Making ‘Big Data’ Human: Doing History in a Digital Age

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Date / time: 9 September, All day

University of Cambridge

Making ‘Big Data’ Human: Doing History in a Digital Age

With Keynote Speaker Prof. Jane Winters, Professor of Digital History and Head of Publications, Institute of Historical Research

In a digital society, it is hard to escape discussions of ‘big data’, massive amounts of information that need database and software techniques for full processing. But beyond this initial definition what does ‘big data’ really mean? Do we already use it? Why do we need to? And how can we integrate this with historical research when using data sets simply too ‘big’ for traditional methods of analysis and presentation? Reflections on the impact and the usage of data, which have perhaps been more forthcoming in the spheres of business and science, are still only starting to permeate through the humanities. Yet our very idea of knowledge is being revolutionised by the digital sphere, in terms of data gathering, availability, and interactions – through online databases, digital archives, mapping systems or simply with everyday internet searches. Big data sits behind many of the tools we use for research in any field of historical study. For those working on projects with a fixed ending, whether as a postgraduate student or as an early-career researcher, it can be hard to find ways in which to approach this data wisely and usefully without becoming overwhelmed or losing touch with a humanistic approach.

This one-day conference will approach what it means to use big data to ‘do history’. Through a series of panel sessions we will address questions such as: What new opportunities can big data provide for historians? Can we retain the richness of history in big data, and what might historical methodologies bring to its study? Does the use of big data risk ignoring the subordinate and those not traditionally represented? What does digital history mean for the use of traditional historical methodologies? The panels will culminate in a roundtable session which will bring together thoughts from across the day to further our understanding of whether ‘big data’ requires an entirely new methodological approach to history and, if so, what impact this has on the ‘humanistic’ side of history as a discipline.

Topics for the conference will include:

• Ethical questions around researching with big data
• Text mining and OCR
• Data visualisation methods
• Mapping and GIS
• Programming for historians
• Digitisation processes
• The use of the web as research tool and archive
• Prosopography
• Crowdsourcing and social media