Students create innovative data stories with MapStory tool

Jonathan Davis

MapStory is an innovative technological tool that allows people like Arizona State University student Jonathan Davis to create visual and spatial data stories. One of Davis’ recent projects, “American Indian Reservations 18th Century to the Present,” consists of recreating the establishment of American Indian reservations through the platform.

“MapStory creates maps that are played in succession through time,” said Davis, a geographic information systems graduate student who was raised in Chandler, Ariz. “I focus on historical MapStories where you can read about history and get a solid geographical framework where the event took place. You can actually see the topography and the geography, so it’s easy to read about it while seeing it. It kind of makes history come to life.”

The MapStory platform enables the organization of expert knowledge worldwide and over the course of history through a large community of experts who crowdsource data that illustrates geographic, natural and constructed features over time. The site went live in 2012, and ASU students have since created hundreds of stories for the platform, said Rahul Salla, director of software development at Decision Theater who directs students on MapStory projects. The site was developed by the MapStory Foundation.

“ASU was the first academic institution to help MapStory come into being. Students have created many stories that demonstrate the power of the platform. By learning the platform, students improve their geographic information systems skills and develop additional skills, such as data mining, cartography and tabular data manipulation,” Salla said.

Projects that ASU students have uploaded to MapStory detail large asteroid impacts, land use change in Phoenix and wind farms in the United States, among many other topics.

Davis is one of the students from ASU who has created multiple stories through the platform.

“We’re trying to stay on the cutting edge of relevant stories,” Davis said.

With Davis’ recent project, he created a video that is built into the map with historical photos of American Indians punctuated by indigenous music. Also included are snippets of history as the MapStory unfolds, varied map views, such as satellite imagery and a natural Earth map, and links to resources describing what life is like for many indigenous people today.

“Telling the stories of the Native Americans is important,” Davis said. “The government broke treaties and tended to establish reservations on land that nobody wanted, where Native Americans had no cultural ties or resources. It’s a sad history.”

Building a MapStory project consists of finding shape files that fit the subject. This can be difficult at times, so Davis created many files needed to represent reservations on the maps. He also used geographic information systems to manipulate and display shape files and place those on the map.

Since a database or repository wasn’t available that showed reservation creation dates, Davis researched treaties to determine when the reservations were established, and visited more than 300 websites for information. Other projects that Davis is working on include the development of U.S. consulates throughout the world and the U.S. Conflict History with American Indian tribes. Besides working on MapStory projects, Davis is an English instructor for Upward Bound, a course development aid in the Art History Department, and he has an internship with the U.S. State Department. He would like to eventually earn his doctoral degree in geography. He also earned a master’s degree in history at Liberty University.