ISU Magazine

Volume 40 | Number 2 | Spring/Summer 2010

Owens standing on the Huescar River Bridge below the Santa Cruz neighborhood of Cuenca, Spain, where many of the mid 16th-century Italian merchant-smugglers, whose social networks he investigates, probably lived. At that time, Cuenca served as an important node in the international wool trade and as a major manufacturing center.

Photo provided by Jack Owens

Putting a Map on History

Spring 2010 Issue | By Andrew Taylor

For more information on the MapWindow software, visit

Idaho State University history professor Jack Owens is helping to revolutionize historical research as a co-principal investigator of a $1.7 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant.

Owens will manage a group of international researchers that will create a system to incorporate geographical information systems (GIS), academic history and computer science to graphically and instantaneously display multi-levels of information of a broad area for any given time.

“State-of-the-art GIS is mainly focused on space, the ‘xyz’ of where things are,” said ISU geosciences professor Dan Ames, one of Owens’ ISU collaborators on the project. “Historians are interested in where things were and when. Things move. Our new software development and new modules for MapWindow GIS will give historians the ability to see where things were at different times, not just statically.”

Owens is managing this international study by two U.S. universities of activities taking place between “social networks” in Spain from 1400-1800. The grant features broad external collaboration between Idaho State University, the University of Oklahoma, foreign research centers and a private corporation.

Jack Owens
Photo by ISU Photographic Services/Susan Duncan

“Through multidisciplinary collaboration, this project will fuse qualitative and quantitative data to connect humans, events, and environments, and through such connections to form historical narratives within and across geographic spaces,” Owens said.

At Idaho State University, Owens’ other main collaborator is Vitit Kantabutra, associate professor of computer science, who, with Ames, is charged with creating a new GIS software for the space-time representation of geospatial information, married to a new type of computer database designed for the project.

Ames will be using the open-source GIS software he created, MapWindow GIS, to create software to teach people to use GIS for historical research. This will be used by grant participants, and other historians, for years to come. Mark Van Orden, an ISU English graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in technical writing, is collaborating with Barbara Stephenson, an ISU post-doctoral researcher in history, to write a manual/tutorial on GIS for historians and historical social scientists. Stephenson works primarily on dynamic social network analysis (SRA) and the incorporation of SRA into a GIS environment so that historians can organize, analyze, and visualize geographically-integrated narratives about social networks. She is currently being trained in GIS by Sarah E. Hinman, ISU assistant professor of history.

“GIS is used widely in applied science and engineering, but not so much by historians. GIS is a fairly new area for historians,” Ames said. “The book, to be created the first year of the grant, is targeted at a classroom and research environment for historians to use to teach and learn GIS.”

During the second and third year of the grant Ames will be adding new tools to the MapWindow software to look at time and space in GIS.

Before Ames can develop this GIS software, however, he needs a new type of computer database that can handle complex inquiries. This is where Kantabutra comes in.

“Computer science’s contribution to this project is not just a specialized database designed for this project,” Kantabutra said “The database scheme being developed, Intentionally-Linked Entities (ILE), actually has applications ranging from simple personal databases to university and commercial databases, and databases involving complex relationships such as the ones needed by the funded project. Our goal is to replace relational databases, a brilliant idea for the last millennium but, in my view, not suitable for modeling complex relationships.”

Other important personnel working on the grant are the University of Oklahoma’s May Yuan, the grant’s co-principle investigator and associate dean; Emery Coppola, president and principal scientist, hydrologist and mathematician of NOAH, L.L.C., based in New Jersey; Aldo Gangemi, Italian National Research Council, who is the co-founder of the Laboratory for Applied Ontology in Rome, Italy; and Monica Wachowicz, Centre for Geo-information, Wageningen University and Research Centre, The Netherlands.

The title of his four-year grant is “Understanding social networks within complex, non-linear systems: geographically-integrated history and dynamics GIS,” (SOCNET) which awards $1.3 million to ISU and $471,000 to the University of Oklahoma and co-principal investigator Yuan.

“The NSF looks on ISU’s historians as a cohort of researchers with the capacity to have a transformative impact on history and the historical social sciences through our ability to build innovative collaborative relationships and our focus on the application of new ways to understand historical reality,” Owens said.

The project will focus on historical data from the first global age, 1400-1800, which will be generated through archival research, geographically-integrated data mining from digital files of historical documents and secondary works written by earlier historians, and data sets contributed by interested historians. The resulting database, the various software products, and documentation about techniques of analysis and visualization will be freely distributed through a project website for use in research and classroom instruction.

The grant’s scope, breadth and creativity led to its funding by the National Science Foundation.

“It is unusual for a history professor to be the lead principal investigator for a National Science Foundation grant and to be a lead PI on this large of a NSF grant is extraordinary,” said Laura Woodworth-Ney, interim dean of the College of Arts and Letters. “This creates a world-class reputation for the ISU history department and our GIS based geographically-integrated history program, and makes ISU the center for this type of activity.”

This new grant both supports and is supported by the ISU history department’s Master of Arts in Historical Resources Management, which offers students an opportunity to develop their history education through a focus on applied, geographically-integrated history. The new grant will also support the development of a new ISU interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in social and environmental dynamics.