall strategic expertise.
Geospatial data identifies data that has a geographic component to it…any data that includes locational information – such as coordinates (latitudes and longitudes), addresses, cities, zip codes, etc. – and can be applied to some position on the Earth. We rely on geospatial data to track weather, find the best route to a destination, manage air traffic, make decisions about where to invest in infrastructure projects and to determine how best to deploy marketing resources. And all of these data forms can be mapped. GIS helps to organize and visualize that data in ways that make it eminently more useful.
The Libraries finally entered the landscape of GIS last year with the hiring of Geospatial Data Coordinator Michael Shensky, and a major undertaking in his short tenure has been to spearhead the development of an interface that will facilitate discovery of the cartographic resources and geospatial datasets in our collections by researchers, faculty and other university constituents.
The Texas GeoData Portal uses an open source geospatial discovery application – GeoBlacklight – to power a web portal that gives users the ability to search, browse, preview, and download geospatial datasets. Visitors to the website will be able to search through a variety of geospatial datasets, including georeferenced scanned map images from the PCL Maps Collection and vector datasets developed from items in other special collections like the Benson Latin American Collection and Alexander Architectural Archives.
The portal will allow users to download data in several different standard geospatial formats so that they can easily be loaded into GIS software for advanced visualization and analysis.
Coordinated use of GeoBlacklight software and collaboration through the OpenGeoMetadata project has created a community among partner institutions for the sharing and standardization of data and metadata, expanding the opportunities for discovery and creating a robust search functionality among a large corpus of resources. Users can filter search results based on various dataset characteristics including geographic extent, subject matter, institution, data type, and format.
“I’m really excited to be a part of this project because I know this portal has the potential to benefit everyone in the campus community regardless of their role and area of specialization,” says Shensky. “Faculty can use the portal to find data for developing instructional materials, students can find data to use in research projects, and visitors will have access to a variety of unique maps and datasets that they can explore.”
The Texas GeoData Portal is in the closing stages of development with a full launch expected later in the fall, at which point users will be able to access the new resource through the Libraries’ website. Already discussions are underway regarding future functionality, which could include UT single sign on authentication for viewing license-restricted data, integration with the unified search on the Libraries’ website and integration with the Texas Data Repository and the Collections portal (more information to come on this project).
Michael Shensky joined the Libraries last year as the GIS and Geospatial Data Coordinator to enhance the resources available from the Research Data Services unit with added expertise in Geographic Information Systems, which are increasingly becoming central to our online lives. Shensky took some time to talk about the importance of GIS and where he sees it in the future.
Michael Shensky: Whenever I’m asked what GIS is, and I often am when I tell people what I do for a living, I always start with a very simple definition and expand from there. I typically tell people that GIS is an acronym that stands for geographic information systems and that it is the technology that is used to manage the data behind many of the maps they encounter online and in mobile apps. I also find it helpful to explain that the “geographic information” part of GIS refers to geospatial data (data that features both coordinate information identifying a place on Earth and attribute information that describes something located at that place) while “system” refers to the software and hardware components that are used together to manage this unique type of data effectively.
GIS is incredibly important in our daily lives because it is used to guide and facilitate much of the work that local governments, state and federal government agencies, utility companies, non-profit organizations, and academic researchers carry out. If all GIS software were to suddenly stop working tomorrow, it would be very difficult for those who rely on geospatial data to effectively manage their operations and this would have a dramatic impact on the lives of everyone, not just GIS users. For instance, cities might have difficulty assigning work crews to conduct road repair work if they cannot access their database of pothole locations, fire departments might struggle to respond to the locations of emergencies if they can’t quickly look up the location of an address, and technology companies would see apps that include mapping functionality suddenly break as the data fails to load properly.
While most people do not realize the significant role that GIS software plays behind the scenes in the operations of many organizations, if they look closely enough they can find traces of its impact in their daily lives. If they come across a map when browsing the web, there is a very good chance that GIS software was used to design its layout and manage the data behind the features depicted in it. If a new store or restaurant opens in their neighborhood, it is likely that GIS software was used to analyze demographic and consumer spending data for their local area to determine that this would likely be the most profitable location. If they use the routing functionality built into their car dashboard, the street data used to route them was likely created or edited with GIS software. If they visit the website of their local city or county, it is quite likely they will find a web page designed specifically for sharing geospatial data that has been developed with their taxpayer money and which has been made publically available for anyone to download and use in GIS software.
