Beware the Coffee

March 29th, 2011

As several posts have nicely illustrated, creative visualizations of the entire Old Bailey archive can provide new and intriguing glimpses into history. It’s important to keep in mind that one can play around with smaller subsets of the data as well, just to get a quick sense of what going on in particular contexts. For example…

Using the prototype tool/process mentioned in the previous entry (Old Bailey API -> Zotero -> Voyeur), I was able to extract from the OB records that contain the word poison (about 400).

I could then send those records (or a subset of them) to Voyeur to get a better sense of what’s going on with these particular records in the context of poison. 

Filtering out the usual stop words and other words that happen to be common to the trial records, like “prisoner”, I can see that “drank” is one of the more common words to appear in my search results. Zeroing in on the context of “drank”, I can see that one of words that most commonly appears nearby is “coffee”.

Of course it’s no surprise that a strong, bitter drink would be a vehicle for administering poison. Or perhaps that cheap coffee tasted so bad that someone, having fallen ill for any reason after drinking coffee, could feel as if they had been poisoned by it. Perhaps more significantly, I also learned that “ate” or “eaten” appears hardly at all near the word “poison”.

Are these revolutionary historical observations? No. But that’s not my goal here. Rather, I’m just trying to get an informal sense of the context in which poison is being discussed. Had I read through these trial records individually, I might have noticed the frequent mentions of coffee at some point. But then I would need to go back through all other records to see what I’d missed. My sample here is only a few hundred records; the task of rereading the archive doesn’t really scale to several thousand or more records, at least for practical purposes.

Although obviously not groundbreaking, the “coffee” discovery does say something interesting and prompts other questions. Maybe I should search for coffee in trial record from other archives. Are there other documented connections between coffee and poisoning? I certainly have more questions than answers. More importantly, I was able to garner historical evidence (granted, from just one source in this case) about the nature of poisoning in London in just a few minutes of playing around. One could minimize this discovery by claiming its obviousness. But such an attitude discards the distinction between a priori assumptions and evidence-based historical interpretation.

Obviously, this post really isn’t about coffe. It tries, rather, to show that the learning curve for some quick inquiries into the archive is neither long nor steep. While nothing I’ve done here could be considered technically sophisticated, it is revealing. And it shows that it’s never been easier to get a rough sense of what an archive or set of texts can tell us, especially when focusing on one particular context at a time and thus sidestepping the daunting complexities of dealing with much more data all at once.

Creating a Local Old Bailey Store for Voyeur Tools

March 21st, 2011

There are few instances when the data you have are exactly what you need, particularly for feeding into analytic tools of various kinds. This is one of the reasons I think it’s so important for a significant subset of digital humanists to have some basic programmings skills; you don’t need to be building tools, sometimes you’re you’re just building data. Otherwise, not only are you dependent on the tools built by others, but you’re also dependent on the data provided by others.

Recently we’ve been working on better integration of Voyeur Tools with the Old Bailey archives. Currently we have a cool prototype that allows you to do an Old Bailey query and to save the results as a Zotero entry and/or send the document directly to Voyeur Tools. The URL that is sent to Voyeur contains parameters that cause Voyeur to go fetch the individual trial accounts from Old Bailey via its experimental API. That’s great except that going to fetch all of those documents adds considerably latency to the system, which for larger collection can cause network timeouts. It would be preferable to have a local document store in Voyeur Tools. Read the rest of this entry »

Digging Into Data: Round Two

March 16th, 2011

The Digging Into Data program which funded the Criminal Intent project has announced a second round. They have added four more funders and one more country (the Netherlands.) As Brett Bobley put it,

Round one proved to be enormously popular, with nearly 90 international research teams competing. One piece of feedback we heard very strongly from the field is that we needed more money in this program so that we could (a) award more total projects and (b) allow for more funds per project. I’m happy to say that by adding four extra funders we have tried to address both of these concerns.

The beauty of this programme is that it funds teams across countries (Canada, USA, UK, and now the Netherlands) without forcing you to apply separately to each national programme. One application, two or three budgets, one adjudication, and you can do research with international colleagues!

New graphs for the data warehousing

March 4th, 2011

John Simpson who is programming the Data Warehousing experiment at the University of Alberta has developed a new graph for us that uses the dygraphs Javascript Visualization Library. One of the things it allows us to do is add annotations (the boxes with letters like [C]) with key historical events for people to use to orient themselves. It also allows users to zoom in and out and explore the graph in other ways.