Introducing the Space and Time Lab

Written by Emma GriffinJune 27, 2019Comments: 0

The Space and Time Lab is interested in how the changes that occurred during the industrial revolution altered the lived experiences of ordinary people. We’re planning to look at a range of different sources over the life of the project and explore how we can use large datasets and machine learning to address this question.

As Britain became a more industrial, urban and complex society, social investigators began to collect ever more detail about the lives of its citizens. The inaugural census of 1801 took a head count of Britain’s population. Subsequent censuses held at ten-yearly intervals gathered increasingly intricate information about where individuals lived, where they had been born, the people they lived with, and the jobs they performed. Along with the registration of births, marriages, and deaths, this provides us with millions of data points – an unparalleled trove of information about the lives of people during the world’s first industrial revolution. At the same time, organisations undertook initiatives to survey and to map the British Isles for a range of different purposes. In the process, they created extensive information about how and where people lived, how urban areas were formed and expanded, and how people began to live in ever closer proximity to both industry and to each other.

Historians have of course long been aware of these records and already made considerable headway in establishing how this vast store of information can be exploited to shed light on specific historical problems. The difficulty, however, is that most historians work within a humanistic tradition, and so do not have the skills or training to handle data on such a vast scale. By working on small locations, or time periods, historians have demonstrated the vast potential of this data. The challenge, now, is to harness the combined skills of historians, data scientists, and others in order to work with this data at scale.

This strand of the Living with Machines project involves collaboration between historians and others to clean and use census and cartographic data on a hitherto unmanageable scale in order to address specific questions about the human experience of industrialisation. Our first objective is to work with the map data, as discussed in Katie’s blog post about our current ‘minimum research output’. We will then move on to the census data and explore nominal linkage techniques in order to construct life-histories for individuals as they move through each census in turn.

But our project ambitions extend beyond this. We also hope to trial ways of linking these two discrete datasets – the map data and the census data, and – in the due course of time – to link the outcomes of this lab with other datasets such as newspapers, on which other members of the Living with Machines team are currently working.

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