Introducing the 2016 GIS Day NYU Global Map Hack-a-Thon: An Exploration of Cold War Cartography

We’re less than a week away from GIS Day 2016 at NYU. In addition to our usually impressive lineup of GIS talks, exhibits, and maps, we are introducing a multi-campus hack-a-thon event. What happens when NYU’s GIS Data Services team, dispersed around the world, comes together at the last minute to work with data we already have and produce a series of narratives and visualizations?

We are about to find out. Our topic is Representations of China and the Middle East during the Cold War, and our task is to create a series of maps on platforms like ESRI’s StoryMaps, Carto, and maybe other interfaces through which students and staff can explore these connections. Recognizing that we don’t have much time before GIS Day, we want to see if the process of coming together digging into data and resources, and having conversations with each other can yield something worthwhile, even if the product(s) that emerge are still in process.

Communist China Map
An un-georeferenced page from a CIA book of map sheets on Communist China, published in 1967

The Process

The idea for a hack-a-thon event emerged over the past few weeks. We wanted to call attention to the multiple ways that NYU supports GIS learning across the global campuses: collecting spatial data, making historical raster images available via the Spatial Data Repository, and helping users find data and work with it in a variety of analytical and presentation software platforms.

Based on the idea of software hack-a-thons, this project is a collaborative event between the global sites that comprise New York University: New York’s Data Services, Abu Dhabi’s Data Services and growing Digital Humanities community, and Shanghai’s Library. During a weeklong stretch, members of the GIS team, faculty, and students at each of the three campuses will gather together to develop some project–a series of maps or exhibits–that explores the idea of Cold War ideologies and maps. Each team will work with data that NYU has collected and will explore the questions and methods associated with geographic information systems (GIS) analysis.

Why Cold War Maps?

Cartographic representations produced in the Cold War are one way to explore the connection between the NYU campuses and the various digital humanities and social science research we support. As Timothy Barney has argued, maps produced by the United States, the U.S.S.R., and other countries are vehicles for articulating ideological tensions, national desire, and perceptions of power and global stewardship. Maps rely upon both aesthetic and scientific forms of knowledge to produce and project imagined political relationships of power and dominance. Yet they are also windows into real, physical spaces and places at specific times in history. How these aesthetic and scientific projections take place is one main question undergirding the hack-a-thon.

Timothy Burney's Mapping the Cold War
Timothy Burney’s Mapping the Cold War

NYU’s project begins with a book in our physical collection, entitled Communist China: Map Folio. The book was published by the C.I.A. Office of Basic and Geographic Intelligence in 1967 and includes a series of maps that profile the population, energy sources, terrain, and infrastructure of “Communist China.” The book is an exemplar artifact of U.S. Cold War ideology; it represents dismissive attitudes toward Communism and speaks pejoratively about the struggles and rudimentary elements of Chinese infrastructure and production. We’ve taken several of the map sheets in this book, digitized them, and prepared them for analysis in a number of online mapping platforms.

We chose this topic because it is rife for the development of spatial humanities themes. Further, it will allow the larger NYU GIS community to explore some of the data and resources we already access, such as historical China Census population data from our SDR and socio-demographic data from content providers like Data-Planet.

What to Expect

Over the course of the next week, the NYU Data Services team will provide newly-georeferenced raster maps to students and faculty at the global campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai. In Abu Dhabi, D.J. Wrisley, Associate Professor of Digital Humanities, 2016-2017, will lead a team of students in his introductory Digital Humanities class as they explore concepts of mapping. At the same time, a team in Shanghai, coordinated by Kyle Greenberg, Adrian Hodge, and Clay Shirky, will come together to add to this project as well. We will be blogging this event and will assemble a gallery of maps created in time for GIS Day. Various members of the NYU Data Services team and NYU teaching community will write about lessons learned, questions asked, and more. Let the mapping and research begin!

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