HM - Nov. 2015 - Kerski

Partners in History


Connecting Time, Place, and Space
Through Dynamic Web Mapping

By Joseph Kerski, Ph.D,
GISP, Geographer and Educator

Every historical event began somewhere, diffused somehow, and each changed over space and time.  Many of these events exhibit patterns visible down to the present day.  Each affects the ways that individuals and societies interact.  The historical and geographic perspective is therefore important in understanding social issues, and web mapping provides a rich toolset using multiple variables at multiple scales—from local to global.  Web mapping tools, such as ArcGIS Online ( contain map layers from authoritative sources all over the world, tools that allow for data to be quantitatively analyzed, and multimedia to be embedded in the maps.  All of this is available online, accessible from laptops, tablets, and even smartphones.  Using dynamic web maps, social and historical issues can be analyzed in two and three dimensions.  For example, voter participation in elections can be mapped as hills and valleys on a map of a community or country, with demographic characteristics mapped with different symbols and cartographic techniques on that same “social landscape.”  

Teaching with web mapping is an inherently inquiry-driven activity:  Asking deep and relevant questions is the first part of historical scientific inquiry:  It forms the basis for knowing what types of data to collect, to analyze, and what decisions to make.  The maps do not ask the questions.  Rather, it is the student with guidance from their educator that has a firm foundation in understanding historical issues who can ask these questions.  

Today’s web mapping tools allow deep connections with “time, continuity, and change” themes of history and social studies education.  These tools enable space and time to be analyzed together, through the ability to integrate historical and current maps and imagery, multimedia such as sound, video, narrative, sketches, and photographs, and to perform spatial analysis, discovering “what’s nearby” and “what spatial patterns exist”.  

Curricular Investigations

Open the storymap on the Titanic (   Describe its route across the Atlantic Ocean.  How far was the Titanic from its destination and from Newfoundland when it sank?  Describe the spatial distribution of the passengers’ birthplaces.  Why was the survival rate different in the First Class versus the Second and Third classes?  How and why were the birthplaces of the First Class passengers as shown on the map different from the Third Class passengers?


Ada Blackjack
Open the web map below containing a map and a series of questions involving the story of Ada Blackjack, who was the lone survivor in a 1921 voyage to Wrangell Island in the Arctic Ocean:  Using the 30 questions I pose there, and reading sections of the book and examining the live web map, students can understand the event and its implications:   Why did Ada Blackjack agree to embark on the expedition, and how far was it from her home in Nome?  By what means did they stay warm and gather food?  How did the men who left the island intend to reach the Siberian mainland to be rescued?  What extent did the ice cover the island in 1921 versus today, and why does the lack of ice today matter?  Describe the controversy that ensued after Ada returned to Alaska as the lone survivor from the expedition.  Would you have done what she did after returning from the expedition?  Why or why not?


US Demographic Layers
Open the web map below containing 10 layers of demographic information for the USA:  Click the “show contents of map” and explore the layers that exist, beginning with the population change layer.  How is the population changing by state? What are reasons for those changes?  Zoom in to the county level and focus on the Great Plains.  Was population loss on the Great Plains limited to the Dust Bowl period, or does it continue today?  What are some reasons for current population loss, and what social impact does population loss have on communities and people in this area?

Value of Web Mapping in Education

Teaching history using web mapping tools illustrates that it is not enough to know only content.  Social and historical phenomena interact, move, and change.  Relationships and processes are thus critical to understanding.  Web mapping allows variables to be modeled and modified, allowing for the dynamic nature of these processes to be examined.  Students who use web maps in history develop key critical thinking skills.  These skills include understanding how to carefully evaluate and use data.  This is especially critical in assessing historical data, due to its increasing volume and diversity, and given its often sensitive and politically-charged nature.  In addition, “crowdsourced” data is now appearing from “citizen science” initiatives all over the world, where people can collect information on social zones in a city, the locations of key historical events, and a host of other data.  These data are more frequently being tied to real-world coordinates, mapped, and analyzed.

Students using web mapping tools in a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) environment will be in demand as we seek to make sense of this deluge of incoming data.   These students will be well grounded in the spatial perspective and better able to use data at a variety of scales and in a variety of contexts, to think systematically and holistically, and to use quantitative and qualitative approaches to solve problems.  In short, as students and as graduates, they will be better decision makers.  As social issues such as poverty, crime, and public health increasingly transcend cultures and regions and become increasingly complex, an integrative decision-making tool such as web mapping is critically needed.  Students using these tools can make the kind of decisions that will positively impact people and the planet.

For Further Exploration

See my colleague George Dailey’s document “Geohistorical Inquiry: Connecting place and time and critical thinking.

See my colleague Chris Bunin’s article about GIS in history education here:

Every few days, my colleagues and I on the Esri education staff write in the EdCommunity blog ( about the application of web mapping to education.

ArcGIS Online ( offers a powerful, and easy-to-use web-based toolkit where students and educators can construct, save, and share their own customized maps on an infinite variety of topics and scales.  The platform is free for any US K-12 public, private, or home school through the ConnectEd initiative (

Story maps ( are web mapping applications that incorporate multimedia, live web maps, and more.  Students can create storymaps to communicate the results of their research, and instructors can use them as assessment tools.  Instructors can use storymaps in the large library to teach about key historical topics and events, and students can use this same library for their own research.  The library ( includes story maps on U-Boats in World War I, Civil War battlefields, the Magna Carta, the Halifax explosion, segregation in Washington DC, presidential birthplaces, San Francisco in the mid 1800s, and much more.

Curricular materials include the new GeoInquiries for US History, 15-minute activities on a wide variety of topics:  Additional lessons on the ArcLessons library, ( can be used in history education, including a map-based analysis of the book The Watsons Go to Birmingham, the War of 1812, and the World War II journey of the Pacific Clipper, which made an emergency first flight around the world by a commercial airplane.