Semantic data and the stories we’re not telling

One of my earliest memories of television was James Burke’s series Connections. It was fascinating yet accessible: each episode explored technology, history, science and society, jumping across topics based on historical connections or charming coincidences. One episode started with the stone fireplace and ended with Concorde.

In a digital utopia, we would each be our own James Burke, creating and sharing intellectual journeys by following the connections that interest us. We are not there yet. Many very valuable databases exist online, but the connections between them are obscured rather than celebrated, and this is an obstacle for anyone using those data in education or research. In a previous post I described the problems that come from the fact that things have different names in different databases, and described a semantic web approach to link them together.

Building on this approach, web applications can help people create their own stories; choosing their own path through sources of reliable information, building unexpected connections. In this post I describe three design principles behind these applications. Let’s start with a story.

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Creating Wikipedia articles from research data

Hillfort images shared on Wikimedia Commons

The Atlas of Hillforts of Britain and Ireland is a collaboration between the Universities of Oxford, Edinburgh and Cork, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. It provides a definitive list of hillfort sites in the British Isles- more than four thousand in total. As well as publishing a lot of fieldwork done by expert archaeologists, the site uses crowdsourcing, in that some of the sites were visited by volunteer investigators. The site invites users—expert or amateur—to submit their own photographs of the hillforts.

The Atlas launched in June 2017 and generated national media coverage. An issue for any newly-launched site is how to get incoming links from other sites; how to plumb the site into the existing paths by which people find information. This case study describes how, by sharing selected data from the Atlas, we were able to create thousands of incoming links from Wikipedia and related apps and sites, and to encourage the creation and use of hillfort articles in Wikipedia. Continue reading

Turning a historical book into a data set

A series of books published around the turn of the 20th century are crucial to modern bibliographic research: they are biographical dictionaries of booksellers and printers, including addresses, dates and significant works printed. Some of these books are out of copyright and available as scanned pages, allowing us not only to copy them into new formats, but adapt them into new kinds of resource.

These scanned books could be made more useful to researchers in a number of ways. Text could be meaningfully segmented, by dictionary entry rather than by page or paragraph. The book’s internal and external citations can become links, for instance linking a proper name to identifiers for the named person. The book can even have an open data representation which other data sets can hook on to, for example to say that a person is described in the book.

This case study describes the transformation of one of these books, Henry Plomer’s A Dictionary of the Booksellers and Printers who Were at Work in England, Scotland and Ireland from 1641 to 1667 using Wikisource, part of the Wikimedia family of sites. As a collaborative platform, Wikisource allowed Bodleian staff to work with Wikisource volunteers. We benefited from many kinds of volunteer labour, from correcting simple errors in the text to creating custom wiki-code to speed up the process.

A lot of important data sets only currently exist in the form of printed books, including catalogues, dictionaries and encyclopedias. We adopted a process that has already been used on some large, multi-volume works and could be used for many more. Continue reading

Reconciling database identifiers with Wikidata

Charles Grey, former Prime Minister, has an entry in Electronic Enlightenment. How do we find his UK National Archives ID, British Museum person ID, History of Parliament ID, National Portrait Gallery ID, and 22 other identifiers? By first linking his Wikidata identifier.

In a previous blog post I stressed the advantage of mapping the identifiers in databases and catalogue to Wikidata. This post describes a few different tools that were used in reconciling more than three thousand identifiers from the Electronic Enlightenment (EE) biographical dictionary.

The advantages to the source database include:

  • Maintaining links between Wikipedia and the source database. EE and Early Modern Letters Online (EMLO) are two biographical projects that maintain links to Wikipedia. As Wikipedia articles get renamed or occasionally deleted, links can break. It is also easy to miss the creation of new Wikipedia articles. As EE and EMLO links are added to Wikidata, a simple database query gets a list of Wikipedia article links and their corresponding identifiers. Thus we can save work by automatically maintaining the links.
  • Identifying the Wikipedia articles of individuals in the source database. These are targets for improvement by adding citations of the source database.
  • Identifying individuals in the source database who lack Wikipedia articles, or who have articles in other language versions of Wikipedia, but not English. New articles can raise the profile of those individuals and can link to the source database. We raised awareness among the Wikipedian community with a project page and blog post. We also arranged with Oxford University Press to give free access to EE for active Wikipedia editors who requested it, via OUP’s existing Wikipedia Library arrangement.

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Report from Wikimania

Last month I had to privilege to attend the Wikimania conference in Montreal, Canada, where 900 people from around the world gathered for two days of hacking and building and then three days of conference sessions. The conference scope includes not just the Wikimedia projects but also the big themes of open education, open access, community building, and privacy and rights in the digital age. One blog post by one attendee is only going to capture a sliver of what went on, and here I am summarising some big projects of most relevance to university research projects and GLAMs.

This time round, Wikidata rather than Wikipedia was generating the most excitement. Wikidata, the free structured knowledge-base, is going through a period of explosive growth, helped in a small part by data shared from partner institutions including Oxford University, and the conference brought together many people using Wikidata to document cultural heritage and current knowledge.

The author and hundreds of other Wikimedians. Photo by Victor Grigas of the Wikimedia foundation, CC-BY-SA 4.0

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A step forward in the sharing of open data about theses

Title page of Marie Curie’s doctoral thesis; Yale University via Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain

Theses, particularly doctoral theses, are an important part of the scholarly record. Some are published and become influential books in their own right. As well as demonstrating the author’s ability to do original research, a thesis gives a snapshot of its author’s intellectual development at a formative time. This post reports on work sharing open data about thousands of theses, with links back to their full text in a repository.

The Oxford Research Archive (ORA) has 3237 Oxford doctoral theses on open access for anyone to download and read. Some of the authors have gone on to highly accomplished careers, such as the psychologist Professor Dorothy Bishop or the economist Sir John Vickers. During the confirmation hearings that eventually saw Neil Gorsuch appointed to the US Supreme Court, the interest in his background was such that TIME magazine wrote an article analysing his thesis and linking to ORA. This may well have been prompted by our linking the thesis from the top Google hit about Gorsuch; his Wikipedia biography. Continue reading

Resource discovery and Wikidata

How can I find reference materials about Jane Austen? This query could potentially take me to dozens of different sites and databases, each with different types of material. Project Gutenberg has transcribed text of her works. Librivox has audiobooks. Find A Grave has images of her memorial stone in Winchester Cathedral. The Huygens database of Women Writers has citations for modern research about her. The Stanford project Kindred Britain has her family tree. Across the Wikimedia family of sites, there are articles about Austen in 103 language versions of Wikipedia, quotations in 27 language versions of Wikiquote, and various images in Wikimedia Commons.

Portrait of Jane Austen by her sister, Cassandra. From the National Portrait Gallery via Wikimedia Commons

Title page of a first edition of Pride and Prejudice. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Coat of arms of the Austen family. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

How do we capture the fact that all these different resources are about the same person? How do we make a path to these and similar sources, bypassing all the irrelevant links that would come up in a web search? Continue reading