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Mapping Religion: A Field Work Story

“I think the AC in the van stopped working.”
“It’s not field work unless the AC goes out.”

Mosquitos, sprained ankles, a car tire slipping off the edge of the road, and AC blowing out in the muggy Northern Taiwan climate are all part of a day’s work in the field. Over one hundred religious sites visited, and one week to go. During the Space and Cyberspace Workshop at DILA, three teams were tasked with recording pictures, video, and location data to create a special database of religious sites in the Jinshan and Shimen districts of Northern Taiwan. Faculty and student researchers from thirteen universities worldwide gathered at Dharma Drum Mountain from June 5th to June 16th to learn digital mapping techniques that will help them in a host of digital humanities projects. This workshop is at the cutting edge of research and combines real world field data with interactive mapping technology, bringing innovation to time honored techniques.

In the Classroom Our days were split into three sessions. In the morning, we
gathered in the classroom to learn how to use mapping technology and programs like QGIS, PostGIS, Google Fusion Tables, and Google Maps. We used these tools to mash the data gathered in the field into interactive maps. Seeing our data come to life everyday motivated us, and showed us what areas we needed to explore next.

In the Field After lunch, teams scouted out potential routes and sites to visit. Some days were slow due to remote locations and long travel times between sites, and some days felt like a marathon with tight clusters of urban temples. When we arrived at our first site my team figured out what needed to be done and picked different aspects of data collection. From then on, our roles became second nature to the point that we were operating at special forces team efficiency. When the vehicle stopped we knew what needed to be done and performed our individual tasks without a second thought.

It wasn’t all work, however, and we had a lot of fun along the way. Teams were a mix of Mandarin and English speakers and we had a great time learning from each other and telling jokes. Making connections along the way was also crucial in finding the best spots. Temple caretakers, merchants, and farmers were friendly and became invaluable for getting tips on future sites.

And of course, the most difficult decision of all: to go back to the temple to eat or eat out in the amazing eateries around the Jinshan and Shimen districts?

In the Lounge After dinner, we spent hours wrapping up our work by compiling metadata on the sites we visited. It is essential to connect the appropriate photos and videos with location and metadata information so that future scholars can access and use our data in future projects. Overall, this workshop was invaluable in teaching me the tools and techniques to effectively gather data in an increasingly digital academic environment. Also, to drink lots of water, bring bug spray, and know that it is not field work unless something goes wrong.

by Travis Travis

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