Monday, 29 September 2014

Taking to the high seas: introducing Pelagios phase 4

This month sees the start of another new and exciting phase of Pelagios. With funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council's Digital Transformations programme, we will be exploring the transformative potential of our linked open data network for doing research. In short our brief is to address the question, "ok, now we can link stuff online—so what?"

In response to the challenge posed by "data silos" (the mass of independently produced material uploaded onto the Web), since 2011 we have been developing the means of linking online resources via their common references to place. This has involved "annotating" the place names found in documents and aligning those references to a global gazetteer service (for the ancient world, this is Pleiades). Using Pleiades's Uniform Resource Identifiers (or "social security numbers") for each ancient place as our glue, it is now possible to agree that places mentioned in different materials are one and the same (e.g. Classical Athens and not "Athens, Georgia"). Users are now able to move seamlessly between and search the records of a growing list of international partners.

Thus each place annotation made in the document doesn’t just attach useful spatial information to a resource; it also provides a way of linking to other resources. But, as Andrew Prescott, leader of the AHRC’s Digital Transformations strand, has recently written: 'Scholarship is much harder than [the ability to link]: we need to be clear about why we are linking data, what sort of data we are linking, and our aim in doing so'. Our one-year grant from the AHRC looks to unlock the potential of our place network to reveal previously unknown connections between different places and different documents (texts, databases, maps, etc.).

In particular what we want to do is to use these new links between different documents to rethink key periods in the history of cartography. Until now digital resources have largely concerned issues of accuracy and visualization; i.e. to pinpoint the locations of ancient places with respect to our contemporary topography. What we want to do, rather, is to try to reconstruct and interpret the markedly different ways in which pre-modern authors and mapmakers conceptualized the world. Turning the spotlight on to five moments in time, Pelagios 4 will explore how ancient or pre-modern authors used various means to grasp, represent and communicate spatial knowledge of the world around them.

To conduct this research Pelagios is happy to announce the following scholarly collaborators:

  • Pascal Arnaud, Professor of History at Universit√© Lyon 2 and senior member of the Institut universitaire de France (IUF), is the leading specialist in ancient geography and navigation.
  • Tony Campbell is former head of the British Library’s ‘Map Room’ and the pre-eminent expert on Portolan Charts.
  • Marianne O'Doherty, Lecturer in English at the University of Southampton, has published on medieval European travel narratives, geography and cartography.
  • Klaus Geus, Chair of Ancient Geography at FU Berlin, co-ordinates the TOPOI Excellence Cluster in ‘Common Sense Geography’. He is joined by Irina Tupikova, a leading mathematical astronomer with an interest in the history of science.

We look forward to working with these scholars and rethinking the ways in which geographic space was imagined and represented before the advent of modern Cartesian cartography.

Portolan chart by Jorge de Aguiar (1492), the oldest known
signed and dated chart of Portuguese origin.

Citation: "Jorge Aguiar 1492 MR" by Jorge de Aguiar - Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Yale, New Haven, USA. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

What Have the Romans Ever Mapped for Us? Results from the Latin Geographic Tradition

Having recently completed our first content workpackage (CWP1), dedicated to Early Geospatial Documents from the Latin Tradition, we'd like to take this opportunity to share the annotation data that we've compiled so far. Overall we have completed annotating place references in 33 documents (41 if we include additional language versions of the same document). Within these documents, we've identified 19,880 toponyms, and were able to establish mappings to Pleiades in 15,721 cases (79%).

Spatial distribution of toponyms annotated in CWP1 - Latin Tradition

You can find the complete list of our documents, along with a download link for the data, below. The annotations are stored in CSV format - i.e. they can be opened in a spreadsheet application, or imported into a database or GIS.

An additional part of our work in CWP1 (which will be important too for all our content work packages) has been to identify additional relevant documents as we go along. Our list of "geospatial documents" has therefore grown quite substantially. We have included these documents in our annotation tool Recogito. You can follow their status directly on Recogito's Latin Tradition landing page.

