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Staff Research Profile: introducing…Douglas Brown

Tell us about yourself

Douglas BrownI'm a senior lecturer in the Department of Geography, Geology and the Environment where I teach in two main areas: one is human geography, and the other is Geographic Information Systems, or GIS - which is essentially computer mapping and spatial analysis. GIS is a brilliant tool for visualising and understanding how things are, how they were and how they relate to each other. I use it for historical geography - analysing poverty, welfare, health and healthcare, mostly in nineteenth-century Britain. Before I joined Kingston I did my PhD at King's College London and before that I was a journalist, writing about the healthcare sector and health policy.

What is your current research focused on?

I have two interconnected strands of research at the moment. First, I'm looking at the ways welfare was organised in nineteenth-century England and Wales, long before the welfare state. Destitute people were given poor relief by local authorities either in the community in the form of cash or goods in kind (usually bread), or in the workhouse. The workhouse was deliberately an extremely unpleasant institution, to deter people from applying for relief except as a last resort. But the types and amounts of relief that people were given varied across the country - a kind of postcode lottery. I'm investigating how and why that was, and what the poor relief landscape looked like from the perspective of the paupers who came into contact with the system.

What are you passionate about?

I love using GIS for research and I love historical geography. It's a really exciting field right now, as people across the world are seeing the potential of digital methods to illuminate the past as well as the present. The technology is coming of age and you don't have to be an expert coder or computer scientist to get some data and turn it into a map. There's nothing like a map to communicate with an audience and to tell a story.

How does your research affect people's everyday lives?

I work mostly on historical data, but the questions of how we organise society to support the worst off and most vulnerable don't go away. History isn't a repository of lessons for the present to learn. Nonetheless, by looking at the past we can see that the range of possibilities for the present and future is much wider than we might at first think.

If you could change one thing in the world what would it be?

An end to war and violence. Doing something about climate change would be quite nice too, if I'm allowed two things.

With unlimited research budget, I would...

Have everything in the British Library and National Archives digitised in open and accessible format for everyone. There's a lot of material available on the internet but it's the tiniest fraction of what's been recorded over the centuries. Open data has the potential to be revolutionary.

What is the best thing about researching at Kingston University?

My colleagues are great but it's the students who really make the university. Research-led teaching means they get the benefit of the most up-to-date material, and I get the benefit of their comments and questions. That always leads to fresh insights and new paths to explore. 

Find out more about Douglas Brown on his staff profile page.