Scholars' Lab Blog //To be out in the world, to be free!
Blog //To be out in the world, to be free!

But are we really free? How often do we think about how the built environment affects our behavior, movement through space, etc.? How often do we think about the choices and decisions that were made deliberately by others to create this built environment? How often do we think about how individual agency can be exercised in these constructed environments to facilitate life or address needs that were not considered by those architects, engineers, and planners?

As a person and as an archaeologist, I am interested in how people make space and interact (consciously or unconsciously) with their environment. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is a great tool to reveal information about human behavior and culture. GIS is a framework for collecting, organizing, and analyzing data spatially. With GIS, one can explore patterns and relationships among data, which can reveal information about the decisions people made or make in creating space and landscapes.

Because I spend my days thinking about the relationship between people and space, I’ve decided to teach a workshop on GIS (and its various applications) to a group of DH-interested folks from the University of Virginia and Washington and Lee University. This workshop will consist of group and partner exercises, designed to have people think about how they move through space and how data is embedded spatially in the world around them. In addition, the exercises should reveal the benefits and drawbacks of GIS to the study of space, landscapes, and culture, through the comparison of the spatial information and our lived experiences.

The exercises will be low-tech mapping exercises. Maps of both UVa’s and W&L’s campuses and surrounding environments will be printed out. As a group exercise, participants will be asked color code particular features, including academic buildings, transportation (e.g., bus stops, parking lots, and footpaths), and food establishments. These features were selected because when interacting with these built environments on a daily basis, people have to consider transportation, resources, and responsibilities. For me, my biggest concerns when interacting with UVa’s grounds is where am I going to park, how am I going to get to Alderman Library for Code Lab, and where am I going to get food (because it is a stressful time of year and sometimes I just can’t be bothered to pack a lunch). I assume that others face similar questions fairly frequently.

Then a series of questions will be asked of participants. For example: Where are academic buildings located? What is the relationship between bus stops and academic buildings? How far does one have to walk to a particular department from a bus stop? What is the relationship between parking lots and academic buildings? Where does one have to park to maximize a commute to a particular department? Where are food establishments located? What is the relationship between academic buildings and food establishments? How are these three criteria connected, by what infrastructures? What patterns do you notice about the placement of transport infrastructure, academic buildings, and food establishments? How might you interpret this spatial data? How does this spatial information inform or change your interpretation of the space and your experience in it? Participants can use rulers to think about and answer these questions of access.

In addition to teaching the concepts and ideas behind GIS, the mapping activity should reveal some tensions between computer analysis and human experience. Do maps and plans accurately predict human movement through space? Would you move through these spaces in the way that seems most logical according to our analysis of the maps? How does your personal movement through space map onto or differ from these paths or connections that we see? What information might not be captured in plans about how people move through space (for example, carving paths through grounds that are not paved sidewalks)? What do discrepancies in computer analysis and lived experience tell us about space and our place in it and negotiation of it? Just because there is a physical plan of a space, is it fixed? Or do people manipulate or augment spaces to conform to their needs? How might our understanding of these built environments change if we considered: food allergies, preferences, or restrictions; accessibility based on a disability; or, accessibility based on cost of food?

Following this exercise (which should hopefully reveal to the participants the types of questions they can ask of spatial information), I then want to turn it over to the participants. Participants will be asked to come up with a question to ask of the maps and to identify the criteria that could be queried to answer that question. Next, participants will be paired up to share their questions and approaches to answering their question with a partner. Pairing people will allow participants to synthesize and communicate the information conveyed in the group activity, as a way of reinforcing the newly acquired knowledge. This paired activity also should allow for some collaboration and brainstorming to exchange perspectives, come up with other questions of the data, and determine other possible means of investigating the questions raised.

This workshop design has been thoughtfully considered, but is likely to evolve over the next few months as I continue to learn more about GIS and DH more broadly. As a Praxis Fellow, I have internalized the notion that everything is a process and work in progress, so I look forward to seeing how this workshop changes to best communicate the intended learning objectives: to teach a skill and have the participants put it into practice in service of their own interests; and, to have people think a little more critically of the space around them and their movement through it.

Cite this post: Janet Dunkelbarger. “To be out in the world, to be free!”. Published October 29, 2019. Accessed on .