Meet the UPEI GeoREACH Lab

by Alex MacIsaac, Applied Communications, Leadership & Culture, UPEI. Originally posted on the ACLC website.

This article is first in a two-part series by ACLC student Alex MacIsaac on the kinds of skills and opportunities ACLC emphasizes through its courses, extracurricular activities, work experiences, work-integrated practicums, and experiential projects. This series focuses on digital mapping opportunities in the context of ACLC faculty research projects.

The GeoREACH Lab team, March 2019. Photo by A. MacIsaac

The GeoREACH Lab at UPEI supports Geospatial Research in Atlantic Canadian History and other projects of the Applied Communications, Leadership & Culture program at UPEI. Dr. Josh MacFadyen is the director of the GeoREACH Lab, and working under him, a team of students are researching the environmental history and historical geography of Atlantic Canada. Much of their work focuses on the history of food and agriculture in Canada, including the ways that the modern food system has shaped our relationships with animals and the land. The transition to this kind of system occurred relatively recently on PEI, and this presents an opportunity to map the causes and impacts of the transition using the tools of the geospatial humanities.

A geographic information system (GIS for short) is one of these geospatial tools. A GIS is a system designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage, and present spatial or geographic data. The members of the GeoREACH Lab utilize GIS in order to visualize, compare, and analyze historical data. Much of this research involves mapping the region’s human and non-human inhabitants using GIS.

The lab’s work supports training in the ACLC program, but it is also open to students and researchers in other disciplines. For instance, Julianna Granzoti and Catherine Kennedy are both Environmental Studies students at UPEI. Julianna and Catherine have worked together in the past, and they collaborate in their work with the GeoREACH Lab. The central aspect of their research revolves around geographic changes over time on Prince Edward Island between 1968 and 2010. Some of the lab’s current projects focus on the impact that policies like the 1969 Comprehensive Development Plan had on communities and the land. Julianna and Catherine are able to observe and analyze many aspects of the local environment over different time periods through using GIS programs. Students view different “layers” of maps in order to compare and contrast environmental changes over time.

“In environmental studies it’s really interdisciplinary, so we need to look at the science side and the social side, and I think GIS helps fill a gap with that because we can visually try to analyze what we’re seeing, say look at nutrients in soil for example, but we can also find the history of the area. I think (the technology) could be applied to many different disciplines.”

–Catherine Kennedy

Andrew Ing, a Geomatics Supervisor who works with the province of PEI in the Forest, Fish, and Wildlife division, visited the lab to show student researchers the many layers of GIS maps the province is creating, and why they are particularly important. At the provincial level, GIS data layers are being created and analyzed often. A variety of GIS data related to property, infrastructure, and natural resources are available in some cases for free, and others for a fee from the Government of Prince Edward Island. Government agencies and other researchers have been developing GIS-ready data since the 1960s. This presents a new opportunity to researchers like Dr. MacFadyen who are interested in studying changes in the land in this critical period of environmental history.

“For the purpose of research, it’s easier and faster (to use GIS maps).”

–Julianna Granzoti

Choyce Chappell is in her 5th year of study at UPEI. She is completing a major in Environmental Studies with a specialty in thought and practice, and minors in Diversity and Social Justice Studies and Computer Science. Although Choyce said that geography was never an interest to her until a special topics course, Introduction to GIS, sparked her interest. Through GIS, she believes she can bring her diverse interests together. Choyce is completing a directed studies course in GIS for Humanities Research with Dr. MacFadyen at the GeoREACH Lab. This means through working at the lab she is completing an upper year university credit.

Choyce has used GIS programs, namely ArcGIS and QGIS, to digitize maps in order to turn flat images into interactive layers. This allows Choyce and other researchers to plot data and compare environmental topics on the island.

“I found using GIS could put me in the middle of the Liberal Arts, the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and computational sciences. I thought it was a good way to bring all of my really diverse interests together.”

–Choyce Chappell

“There are different ways of representing data other than in writing” explains Nick Scott, a History student in his final year of study at UPEI. Nick describes himself as one of the GeoREACH Lab’s “explorers”; one of his main duties involves summarizing different historical primary sources so that other students can use them for various projects. He aides the other student researchers in locating particular areas to study and documents of interest so they can proceed with their projects. Nick has a knowledge of PEI’s social history and local geography, which helps him guide other lab members to locations or topics he can recognize as important research areas.

“In this job, there’s been a lot of freedom for different students to utilize their different backgrounds and skills in ways that are useful to the projects.”

–Nick Scott


For more information on the GeoREACH Lab, visit the GeoREACH website at UPEI.