Prof. Y. Subbarayalu, French Institute of Pondicherry
Senthil Babu DHANDAPANI
|senthil.babu AT ifpindia DOT org|
A significant collaborative effort was made at the French Institute of Pondicherry by 2003, with scholars from Literature, Technology, GIS, History, Archaeology, Epigraphy, Manuscriptology, Language have been set to create a Historical Atlas using available digitized materials. Initially the atlas was focused to present information categorically organized under four main themes: Social, Political, Economic, and Cultural respectively over Pre-Historic and Historic Chronological scope.
The atlas has a conceptual resilience on how to curate data, compile information from it, and disseminate it through new digital tools available then, even when illustrative examples in the application of data science mehods in historical research was scarce. This resulted in curation and archival of historical data sets that encourage data-driven inquiries into the past, while integrating data, computational science methods into historical research.
The current version has an additional information layer curated to study, and question the epistemological process in Metrology and its relation with State formation over space and time – contextualizing the Medieval Chola [850 - 1300 AD]. This layer rests and interacts with the existing information spanning Economic, Social, Cultural, and Political knowledge dimensions, extracted and reconstructed from existing information from the Historical Atlas v-1.0.
Altas always acts as an indespensible pedagogical tool for the reader. It offers a spatial context that can ground the reader to that particular place based on the theme of study, discussion or investigation. For instance, biodiversity can be related to different perspectives based on the resources, forest, plantation, climatic parameters etc... Similarly Historical atlas can provide change in spatial information over time. This addition of temporal dimension contextualizes the information with respect to place, moment and action.
The Historical Atlas of South Asia, Atlas of the Mughal Empire are two great examples that provides information in a historical perspective. Similarly the current and earlier version of Historical Atlas of South India conveys spatio-temporal perspective for the user who is interested to explore the region of South India through different knowledge thematics. The objective is to provide information from prehistoric times to 1600 CE in digital format through a combination of maps, photographs, illustrations, texts and Geographical Information System (GIS) functionalities – a dynamic way of presenting latest historical knowledge on South India.
There has been a significant shift in the practice of Social Sciences and Humanities, since the growth of Internet based connectivity and of data. This change recognized by the academia and research institutes very well, made several attempts to discuss, organize and experiment on the promised technological advantages while critically examining the limitations and adverse effects. Considerable attention to the consequences of such technological mediation in the practice have always been criticized and recommended.
Illustratively, several leading historians have provoked necessary attention for collaboration between different academic practices to co-construct scientific methodologies that can accommodate technological changes in the practice for reconstructing histories of the past. For instance, in 2003 the late American historian and digital history pioneer Roy Rosenzweig wrote that historians were confronted with a “fundamental paradigm shift from a culture of scarcity to a culture of abundance” (Rosenzweig 2003).
As more and more historical sources were digitised, Rosenzweig argued that historians urgently needed to rethink their practices. To this day, this diagnosis remains a defining characteristic of doing history after the digital turn. Yet the problem of technologically induced abundance in historical research is far from new. During one of the first computing in the humanities conferences at Yale University in 1965, a predecessor of Rosenzweig, Hayward Alker, already spoke about the need to confront “problems of abundance” in historical research due to the availability of “masses of [digital] historical data” (Alker 1965).
There is a considerable change in the way information sciences and corresponding information technology work since the turn of 1990’s. Many of the web based information technology made around Web 1.0, have suffered from technological inertia loaded with proprietary standards, tools, and constantly changing workflows among data curators, curators, developers and designers. This has locked the contextual relationship in the spatio-temporal data to a particular schema, freezing the database modularity in the information infrastructure. This have necessitated to rebuild the application with new light from more liberated advancements such as Semantic Web, FAIR data standards, FOSS tool chains, etc..
This form of inquiring the past, discussing insights through interpretation of data, etc.. is equally applicable for other practices within humanities, like correspondences, oral history interview, photos, maps, etc.. This is where the necessity of critically looking at the Digital became vital and global importance on making sense of data, to address the biased nature due to the data, to respect the importance of subjective nature, etc... were also growing in parallel.
This have urged the curation, archiving, retrieval, preservation, dissemination, publication, narration practices to be based on FOSS and FAIR data culture. Customizable open standards to balance the tension between the objective nature of standardization and the subjectiveness representing the material, community and their practices become crucial. Addressing the problems of knowledge asymmetries and local heritage becomes necessary as it influences the Digital design, development and digitization process as well shaping the history in the digital present.
But why depend or indulge ourselves into more complication process while we have already established dissemination process ? Traditional text formats resembles the flow of time in history, on the one hand, and the logical ‘architecture’ of academic sense-making, on the other hand. However, complex conceptions of history like global entanglements, time layers, or spatial history resist the linear logic of the text. The same applies to data-driven research, when scholars of digital humanities present their interpretations, refer to data and visualizations, and discuss methodology. All these matters are too intricate to be expressed conveniently by linear progression.
The Historical atlas from its initial version addressed the digitized objects using Hyper Text links, and now with the mentioned growth in Web of Data, Semantic connections between them, compiled information, vocabularies and even between collections and themes. The objective is not only to visualize and construct an interaction medium between the historical data and the common user, providing catalogues, filters, search and retrieval instruments. To provide space where engagement with scholars through discussions, participation at different phases of information orchestration, etc – always one step closer in dissolving the knowledge asymmetry.
Thus the functional version of historical atlas is not just an experiment of technological possibilities, but also to be a channel of continuous effort in progressing and balancing the powers between mediation, representation, objectiveness, subjectiveness, knowledge commoning. To build pedagogic tools to reach people from whom the data was collected in first place, which demands more than a website, more than a searchable database. The roadmap is set to bring out these goals through long term collaboration, and keeping the practice grounded with reality.
Although the GIS similarities with the Historical Atlas is striking, and conveys information visually through spatio-temporal context, the goal is not be a GIS tool in itself. But provide a Thematic-Spatio- Temporal framework of information visualization, so that information ontology can relate with the context in action.
For further reference : Atlas, Archive Presentation