HistMapR: 12 Months from Coffee Break Musings to a Debut R Package

Post provided by Alistair Auffret

I was really happy to hear that our paper, ‘HistMapR: Rapid digitization of historical land‐use maps in R’ was shortlisted for the 2017 Robert May Prize, and to be asked to write a blog to mark the occasion. The paper was already recommended in an earlier blog post by Sarah Goslee (the Associate Editor who took care of our submission), and described by me in an instructional video, so I thought that I would write the story of our first foray into making an R package, and submitting a paper to a journal that I never thought I would ever get published in.

Background: Changing Land-Use and Digitizing Maps

Land-use change in Europe is often typified by land-drainage to create arable fields.

Land-use change in Europe is often typified by land-drainage to create arable fields.

Land-use change is largely accepted to be one of the major threats to biodiversity worldwide at the moment. At the same time, a warming climate means that species’ ranges need to move poleward – something that can be hampered by changing land use. Quantifying how land use has changed in the past can help us to understand how species diversity and distributions respond to environmental change.

Unfortunately, quantifying this change by digitizing historical maps is a pretty tedious business. It involves a lot of clicking around various landscape features in a desktop GIS program. So, in many cases, historical land use is only analyzed in a relatively small number of selected landscapes for each particular study. In our group at Stockholm University, we thought that it would be useful to digitize maps over much larger areas, making it possible to assess change in all types of landscape and assess biodiversity responses to land-use change at macroecological scales. The question was, how could we do this? Continue reading