We’re on the map!

After more than TWO YEARS of futzing around, I have finally put together a first cut of a map of Francia.

Many thanks for Dr. Laura Morreale of Fordham University, who turned me onto the application called Carto.1.Also many thanks to Dr. Scott Bruce, who organized the symposium that brought Dr. Morreale to Boulder. Dr. Morreale is using Carto to map locations and times when French was the language of record in Italy, as part of a wider series of projects that apply digital methodologies to the study of medieval history. As a career telecom guy who dabbles in medieval history, it is great to see those musty historians dipping their toes in the digital world.

Carto is web-based mapping platform that has a pretty robust set of features, and is available in a limited, non-commercial form without cost. It is intuitive and simple – I had a map up and running in an hour. By comparison, I worked with ArcGIS for a couple of months, and was never able to get a grip on the vast array of features and functionality it offers. While Carto is more limited, a layman like me can get moving pretty quickly. And if I can do it, so can you.

The essence of a Carto map (and probably any digital map) is a base map, on which you pile “layers” of additional data. Most base maps include everything you see in a regular map, such as towns, roads, country boundaries, etc. Of course all of that goes out the window for early medieval Europe, so I started by finding a basemap that didn’t have all the modern stuff, only terrain and natural features. There are many, many basemaps out on the Web to chose from, and I got one from Leaflet. However, I now had to layer in my own towns and boundaries.

There are three types of Carto map features: points (towns, or anything else at a given point); lines (rivers or roads); and polygons (regions). Depending on the scale you want to illustrate, a town could be a point, or it could be a polygon on a large scale map. For me, a point is what I needed for towns.

To different feature types each require a different map layer. In other words, I have a points layer for my towns, and a polygon layer for my regions. All of the features in one layer share the same customizable display attributes – every town name will display in the same font and color. If you want to display some towns as red dots, and other towns as black squares, you will need to use two separate point layers. You can put four layers on your map using the free version, so choose your layers carefully!

My first points layer was a .csv file of town names with lat/long coordinates, that I had created during my tribulations with ArcGIS. From the Carto site, where you actually build your map, I linked to the town list that I kept in my Dropbox account. At that point I had a terrain map of the world, with a bunch of dots in Europe that represented the towns that I had decided to put in. I had a map, but only on the Carto site. Fortunately it is very easy to embed the Carto map into the blog. From the Carto site I copied the map link, and then pasted that link in my Francia map page. And voila, my first blog map!

I have spent a few days this week building up the polygon shapes that define the different regions of Francia. The region boundaries are very vague, of course, but you have to start somewhere. So now I have used up two of my four layers. I am thinking about adding another layer of lines to represent Roman roads.

There is a lot of work still to come. There are several more regions to build (lots of clicking – I probably create the polygons with a hundred points each), and many more towns and bishoprics to add. I have asked the user community about hyperlinking from a blog post to the map, so that when I write about Bourges you can click and jump directly to the map, with Bourges neatly centered. The base map I’m using is not great, as the rivers are not very clear, so I want to find a better base map. I want to make the town and region names only visible at certain zoom levels, so the map doesn’t become too cluttered with labels when you zoom out.

There is a function called Torque that let’s you creat an animated map based on times or dates. Someday soon I want to create an animated map of the Aquitanian war, that shows the various thrusts that Pepin made each year, and how the Franks slowly conquered the entire province. You can even add narration! Could be my big break into voice over work…

Please chime in with any questions or comments, particularly anything you would like to see in the map. Enjoy!

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Also many thanks to Dr. Scott Bruce, who organized the symposium that brought Dr. Morreale to Boulder.

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