2013-09-26

Co.Labs

Computer Science Enters The Bloodstream Of Academia With Incredible Projects Like This

Applying the social web to historical figures could help us understand how they influenced each other--and the course of events leading up to today.



It’s no secret that historical research into individuals can be tough. For one, we have no social network of historical figures--no way to understand how they relate to one another. And the resources you need to learn about historical figures are often inaccessible to non-academics. In a bold new project called Kindred Britain, Stanford associate professor Nicholas Jenkins has linked together a database of 29,937 people across 15 centuries using popular web-based genealogy CMS, PHPGedView, to create what may be the first social network of historical figures ever made.

Not only does the project make historical research easier, but it also offers a compelling example of the way the “digital” in the term “digital humanities” can create a completely new sub-discipline that was almost unable to be studied without the aid of computerization.

The project is called “Kindred Britain” and the goal is to allow researchers to articulate a path between two people in history--thus telling a story about how one historical figure was influenced by another.

How Software Can Open Up The World Of Historical Figures

Jenkins’s inspiration came six years ago during his mother's visit from England, during which she told her son a story about one of her great-grandfathers who died under grotesque circumstances.

“As happens when you’re trying to process something, I wrote it down,” Jenkins told me. “In this case I put it up on my blog without thinking twice. A few weeks later I got an email from a genealogical researcher in England, asking whether I wanted to know anything more about my family. There’s only ever one possible answer to that question.”

Jenkins’s researcher began digging for information. After uncovering details of Jenkins’s family, he carried his enthusiasm into a new project, examining the family history of W.H. Auden, a favorite poet. As the research continued, the project’s scale broadened.

“The more information was sent through to me, the more I had the feeling that I imagine an archaeologist experiences,” Jenkins says. “I started doing a lot of research myself. You start by brushing away a little bit of dirt and finding a stone. You excavate a little bit more and find that the stone is part of a wall. Then you excavate further and discover the wall is part of a building, the building is part of a street, and the street is part of a city.”

This is a glimpse of how digital humanities will exhume and re-examine much of the course material that has been taught in universities for ages. “ I got the sense of a whole world opening up in front of me.”

Building A Database Of All Of Britain

Kindred Britain isn’t just a data visualization project. “It’s not like I downloaded the census figures for 1851 and then started to play around with them,” Jenkins laughs. “This was all handcrafted.”

Individuals were added to the database over the course of five years--starting in October 2007 and continuing until February this year. The process peaked in late 2011, with 1,161 new individuals added in the month of December alone.

“There’s so much information available online,” Jenkins explains of his data-gathering process. “If you’re good at following the trail of digital breadcrumbs you can discover a huge amount on the web, supplemented by the information you find in libraries. Google Books in particular has liberated an astonishing amount of data that was totally out of reach to scholars before. If you’re looking for details--even if you’re only able to access a “snippet view” of a book--that’s still really useful for somebody trying to knit together a web of details.”

Once the data was gathered by Jenkins, the Kindred Britain database was constructed using a popular web-based CMS for genealogy known as PHPGedView. This gave Jenkins and his team the ability to describe family relationships, annotate individuals with specific events, and also to place these events in time and space. Coding was done by Elijah Meeks, with help from a data visualization specialist from the University of San Francisco named Scott Murray. To improve performance, the database was later migrated to PostgreSQL, integrating sophisticated geospatial, network, and chronological queries.

“[The] property of guaranteed connectedness [between individuals] offered us several opportunities for purposes of designing the visualization and interactions,” Scott Murray observes. “First and foremost, [it meant that] we could design the whole experience around a theme of connection, and we could enable visitors to discover their own connections between historical figures. Secondly, we could articulate this concept of a path between two people, and, we hope, begin to tell the story of how one historical figure was influenced by another, even when they are separated by multiple generations, or centuries, or lovers.”

How Computers Play With The Humanities

“Computer science is really entering the bloodstream of academia, regardless of whether you’re working on Roman history or ornithology,” Jenkins says. “Fast-forward a few years and I think you’re going to find a lot more professors and academics who are competent coders--even if they’re not computer scientists.”

Part of the Kindred Britain ethos meant embracing the technologist’s dream of “serious-play” that is often found online. “Play and scholarship are often defined as being antithetical to one another,” Jenkins says. “I’m quite open to the idea that people visit the website just to play around on it, however.”

In this way his project drew inspiration from the world of online role-playing games--adopting the concept of “character sheets” with badges and statistics to present information about particular individuals. “Perhaps one day humanities scholarship will look a lot like a blood-free video game,” Jenkins says.

The decision not to allow users to modify the site’s content was a difficult one. In the end, Jenkins decided barring this degree of interactivity would result in a cleaner interface. “I wanted to create a beautiful-looking project that would examine what it might look like to use the web as a serious way of displaying scholarly information,” he says.

“This is something academia can really learn from companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon--all of whom are superbly sophisticated when it comes to presenting data in a way that is deeply thought out and lucid,” says Jenkins. “Scholarship has so much to learn from, and to offer, the contemporary web.”

[Image: Flickr user Horia Varlan]






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