Now that we have finished work on the first of our six traditions, we are keen to get your feedback. In particular:

  1. We look forward to seeing what and how you make use of these data. We're sure that you'll use them in ways that we can't anticipate, and we'd love you to share that with us!
  2. The large number of documents, the ambiguity of the evidence and the comparatively short space of time mean that some of our identifications will inevitably be wrong or open to debate. We are planning a mechanism to allow people to suggest alternative suggestions or to indicate agreement and disagreement. In the meantime, feel free to contact us if you have proposals for corrections. We're also happy to hear suggestions for other early latin geographic documents which we may have missed.
  3. Since, as we expected, we could not fully annotate or geo-resolve all of our documents, we're interested in hearing from people who might be willing to join us in the challenge. If you would like to join in and help find places in the incomplete documents, feel free to get in touch and we may be able to provide you with a Recogito account. We'll have to roll this out slowly since Recogito is not a 'community tool' as such (with features such as full moderation, user profiles, etc) so please be aware that there may be a wait if we get a lot of volunteers!

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Future Footnotes, Reverse References and Bottomless Maps

Pelagios and the Graph of Historical Data 
are continually evolving in a number of directions that can sometimes make it hard to answer the simple question: ‘What are the benefits?’ Regular readers will know that these are many and various (and by no means all accounted for) but in this blogpost we’d like to outline two important ones that we've been thinking about for a while. We call these ‘Future Footnotes’ and ‘Reverse References’ (more on Bottomless Maps at the...well...bottom). 

Footnotes and references are pretty much the defining feature of textual academic discourse. It isn’t enough to have a bright idea or discover something remarkable – we have to relate our ideas and discovery to a wider body of research in order to locate them in the scholarly debate. But both suffer from severe limitations: footnotes can only point backwards and references can only point outwards.

Footnotes allow us to provide additional information that provides context or authority for an idea in a text (or even an image in the form of captions). Sometimes they are descriptive, but more often than not they are cross-references to previously written material – as an author we obviously can’t know about future material at the time of writing.  Because the graph of historic data is continually growing, Pelagios links act as a Future Footnotes. Annotation allows us (and anyone else in fact) to create hooks that connect our texts to both old and new material as it becomes available, without having to manually update those links ourselves. So, for example, when we annotate a reference to Londinium, for example, we don’t just say ‘here are the other references to Londinium that I am aware of at the time I wrote this’, but ‘here are other references to Londinium that the community is aware of, at the time you are reading it’.

References, on the other hand, allow us to provide evidence that backs up a point that we are making. They unilaterally point outwards because we only have the opportunity to refer to other work. In contrast, by annotating content we are simultaneously contributing our information to a wider cloud and so we create a Reverse Reference – i.e. it becomes directly available to other people through their own annotations. And to flip the logic of Future Footnotes, we don’t merely make it available to works that will be annotated in the future, but we make it available to works that have already been annotated as well. Thus we immediately make our work more accessible to precisely the people who might find it interesting.

So the benefits of Pelagios, and the Graph of Historical Data in general, are that they both future-proof and mutualise the cross-referencing that underpins academia in a way that has never been possible before. The analogies to footnotes and references aren’t quite perfect because they don’t account for the authorial stance – i.e. the desire for an author to selectively identify content, but they do indicate how radical this development in one of the most fundamental practices of academia can be. 

There is one additional benefit that we also think is essential: because the graph is open and distributed, it’s possible to create services that allow for seamless interlinking between online resources. In other words, you don’t have to go to a centralised portal or search service to discover relevant material. You simply discover it naturally, through hyperlinked references and footnotes in online books or articles (or webpages, or pictures, or maps, or songs or videos...and so forth). 

Of course curated portals and search services are valuable too, which leads us to our Bottomless Maps. There has been much discussion of the Deep Map in recent years – interactive digital maps that contain content that extends beyond the visual surface. Bottomless Maps, like the Pelagios heatmap for example, link an ever-growing (and thus to all intents and purposes infinite) quantity of content to the places they depict. While the scope of the Pelagios project is restricted to historic geographic concepts, the model which we have been collaboratively developing is applicable to any other kind of reference (people, periods, classifications, canonical text citations, and so forth). An ecology of other projects is now springing up to support this, so the combined (and evolving) graph of humanities data will ultimately become much more significant than Pelagios itself. We look forward to a future in which such cross-referencing is just as commonplace as footnotes and references are today.

*We here expand the notion of the Graph of Ancient World Data to include any content of a historical, classical or archaeological nature.