GIS Technologies and Databases that Reveal Harrisburg’s History

GIS stands for Geographic Information System. Basically it is a technology that allows for information and data points to be placed on a map. While you may not recognize the name, you definitely have used it. In fact, most people use a version of it every day. Systems such as Google Maps and Map Quest are some of the most common examples. But in the hands of educators or researchers, GIS allows for information to placed on a map and to be combined with other kinds of information with a geographic area. Messiah College’s Digital Harrisburg project is a perfect example of this. Taking census data and placing it on maps of the city is only possible with this GIS technology.

For me this technology really strikes a nerve. I love maps and always have. I do a lot of hiking and use topographic maps often to get a sense of the terrain. With technology today, maps are more accurate than ever. With technology we have access to thousands of maps in the palm of our hand. One of the best examples of GIS technology is the Appalachian Trail Conservancy interactive map. This map has the route of the trail planted on a map of North America. After launching the map you can move along the trail and zoom in and out to see exactly where the trail goes. There are also options that show shelters and parking along the trail as well. This tool is not only neat to look at but it is extremely beneficial for hikers. When planning a hike you can look and see the distance between shelters and see details about the shelters, importantly whether or not there is access to water at the spring. 

Technologies such as this can also be used in studying cities. For example, the Digital Harrisburg project collected census data that can be put in a database to further study of the information. By uploading the census data to a program such as Microsoft Access, we can run a query to find certain information. For example one could query how many German immigrants were living in the 5th ward in 1900, how many had jobs, and what their jobs were. In the year 1900 most German immigrants in the 5th ward had between 3 and 5 children. The largest family at that time had 13 children. Outside of just querying number of children, we can use this data to determine certain things. German immigrants in the 5th Ward were a well-educated group. Most of them were educated and could speak English. By running queries through the different census data, I was able to find that over time the German immigrant population in the 5th ward decreased. By 1920 there were less than 30 people who were born in German living in the 5th ward. So by this time there were fewer Germans coming into the city. The wave of European immigrants were beginning to consist more of Russians, whose population began to expand with the decrease of the German population. Census data is immense and to go through it by hand to find this information would be tiresome and difficult. But with the power of data sheets and queries it can be done in seconds with accuracy.

I have chosen to use a GIS system as a platform to present my research on flooding in Harrisburg in 1889. GIS will allow me to place the locations of newspaper articles and images of the flood. Viewers will be able to click through images that are pinned to locations throughout the city and read description of the images. Using GIS will also allow the viewer to get a more complete understanding of the magnitude of the flood. Visuals are a powerful way to depict the extent of disasters, and placing them on a map will give the spatial sense that will be the most effective way to convey my research.


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