Given the organic nature of its development, how can standards be developed to manage the proliferation of GIS data?
MS: In the GIS world, there are open standards developed by non-profit organizations like the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) and there are often competing proprietary standards developed by for-profit companies like Esri, whose software products dominate the GIS industry in the United States and many other countries. While we are very fortunate that these standards exist so that there is agreement on how data should be structured and how it should be read by GIS software, there are downsides to having multiple standards to choose from. Having multiple standards to choose from puts GIS professionals in a tough position when we want to share data with others, since we often need to ensure that data is available in multiple standard formats to make it easy for other GIS users to work with the data regardless of whether they are using open source software or Esri’s ArcGIS software. This situation is further complicated by the fact that the popularity of specific standards can fluctuate over time and occasionally completely new standards are developed while older standards may fall into disuse and become functionally obsolete.
For the geospatial data in the UT Libraries’ collections that we are currently in the process of trying to make more easily accessible, we are aiming to share the data in every common standard format that we can. Our goal is to facilitate access to our data for all GIS users, regardless of which software they use or standards they prefer. This approach of making shared datasets available in multiple formats has become quite common on data portals operated by other universities as well as those developed by cities, counties, and federal government agencies. As any good organization would, we plan to stay on top of the latest geospatial data standards and ensure that we are making datasets available in the formats that GIS users expect to find and like to work with.
How did you become a specialist in GIS?
MS: That’s actually a really interesting question, because I sometimes look back on the last decade and wonder that myself. The career path I envisioned for myself shifted quite a bit during my college years and a few chance decisions that didn’t seem particularly significant at the time ended up playing a very substantial role in leading me to the position I’m in today.
As a junior, I was contemplating my changing my major to anthropology or geography since I had really enjoyed taking classes in both disciplines, and I ended up selecting geography partly because I knew that GIS was a required class in that program and that this class would provide me with a technical skill upon graduation. At the time, I had never used or even seen GIS software but I knew it was used to make maps and that sounded really interesting to me. I didn’t actually end up taking that required GIS class until my last semester as an undergraduate and I did I was a surprised to find it a little less exciting and more challenging than I had originally expected. Right after graduation I started applying for a variety of jobs that I thought I might qualify for and the first one I was offered was a paid GIS internship. I didn’t find the job all that interesting at first and during my first few months there did not see myself making a career out of GIS.
This initial lack of fulfillment actually even ended up being a contributing factor in my decision to enroll in a Geography graduate program – I wanted to develop new skills that would open up different job opportunities. While in grad school I continued to work at this same GIS job part time and found that I started to become more interested in the work I was doing as I was assigned more advanced and challenging projects. Because of the GIS skills I gained in this role, I was offered a GIS research assistant position during my last two years of graduate school and then ended developing my master’s thesis project from the work that I did in this role. By the time I completed the work for my master’s degree, my perspective on GIS had changed dramatically, and when I was offered a full time job teaching GIS classes and managing the GIS computers labs for the Geography department at California State University, Long Beach, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to advance my career in GIS. I ended up spending several years in this position which allowed me to further develop my technical skills, gain teaching experience, and develop an even greater respect for the value of GIS software in academic research – all of which prepared me for well for my current role here at the UT Libraries.
What sort of projects have you been working on at UT?
MS: I’ve been working on a few different projects since I started here at UT, the biggest of which is focused on developing a new geospatial data portal that will be part of the UT Libraries website. This portal will allow users to search for geospatial data in our Libraries’ collections that can be used with GIS software. We have been referring to this project internally as the “GeoBlacklight” project because it uses open source software of that name to provide a web interface and data search capabilities. We are optimistic that this project will be completed in the first half of 2019 and that it will be available to the campus community before the start of the fall semester. Once it is rolled out, visitors to the website will be able to search through a variety of geospatial datasets including georeferenced scanned map images from our PCL Map Collection and vector datasets developed from items in other collections like the Benson Latin American Collection and Alexander Architectural Archives. I’m really excited to be a part of this project because I know this portal has the potential to benefit everyone in the campus community regardless of their role and area of specialization. Once the portal is finished and made available, it should be easy for faculty to find data that they can use to develop instructional materials, for students to find data they can use in research projects, for Libraries staff to find data they can use to highlight notable collections, and for everyone in general to browse through when curious about the interesting maps and datasets we have available here at the UT Libraries.
