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Geospatial Technologies And Their Applications To Studying History – The Organization for World Peace

David Bodenhamer, a history professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), reveres GIS (Geographic Information System), reflecting that GIS in the modern context can be applied as “a type of software that provides a way of representing features on the Earth’s surface and a suite of operations that allow the researcher to query, manipulate, visualize and analyze these representations” (Bodenhamer). I believe, like Bodenhamer, that geospatial technologies are advantageous tools for how we study history. This technology allows historians to have visual representations of areas of historical interest that are hard to access. These locations include active volcanoes, sites of seismic historical interest, locations unsafe to access because of conflict or war, historical locations like Mount Tarawera which have been lost or destroyed, sites only accessible by one specific sect or religious group, and sites that are geographically isolated and hard to access.

This technology specifically is helpful for researchers now because of travel restrictions globally due to the coronavirus pandemic. Obviously, there are pitfalls to using technology like this, including that some of the technology is open source, some contain glitches or bugs, others have incorrect information that has not been properly fact checked, lots are barred by geographic location and the laws and regulations of the country you are in (think China or Russia) and much of the technology is hidden behind paywalls or specific access requirements.

We can never know the details of history, Bodenhamer posits. History is narrative-based. The old saying, “history is written by the winners,” comes to mind. History is manipulated by different parties to control and influence the behaviour of people. Information surrounding the events of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacres is heavily restricted in China, being manipulated by the Chinese government to prevent further insurrection, revolts, and rebellion against the current regime. Similarly, Russia propagates a specific narrative that is positive toward the government and its administration in relation to history around the Romanovs, Lenin, and Stalin.

Many nations around the world have history that is not taught in schools or is a heavily constructed narrative that paints their nation in the best light possible. Previously, New Zealand has erased, censored or manipulated certain historical events, like how only recently the atrocities of the New Zealand Wars and the impact it has had on Māori been taught in educational institutions. Darwin’s saying “survival of the fittest,” also springs to mind when thinking about history as narrative based. Whoever has the adaptability to be the ones to survive has the ability to shape how history is portrayed, represented, celebrated, and commiserated. Entire races, peoples and ethnicities have been wiped out throughout history and their stories lost because they were not able to survive to pass on their history. In cultures that use oral history as a method of communication, we have also lost much of their history because much of it has not survived if at all.

To this end I agree with Bodenhamer we can never fully know the details of the events of history. This is because of the sheer amount of history that has been lost, the bias on the historical records that remain and the actors at play both historically and at present that manipulate history for their own benefit. Furthermore, much of history has conflicting evidence which makes it difficult for researchers to be able to make out the complete and true details of historical events.

Applications for this kind of technology are very broad, especially in the field of social sciences and humanities. For applications to subjects like religious studies, GIS can be used to recreate sites of religious significance that have been lost by history (such as the bombing of the Bamiyan Buddhas in remote Afghanistan), show how the landscape of religiously significant historical sites have changed throughout history and illustrate landmarks that are religiously significant. An interesting approach for this technology would be to search for remains. Based off socio-historical, political, and religious context and understanding if used in conjunction with the specific coding this technology could be used remotely and at low cost to aid in the search of remains from POW, war casualties, and those killed by natural disasters.

In an application to art history when used with the right socio-cultural, historical, political, and religious context and the right programming, the technology could be adapted to authenticating works of art due to the availability of certain pigments at the time and other identifying features. Other researchers have posited the use of GIS in disaster and response management, crime prevention, resource management, survey response, and urban planning or public policy applications among others. 

Geospatial Technologies And Their Applications To Studying History