Geographical Information Systems
Geographical Information Systems (GIS) has been defined as: ‘a computer-based technology for retrieving, storing and organizing data based on its location on a map’ (www.angelfire.com). In recent years GIS has
affected many of our lives through the distribution of services over the internet. ‘Google Maps’ (http://maps.google.co.uk/) is one example of an Internet GIS or web mapping application that has become hugely popular with the general public. This website shows how GIS can provide spatial data in a clear and easy-to-use format if compared to conventional (corporeal) maps or atlases. GIS is well suited to disseminating and interpreting the historical data generated by the 'Mapping the Jewish Communities of the Byzantine Empire' project (MJCBE).
What is GIS?
At the heart of a GIS is a relational database. Diverse data taken from historical, archaeological and epigraphic sources are being entered into the MJCBE relational database by the project team. The use of a database allows users to access data that are relevant to their research questions through searches. GIS is then used to visualise this database in the form of interactive and dynamic maps. Only data that can be dated AND located can be visualised in the project GIS, a requirement that limits the historical information that the project deals with. This GIS database will be made freely available to the general public as a website accessed through a standard internet browser. The website will incorporate a user-interface designed specifically for researchers who are unfamiliar with GIS technology.
An online GIS has been chosen to disseminate this database as it offers important advantages over conventional maps. Maps are physically cumbersome and their format limits the type of information that they can represent. All data are displayed, making it difficult for researchers to distinguish between features. Historical data can be depicted spatially with greater clarity using GIS. The ability to link varied types of information to geographical locations allows researchers to assess the relevance of particular places to their research questions quickly. Features that are relevant to a problem can be examined separately and used in interpretations.
How can GIS be used in the Humanities?
The application of GIS in our project, and in the humanities in general, poses significant challenges. The technology was designed for use with empirical data whereas our website needs to be sensitive to the needs of historical researchers. In the case of the medieval period many data are beset by uncertainty. In developing theory and methods to use such data within GIS, the project explores the potential to apply GIS to research that deals with uncertain data from different historical areas and periods.
The project brings together scattered and fragmentary data facilitating their inclusion in interpretations of Byzantine, Jewish and minority history. The use of Internet GIS to disseminate these data can help researchers to develop new perspectives on Jewish communities and the wider Byzantine empire. To name four examples,
new insights can be gained into the involvement of Jews in trade, the effect of political change on their lives, the movement of Jewish communities around the Mediterranean and factors that influenced the development of Jewish residential quarters in cities.