EEO-AGI Scotland Seminar Review : Professor Ian Gregory : 14th Feb

This week the EEO/AGI-S seminar welcomed Lancaster University Professor of Digital Humanities and Edinburgh GIS alumnus Professor Ian Gregory. Professor Gregory’s work sits at the fascinating and relatively unexplored intersection of GIS, humanities and computational linguistics.

Firstly Professor Gregory explained his work using GIS in literary analysis. The hope is that by using GIS we can reveal changing perspectives over time and gain a greater insight into historical text. Using the writings of Thomas Grey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the Lake District, his team georeferenced  the texts  (linking the place names mentioned to the geography of the Lake District) which enabled the subsequent exploration and study of the author’s individual perspectives. Specifically they could map and understand where the authors were interested in and their mood (what descriptions they tended to use for different landscapes and features).

Secondly Professor Gregory talked of how text can increase the explanatory power of spatial analysis. Using childhood mortality data from the 19th century he illustrated some of the weaknesses of spatial analysis. Although the data can tell us where and how many children died in a given region in a given year, it offers few clues as to why they died, or explanations for the different rates of change in different areas. The team used newspapers contemporary with the data to try to explain the patterns. Using collocation; the technique of determining what words occur most frequently around a mention of a location, they were able to map mentions of words like cholera and dysentery to see where they were being mentioned in relation to. Consequently these collocations could be mapped and perhaps the patterns better understood with easy reference to the texts when needed. These source text were digitised so vast amounts could be feasibly studied and mapped.

To summarize the overall message; the value in textual GIS is the ability to easily make the jump from quantitative to qualitative explanations of patterns and processes. Geography and textual analysis can provide explanations for historical phenomena where traditional statistical analysis is weak.

Alex Mackie
(MSc in GIS at University of Edinburgh)

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