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  • Yolani Martin, George Mason University

History Makers

Updated: Jan 4, 2021

Hello all! YoLani here, giving a big a shout out from the Mason Mappers chapter at George Mason University! We’ve had a whirlwind of events going on from workshops to map-a-thons, but there’s been one project we’ve been working on that’s shown us that history never ends. No matter how long the stretch of time—and Fairfax County, VA makes sure to capture every minute of it.

Located throughout the county are historical markers showcasing areas that have carved special moments in time. As Fairfax County nears its 275th anniversary, the Fairfax County History Commission decided to remake the map of the county’s historical markers. The society reached out to faculty from the geography department at George Mason University to seek assistance in making the map. When word went through the department about the society wanting a map, they immediately went to the newly formed organization of Mason Mappers, a humanitarian mapping club and chapter of Youth Mappers, to see if they would be interested in helping. The members of Mason Mappers were more than eager to help. After the History Commission collaborated with members from the club for help on recreating the map, the students embarked on a year’s long endeavor to recapture Fairfax County’s history.

Given an original copy of the county marker pamphlet to reference, the members of the club set out to find the coordinates of the markers and road data from different databases. What started off as a seemingly simple task of updating however, became tricky. As the members gathered data, they found that the Fairfax County website they were referenced to did not have all the coordinates of the historical markers they needed as well as roads. Meghan Andrews, President of Mason Mappers, expressed that they had to use of a variety of sources to locate the historical marker coordinates and roads. When the coordinates were found, Andrews and the team created an excel spreadsheet to put into Arc GIS, a map design program, that would identify the markers. Once that was completed along with finding the roads and rivers requested by the History Commission, their next challenge was identifying major roads.

“The roads were the most difficult to work on,” Andrews said, “because the roads had different names [associated] with them. Eventually it came down to us deciding what was best for the map and what would get the most information across visually.”David Lowman, a member of Mason Mappers, expressed how they found a solution by searching for the main attributes of the roads to find out which were major and minor.

With every draft the team created, the Fairfax County History Commission would evaluate the map and give feedback on ways to revise it. Once the basis of the map was completed, the team of students would transfer their information in between InDesign, a publishing software, and Arc GIS to add descriptions about the historical markers as well as adjusting features on the map. “[Another] difficult thing we had to work on was learning how to delegate tasks,” Andrews said, for the team was no longer editing data sets, but also proof reading each others’ writing and graphic portrayal of the map.

After three to four hours per week of working and editing, the team would bring what they had for review from other members of the club. The weekly critiques assisted them further in deciding what worked visually on the map, which assisted them significantly after working on it for long periods of time.

With the anniversary just around the corner, the team is now going over the final touches of the pamphlet. “It was a very rewarding experience and coming out of it I feel like there’s a massive amount of achievement,” Lowman said. “I feel proud of my team. This was a great way of seeing Mason Mappers make an impact on the community.”

Moreover, the team also learned the effectiveness of communication and division of responsibilities when it comes to working together not only as a group, but with a client. “These two factors are essential to make teamwork effective.” Jin Lee, a member of Mason Mappers and graduate student said. “Without proper communication and a fair division of workload among the team, we would not have made this much progress, and we would not be discussing our success of this project right now.”

Mason Mapper’s work will be published and printed out in May or June, where the Fairfax County History Commission will distribute copies of the pamphlet. The joy of seeing their work finally coming together carries the team closer to the end of their project. The students’ work and lessons will carry on into future ventures as they interact more with the community. And while this project captures Fairfax County’s footsteps, they have begun capturing their own as well; history becoming theirs.

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