addition to the GeoBlacklight project I have also been working on a program of coordinated outreach and education about GIS both internally within the libraries and externally with departments across campus. As part of this effort I have helped organize events like our recent Local Perspectives on the State of Open Data discussion panel which brought GIS experts from the City of Austin, Travis County, Texas General Land Office, and Texas Natural Resources Information System here to campus to share their thoughts on GIS and open data. I’ve also taught several GIS focused workshops that provided an opportunity for all members of the campus community to learn about GIS and further develop their geospatial research skills. In order to introduce library personnel to some of the capabilities of GIS I’ve also spoken at and helped organize a series of linked data information learning group meetings. I’ve been glad to see that this multifaceted approach has been successful in helping get the word out about GIS on campus and I’ve noticed that I am starting to hear from more and more people each week who are looking to learn more about how they might be able to use GIS in their work.
What are some of the interesting ways GIS will be used in the future?
MS: While it’s impossible to know exactly how the way in which we use GIS might change in the future, I think there are a few developments that are all but certain. One of the major developments I foresee is growing awareness of GIS and rapid improvement in the capabilities of open source GIS software like QGIS leading to greater adoption of GIS software in a variety of disciplines and industries. If this prediction proves accurate, the lowering of financial and technical barriers that currently hold people back from using GIS software would greatly benefit small businesses, startups, non-profits, municipalities with limited resources, and more. It should also have a profound impact in the academic world as it will make it easier for researchers to incorporate GIS into their work. I think we will see GIS software being used much more widely in fields like history, journalism, linguistics, ethnic studies, and in the humanities more generally. If this does in fact happen, it will not only open up new avenues for research in these fields but will also make it easier for those working in these different disciplines to work together with each other across departments because they are using a shared technology. Even in disciplines where GIS is already widely used, like geology, biology, geography, and anthropology, I think there will be increased rates of adoption, especially among researchers in developing countries who can start using open source GIS software without having to worry about expensive software licensing or significant software limitations. From my experience in a previous GIS position at another university, I saw firsthand how difficult it could be for researchers in my department to work with colleagues from universities in other countries whose institutions could not afford access to the same proprietary software resources until they all started using open source software to facilitate collaboration.
In addition to the many benefits I think we will see from growing awareness of GIS software and open source GIS software in particular, I think GIS technology will become more useful and powerful as technology continues to improve. Perhaps the biggest impact on GIS will come from new and emerging categories of mobile devices that will make it possible to view and interact with geospatial data in ways that are quite different from the manner in which we engage with geospatial data now on the flat screens of our computer monitors and cell phones. In the 9 years that I have been in this field, there have been several completely new categories of devices that have been released (smart watches, augmented reality glasses, and virtual reality headsets being the most notable) all of which can be used to display new types of maps and I think we will see these technologies mature in a way that will affect how maps are made.
Virtual reality is the currently the most significant of these technologies for working with geospatial data due to the availability of relatively affordable consumer grade headsets and their ability to give users a three dimensional immersive map experience. While I think virtual reality maps will become increasingly common and useful, I think augmented reality devices ultimately hold the most promise of any emerging technology. Right now augmented reality glasses are held back by their high price points, large size, and limited field of view but companies like Microsoft, Google, and Apple have all indicated that they are working on addressing these challenges. If any of these companies (or newer companies like Magic Leap who are also focusing on augmented reality technology) can create a wearable device similar in size to a pair of regular sunglasses, sell it for close to the price of a high end cell phone, and have it effectively overlay 3D objects on top of a user’s normal field of view, I think this would revolutionize how GIS professionals manage data and produce maps. It would also of course open up enormous opportunities for researchers who are looking for new ways to explore geospatial data and visualize their research findings. While a breakthrough like this may not happen this year or next, I think it is just a matter of time before our technology reaches this point and GIS software will have to adapt to facilitate the production of geospatial content for these new types of devices.