Happy GIS Day!

ehora History Main Blog, UPAN, UPAN Blog

Written by Deb Miller, SHPO Records Manager

What Is GIS?

GIS stands for Geographic Information Systems, which is mapping software on a computer and is used both by everyday people and professionals.

We use GIS every day when we use Google Earth or other mapping applications. What most of us don’t see behind the scenes is that GIS has the special ability to visualize data tied to features on a map. For example, we can show roads, streams, and towns on a map. But behind those features is data which can tell us a whole lot more — like the speed limit or road condition on a road segment, the health and depth of a stream, or the population and diversity of a town.

A lot of maps we look at online have this data behind them, but we never realize. It drives everyday decisions we make from which route we take to the store, to which neighborhood to buy a home. But how do we use this information in a professional setting at the Utah Division of State History?

How does the Division of State History Use GIS?

Amber Anderson and Skylar Schulzke (State History) use mobile GIS to document historic homes damaged in a March 2020 earthquake in Magna, UT.

The Utah Division of State History has a lot of data sets, and we love to make fun interactive maps with them like  historical homes, monuments and markers, and archaeological sites just to name a few. The GIS data we use and create helps State and Federal agencies and consultants make important decisions for development and preservation in Utah, and it helps people like you connect with their communities.

One of our largest and most used GIS data sets is our Historic Utah Buildings map. Did you know that buildings over the age of 50 are considered historic? Our office manages the official records that homeowners, renters, developers, and others can use to document important aspects of a historic building that can help make the case for it to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Documenting a building means that an architectural historian  takes a photo, and describes its features on a Historic Buildings form to then be submitted to us at State History. The location of that building is tied to that form, and using the Historic Utah Buildings (HUB) online application, we can learn more about that building and see the completed form.

Information about the location and specific details of old buildings is important to help local communities and private property owners. State History has experts that the public can ask on how to fix up their building, maintain the historical feeling to receive tax credits, or to certify their building’s historic status. Agencies and consultants use this information to adapt their projects in certain neighborhoods or homes when considering construction projects. For example, did you know that old buildings can be affected by vibrations in the ground from construction?  Certain considerations need to be taken into account, and the HUB database maintained by our office can help!

Inside of the historic Rio Grande building, August 2021.

Our largest dataset at State History is archaeological site locations and surveys, with over 114,000 archaeological sites documented in Utah! While it is our largest pool of data, it is also our most protected. Archaeological site information cannot be shared with the public because it is federally protected so that the sites don’t get damaged or destroyed by visitors or looters. Archaeologists with access to this information use it to see what cultural resources could be affected by development in the area. First, background research is conducted using GIS, then archaeologists walk the area to seOur largest GIS dataset at State History is archaeological site locations and surveys, with over 114,000 archaeological sites documented in Utah! While it is our largest pool of data, it is also our most protected. Archaeological site information cannot be shared with the public because it is protected by state and federal laws so that the sites don’t get damaged or destroyed by visitors or looters. State History has a 30+ year relationship with the federal Bureau of Land Management, as we manage their spatial data on their behalf. Permitted and qualified archaeologists with access use this data to see what cultural resources could be affected by development in a specific area. First, background research is conducted using State History’s GIS, then archaeologists walk the area to search for any new sites or changes to the existing sites. Information about the site classification (historic or prehistoric), the site type (habitation, chipped stone tools, historic fence, etc), and who recorded it is all captured in the GIS data. This data is submitted to State History as GIS along with a digital site form that helps archaeologists understand the site’s history and plan for the future.

Whitney Seal (State History) is capturing high resolution GIS data with a GPS at an excavation site in Terrace, UT, May 2021.

Sometimes researchers at universities use this data to study past cultures. The information captured in GIS data can be used to narrow down to a specific research interest. Having this information visually displayed on a map gives a different perspective of the data that can show patterns and information that isn’t easily displayed in other formats.

If you want to see more GIS products from the Division of State History, visit our website to see our public maps, some of them are interactive like this one showing Veterans Memorials throughout Utah. 

While a lot of our data at State History is in GIS format, much of it is still on paper and is waiting to become digital and usable in our applications. Researchers used to need an appointment to come into our office to sort through binders of site forms and reports when they wanted information on Utah’s historic buildings or archaeological sites. In the last five years, our office has moved to an all-digital format for these records, which saves thousands of trees, decreases carbon emissions, and improves the useability of these files. Now researchers can access these files from anywhere in the world, and using GIS can learn about their relationships to towns, landscapes, and communities. While we get excited and overwhelmed with how much there still is to do, we have certainly come a long way!

Happy GIS Day from all of us at the Division of State History!