Not too many years ago, attempting to work with mapping software required specialized knowledge. This limited the work of scholars in the humanities who were interested in integrating spatial tools in their scholarship. Mapping Software such as ArcGIS were difficult to master. The launch of google maps in 2005 and the readily availability of google maps API went a long way to solving this problem. Today, we have many open-source mapping tools that require very little expert knowledge to adopt. One such platform is CartoDB. As a historian with interest in digital scholarship, I find CartoDB easy to use and actually fun to work with. CartoDB has a free edition but there are limitations on these accounts. For big long term projects, ta paid account is the best option.

CartoDB does not require you to download any software on your computer. It harnesses the power of cloud computing to deliver the mapping service online. To begin, a user needs to upload data into their website. The data I have used in this exercise are the WPA Slave Narratives of interviews conducted in Alabama. The data was in a .csv and contained information such as the names of the interviewees and interviewers, date and place of interviews, age of interviewees, place of birth, etc. All I needed to do was to drag that file that contained my dataset into a box provided on their website. This immediately created a simple map for me with points showing where the interviews were conducted. When you click on each of these orange points, it shows you the number of records and you can actually edit the data. See image below of the simple map.


You can also see the dataset uploaded in Data View. See below a snapshot of the data that I uploaded.

Data View

CartoDB allows you to use that data and create different kinds of maps. You can create a cluster map, a heatmap, a density map, intensity map, torque map, etc. All of these maps can be simply created by just clicking on the map in the Map Wizard. The Map Wizard is a little icon on the right of the map page that looks like a paintbrush. This wizard allows you to select the type of map that you want and also select the different parameters for that map. You can also animate the maps.

Supposing you are working with multiple datasets, CartoDB allows you to do that simply. On the right side of the top of the map, they is a + sign that allows you to overlay another dataset on your map. This is as simple as dropping a link to that dataset and everything is loaded and laid on top. In my example, I again used dataset from the WPA Slave Narratives but this data shows the places that the interviewees were enslaved. I can now show the new dataset in my map.


Why is this important? Plugging this huge dataset in a map makes it easier to visualize and analyze the narratives. The maps created are easy to export or publish. You can embed the map on your website or blog, add it to your applications or generate an online link. I have embedded the map I created below.