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Historian Uses 'Big Data' to Study World History

January 16, 2013

The path from ancient China to information science might seem like a long one, but Ruth Mostern is walking it.

Mostern, a history professor in the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts, is joining a team that will use more than $601,000 in National Science Foundation grants to start building a massive history database.

Called the Collaborative for Historical Information and Analysis (CHIA) and based at University of Pittsburgh, the effort has Mostern connecting with Boston University, Harvard University and Michigan State University scholars to apply modern computing power to past civilizations.

Sometimes referred to as “big data,” computer-based analysis of large databases has paid dividends in medicine, climatology and political science.

Mostern and her collaborators hope for equally-dramatic results as computing power is brought to bear on one of the oldest academic disciplines.

“This is a tremendously exciting field to be in right now,” said Mostern, who studies Chinese history. “People understand how big data has transformed genetics and climate science. Now we might be able to use similar approaches to compare past societies.”

It’s unusual for National Science Foundation money to fund research projects in history and the humanities. Mostern’s $110,381 grant will support her time working on the database, along with a graduate assistant, for the next three years.

The assistant will function as “a data Hoover,” and will search out historical datasets and communicate with their owners about acquiring rights and posting them to the database, Mostern said.

The team’s goal is ambitious. It wants to spend a decade reviewing and uploading several terabytes of data into the collection. The collaborators plan to offer it to the world — letting researchers make new connections by applying advanced computing power to the data.

UC Merced is well positioned to take a lead in the effort, said Susan Amussen, director of UC Merced’s Center for Research in the Humanities and Arts.

“Just as the history program at UC Merced is not constrained by traditional boundaries, this effort represents the way in which the field of history as a whole is expanding,” Amussen said. “It’s very exciting to be involved with this project.”

The CHIA database is just the first step in an effort that could last decades or longer, Mostern said. Farther down the road, some visionaries believe that historical datasets may be robust enough to help make predictions about the future.

Actual modeling is a long way off, but the prospect is tantalizing, Mostern said.

“I’m blown away whenever I step away from my computer and think about the potential implications of what we’re doing,” she said.