Special software to trawl thousands of historic archives to uncover Empire trade boom

Monday 6 February 2012

Globalisation may seem a modern phenomenon – but a study into the rise of the British Empire will likely show mass worldwide trading of goods is not new.

A special software technique used by experts at the University of St Andrews will be able to survey thousands of documents which will vastly speed up information gathering.

Historians and computing experts will use the bespoke software to trawl thousands of historic documents for details of trade movements between Britain and the rest of the world in the 19th century.

The project will detail the economic and environmental impact of shipping valuable commodities such as building materials, tea, fruit, and spices.

Researchers will use “text mining” to survey thousands of digitised documents. Sources will include British and Canadian government documents, newspapers from around the world, books and journals.

Text mining is faster than manual reading and can place information in context. It can, for example, distinguish between Washington as a place or surname. It can also differentiate references to materials as commodities, such as mahogany timber but not mahogany furniture. It also understands variations in records of weights, measures, dates and prices.

The project is being carried out in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh and York University, Canada.

Professor Aaron Quigley, from the University of St Andrews, said: “Our research here on exploratory visualisation allows historians to trace the flow of a wide range of natural resources around the globe.

“By working with world experts in text mining within the Scottish Informatics and Computer Science Alliance and domain experts in York University, Canada, we can bridge the research divide and answer historical questions on trading.”

The University of Edinburgh’s reference and archive centre, EDINA, will store information garnered in the study. The two-year project forms part of Digging for Data, a wider initiative by JISC, the UK’s digital information body.

Professor Ewan Klein, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Informatics, who is leading the project, said: “We think of globalisation as a particularly recent phenomenon, yet historians argue that transnational trade in the late 19th century led to a golden age of global economic development. Our project will seek to define the extent of commodity trading during the growth of the Empire, and its impact on the economy and environment.”

The work is supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Economic and Social Research Council and the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.


Note to Editors

For more information please contact: For more information please contact:

Professor Aaron Quigley, School of Computer Science at the University of St Andrews, 078 72421 777.

Issued by the Press Office, University of St Andrews

Contact Gayle Cook on 01334 467227

Ref: (globalisation 06/02/12)

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