Software to chart rise of Empire trade

A study of the rise of the British Empire is likely to show that mass global trading was big business at the time.

Historians and computing experts will use bespoke software to trawl thousands of historic documents for details of trade movements between Britain and the rest of the World in the 19th century.

The project will detail the economic and environmental impact of shipping valuable commodities such as building materials, tea, fruit, and spices.

Trawling archives

Our project will seek to define the extent of commodity trading during the growth of the Empire, and its impact on the economy and environment.

Professor Ewan KleinSchool of Informatics

Researchers from the University will use a software technique called text mining to survey thousands of digitised documents.

Sources will include British and Canadian Government documents, newspapers from around the world, books and journals.

Text mining is faster than manual reading and can place information in context.

It can, for example, distinguish between Washington as a place or surname.

The software can also differentiate references to materials as commodities, such as mahogany timber but not mahogany furniture.

It also understands variations in records of weights, measures, dates and prices.

Uncovering data

The project will be led by the University of Edinburgh in collaboration with the University of St Andrews and York University, Canada.

The University of Edinburgh’s reference and archive centre, EDINA, will store information garnered in the study.

The two-year project forms part of Digging for Data, a wider initiative by JISC, the UK’s digital information body.

The work is supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Economic and Social Research Council and the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

We think of globalisation as a particularly recent phenomenon, yet historians argue that transnational trade in the late 19th century led to a golden age of global economic development.

Professor Ewan KleinSchool of Informatics