I'm working on my Ph.D. which will hopefully expose some ways in which spatial analysis (using the tool I know - GIS) can prove useful to genealogical research.

At present I am still struggling with what genealogy variables I would like to model. I am not interested in working with genetics. Migration analysis is a possibility, but it would not be my first choice.

Do you have any recommendations for recent papers written specifically about the topic of using either spatial analysis or specifically GIS to model genealogical data?

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    – PolyGeo
    Commented Dec 6, 2017 at 22:01

2 Answers 2


I have to add my twopennyworth here for public viewing. One of my research difficulties, when making a case for whether two named people are the same or different, is the lack of appropriate information about administrative and ecclesiastic divisions, and even streets in a town or city.

Let me explain: administrative regions would have names and boundaries just like ecclesiastical parishes, and yet they would overlap. This means that it's not just a matter of carving-up some maps to associate names with parts of it. The database then has to link classes of region that overlap. This is very important for English villages as the concept of a "parish of settlement" restricted movements quite severely, and so saying that two references were only 10 miles apart could be misleading.

Note that extended families would often use the same names in their own households, thus diluting the fact that the names were used not too far from each other.

I don't know if I'm taking your concept too far, but other contextual information might include whether there was trade between those places, whether they were on a common trade route, and whether the places were associated with the same industry.

Even for streets (if your GIS would get down to that level of detail) there are similar arguments. Just because two houses were only 2 miles apart doesn't mean that they were of the same social class, or that the housing was provided by the same factories, or that they shared the same local drinking establishments. There's associated context that has to be considered. Town localities were quite territorial (some still are), and English streets -- being non-orthogonal -- would have emphasised that.

These requirements were tackled by my STEMMA work. As well as treating places (of different classes) similarly to people -- rather than just equating names to coordinates -- it allowed their history, documents, and "properties" to be recorded in the same database. For instance, being able to characterise various places as related to the knitting trade (a simple user-defined property) allows quite powerful visualisations of it on a map.


I'd agree with you about staying away from migration analysis. It seems like a really good idea, but you'd have to find a very large dataset in order to discover anything interesting. I tried doing this with FamilySearch's database a few years ago and came up empty. (You may have better luck than I did though.) Maybe you could get the Geni database.

It's not specifically genealogical, but if someone were to create a historical GIS database for Europe, that would be pretty useful to genealogists. There's some historical data available on sites like statoids.com, and some great historical GIS databases for certain countries, but I'm not aware of a historical GIS database for Europe.

  • What do you mean specifically by a historical GIS database for Europe? Can you elaborate a bit? Commented Dec 7, 2017 at 20:57
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    I'm thinking of a GIS database that tracks place names, jurisdictional hierarchies, and boundaries over time. So place P had a name of N1 from 1800-1850, and N2 from 1850-, was a child of place P1 from 1700-1800 and was a child of place P2 from 1800-, and had this boundary polygon from 1800-1870, and a different polygon boundary from 1870- Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 20:33
  • As well as point locations and closed polygons, Dallan, I also use open polygons. This is necessary if the database goes down to street level, since -- as I said above -- British streets are anything but straight. In fact, I have one instance that I still cannot handle accurately: a street where I lived for nearly 20 years loops around and joins onto itself, mid-way. Incredible, eh?
    – ACProctor
    Commented Dec 9, 2017 at 9:53
  • An open polygon is something I would not be able to use. It is an error in a GIS database, or is simply seen as a line. Streets can be represented by simple vectors or by closed polygons where the ends are artificially closed at the edge of the data area. Commented Dec 11, 2017 at 13:55
  • I do like the idea of the Historic place names. That is one of the things I'm considering as a Ph.D. project. I would certainly not have time to do all of Europe, but some smaller areas to start with would be interesting. Commented Dec 11, 2017 at 13:56

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