Mapping Massachusetts’s Past & Future


by Lauren Weiss

In the 1950s, William P. MacConnell ’43, a professor in the department of forestry, engaged his photogrammetry students in a project to map the land cover of Massachusetts using aerial photography. Although the project initially focused on areas such as forests, fields, and wetlands, it eventually expanded to all land use; as such, it paved the way for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Wetlands Inventory, and Massachusetts became the first state in the country to be mapped completely by aerial photography.

image of three men standing, William MacConnell (right) receiving outstanding teacher citation from Russell Renouf and Dean Arless Spielman,
William MacConnell (right) receiving outstanding teacher citation from Russell Renouf and Dean Arless Spielman, Special Collections & University Archives.

The photographs, spanning from 1951 to 1999, were acquired by Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) in 2008. Recognizing the research value of the photographs, SCUA began digitizing them three years ago to make them accessible to more people by adding them to Credo, SCUA’s online repository. Forrest Bowlick of the geosciences department was involved in the process from the beginning, and it was this connection with the Libraries that fueled his latest scholarly collaboration with Rebecca Seifried, Geospatial Information Librarian, and Camille Barchers, a professor of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, in georectifying the digitized collection. “Georectifying the aerial photos means adding geospatial information to them to link them back to their location of origin,” Seifried explains. “The process enhances the research value of the photos because it makes them easier to find and use in geospatial software, if a geospatial search portal is set up. Applications are limitless, from finding out what a specific property looked like in the past, which many members of the public want to know, to investigating large-scale changes to environment, infrastructure, and land use.”

The team has been strategically coordinating their efforts with GIS and geographic interest groups on campus and beyond: Seifried with the UMass GIS Community of Practice she has helped build and manage, and Barchers with regional planning agencies to demonstrate how this technology can be used in historic preservation and landscape planning. This includes the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC), which is responsible for coordinating and supporting transportation, recreation, landscape, and historic preservation planning in Hampshire and Hampden counties, and with whom Barchers’ department already has a productive working relationship.

“The PVPC has some of the hard-copy prints from the MacConnell collection in their own archives,” says Barchers. “They have many ongoing projects where historic aerial photography could demonstrate the change in landscape and inform planning and policy choices for the future.”

In addition to benefiting local and regional work, the project’s completion will have a positive impact on the field of Geographic Information Science and Technology (GIST). After the collection is georectified manually, Bowlick will use the completed photographs to develop an AI-enabled tool to assist with auto-georectification of future projects.

“There are a number of ideas and processes in the literature about how to auto-georectify, but they’re difficult to adapt and deploy,” says Bowlick. “By working together in both the automated georectification and the usability side, we’re aiming for something more holistic and more accessible than just raw code or script alone.”

In order to complete the project, Bowlick, Seifried, and Barchers applied for and received an Interdisciplinary Faculty Research Award. Funded by the Chancellor, the Provost, and the teams’ respective Colleges and Schools, the award will enable them to support a graduate research assistant, who will work with the team on georectifying the photographs. Once the project is completed, the georectified photographs will, like the original digitized aerial photographs, be openly available on Credo, and the team will present their work to the American Association of Geographers and apply for a National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Humanities Advancement Grant.