MAS-GIS student tells US political history through map

Jonathan Davis, a master’s candidate in GIS, gained national attention this summer when a mapping project he created at ASU’s Decision Theater was featured by the Pew Research Center’s FactTank, the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, and the news site Business Insider.  

Davis’ map, titled Political History of Congressional Districts in the United States, 1918-2012, shows party representation for the House of Representatives over almost one hundred years. The color coded map, which can be played in animation, displays shifts in the American electorate during the last century. The map also allows viewers to observe how voting districts have morphed over time through redistricting and, in particular, through the controversial practice of gerrymandering, or deliberate manipulation of political district boundaries for electoral advantage.       

Davis, who holds a bachelor’s in history and government and a master’s in history, said his map was a means of offering information to communities by providing an appropriate way to absorb the information.

“Looking at a list is not nearly as powerful as looking at a map,” said Davis. “The knowledge that that gives back to the community is huge,” Davis said speaking of his visualization.  

Davis produced his map through MapStory.org, a website and interactive mapping program that lets users organize and curate information to tell stories with maps. Mapstory, developed by the MapStory Foundation, went live in 2012 and ASU’s Decision Theater currently hosts the platform. The Decision Theater, a decision support and data visualization lab, works on visualizing solutions to complex problems through technologies such as data visualization, modeling, and simulation.   

ASU students have created hundreds of maps on MapStory.org covering topics from the spread of shopping malls in the United States to large asteroid impact. Davis, a research assistant at the Decision Theatre, has created numerous maps on different subjects, including voter turnout for U.S. presidential elections and the establishment of American Indian reservations.  

In working on his most recent map on congressional elections, Davis said one of the biggest challenges was processing large amounts of data. He found that between 1918 and 2012 over 20,000 elections had taken place. Those election results were the data Davis had to manage for his map.

“It was a monumental undertaking of organizing and grabbing the data,” Davis said.    

Davis created the database from which his map was built and he said the work did involve some tough moments, particularly because he had to manually enter some data necessary for the project. 

“Data can be very boring,” said Davis. But, he added that thinking about the end product helped him move forward.

“I was really looking forward to what the data was going to show,” Davis said. 

Davis first discovered that his most recent map had made it into the Washington Post when he received a Tweet mentioning him. He then learned that the Pew Research Center and Business Insider also picked up the map. According to the MapStory website, Davis’ map has attracted over ten thousand viewers to date.

Davis is currently completing his final capstone project for his master’s in GIS and will graduate at the end of the summer. He said GIS and mapmaking offered a way to combine history, geography, and politics into one.

Davis said he realized the importance of maps for studying events while working on his first master’s in history.  He was examining Anglo-American relations before the U.S.’s official involvement in WWII, with a particular focus on the Ministry of Economic Warfare. Davis said he looked for maps to help advance his understanding of certain aspects of his topic, but was disappointed when he found very few that would advance his research.

According to Davis, maps are not utilized as much as they could be in historical work and GIS could today contribute to current historical scholarship. 

“GIS uses big data and GIS isn’t utilized in history,” Davis said.   

When he finishes the MAS-GIS program, Davis said he hopes to pursue a Ph.D in history or historical geography.  He’s particularly interested in British and American relations during the inter-war period as well as Native American history and the history of indigenous peoples. He also plans to continue making maps and said that an updated MapStory platform which will have increased functionality is now under development.