GIS: Changing History One Map at a Time

Posted on March 20th, 2013 by

A recent article at Smithsonian.com, highlights Anne Knowles, professor of Geography at Middlebury College, and how she uses Geographic Information Science (systems) to literally make history come alive.  In the process, she challenges long-standing academic views of noteworthy historical events by “putting place at the center of history.”  Take for example the often-questioned decision by General Robert E. Lee to opt for a frontal attack on Union soldiers at Gettysburg.  Historians previously argued that is was General Longstreet, Lee’s underling, who failed to execute orders, as opposed to poor planning.  Knowles, using digitized topographical maps of the battlefield and viewshed analysis (a raster-based application that determined lines of site from atop the Lutheran Seminar and even the height of Lee’s boots) has shown that not only could Lee not see Union soldier movements, but more importantly, he could not see what Longstreet was doing.  Her other projects include the use of GIS to create a “geography of oppression” associated with the Holocaust, and an examination of the American iron industry to the end of the 19th century.  As Knowles correctly notes, “the technology is just a tool, and what really matters is how you use it.”

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