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Fairmont Cemetery GIS Website unveiled

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Officials with the University of Maine at Presque Isle hosted a website unveiling at 10 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 17 in the Campus Center to celebrate more than three years of work to create an interactive and searchable web-based map of the Fairmont Cemetery.

This first-of-its-kind project in Maine was conducted by UMPI's GIS Laboratory and a team of UMPI researchers working in partnership with the Fairmont Cemetery Association and the Presque Isle Historical Society. The new website serves as an important resource for historians, researchers and those conducting family genealogy, and also preserves the historical data that is found at the cemetery for future generations. The Fairmont Cemetery, established in the 19th century, represents one of the oldest and largest graveyards in northern Maine.

"When we started, we had little to use as a model, but several of us had a clear idea of what we'd like the site to look like and to do," UMPI Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Michael Sonntag said of the project. "I am very proud to say the research team has produced a product that exceeds what I had in mind. I think everyone—especially the Fairmont Cemetery Association—is very happy with the final product. And to know we did this as a partnership with several local organizations, involved students extensively throughout the project, and that it will benefit tourism and local history, tells me we really got it right with this project. As a regional institution, UMPI's mission is to serve central and northern Maine, and projects like this exemplify such service to mission."

This project serves as the very first mapping of a cemetery in northern Maine and the first large-scale, comprehensive cemetery mapping project using GIS and GPS technology in the state. GIS [Geographic Information Systems] is an information system that captures, stores, analyzes, and displays geographic information. GPS, which stands for Global Positioning System, is a satellite-based navigation system that can be used to calculate a precise location anywhere in the world.

During the Friday morning event, Dr. Sonntag unveiled the new website, which can be found at www.fairmountcemeterypresqueisle.com, and then Dr. Chunzeng Wang, project coordinator and UMPI Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Science, provided a tour of the site and explained how it worked. Visitors to the new website can view the map, zoom in to select individual cemetery plots located on the map or use a drop-down menu to select a plot by name. Clicking on a plot reveals detailed information about each burial place, as well as a photograph of the gravestone.

"This large scale GIS and web-GIS project has had a number of faculty and students involved," Dr. Wang said. "It is a wonderful learning process for both faculty and students. It provides valuable opportunity for our students to work on a real-world application project. The project also helps the University to be more tied to the communities from academic and community-service perspectives."

Work on the project began back in 2008, when Drs. Sonntag, Wang, Lynn Eldershaw, and Kim Sebold garnered an MEIF [Maine Economic Improvement Fund] Small Campus Initiative Fund grant. Ultimately, the group received about $23,000 to complete the project, titled "Developing a Cemetery GIS Database for Historic, Cultural, and Social Research in Aroostook County."

During the first year of the project, students Megan Pryor, Sherry Cole, Ashlee Pryor, Robert Baldwin and John Donley worked as research assistants, helping to map and collect cemetery data, including lot and plot numbers, names of the interred, birth dates, death dates, gender, grave headstone/marker material, and mentions of military and civilian service – for more than 2,200 lots and 10,000 plots. Each of these lots and plots was mapped with GPS/GIS technology.

The second and third years of work on the project involved entering all of the collected data into a comprehensive and searchable GIS database management system. Under the supervision of Dr. JoAnne Wallingford, then Associate Professor of Management Information Systems, and Dr. Wang, student Brittany Hickey developed an Access database management system for data entry, students Letian Zheng, Nolan Gagnon, and Zicong Zhou entered burial data into the system, and student Lenka Rambouskova designed the website from scratch.

The information made available by cemetery mapping can now serve as a resource for conservation, interment planning, maintenance of grave markers and monuments, and management of facilities, grounds and records. The completed GIS database also provides important and easily searchable data for researchers in the fields of history, sociology, anthropology, and genealogy. For example, researchers will be able to view burial patterns, such as age and lifespan, gender and religion. Some data patterns may provide clues to historic and social events.

With the site complete, project officials are hopeful the community will find many more ways to utilize this information. If initial responses are any indication, the new website is going to prove a valuable new resource for people. According to one cyber visitor: "This will be an incredible resource for researchers with roots in the area." Another one added: "My mother and I are already planning a trip to Presque Isle at some point in the future so we can visit the graves of our ancestors. The mapping function of the website will make our visit much easier." And yet another one said: "In one minute of searching the Fairmount site, I managed to find more information on a relative than I'd found in a year of research by conventional means."