Project to computer-analyze railroads history awarded funds

Released on 12/04/2009, at 11:00 AM
Office of University Communications
University of Nebraska–Lincoln
Lincoln, Neb., December 4th, 2009 —
Will Thomas
Will Thomas

A University of Nebraska-Lincoln project bringing together historians, geographers and computer scientists to correlate, analyze and visualize the development of railroads has won an international grant competition to further the research. The UNL team was one of just eight international research teams selected for the prestigious award, announced Dec. 3 in Canada.

The Digging into Data Challenge is a grant competition sponsored by four research agencies: the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation from the United States, the Joint Information Systems Committee from the United Kingdom and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council from Canada. The Digging into Data Challenge competition focused on the question "what do you do with a million books?" Or a million pages of newspaper? Or a million photographs of artwork? And now that scholars have access to huge repositories of digitized data -- far more than they could read in a lifetime -- what does that mean for research?

The UNL project led by William G. Thomas, professor of history and John and Catherine Angle Professor of the Humanities, will support research for UNL's "Railroads and the Making of Modern America" digital history project and help create new tools for spatio-temporal correlation, analysis and visualization of railroad-related data. The project will integrate large-scale historical data sources from various repositories -- such as time schedules, newspaper accounts, payrolls and maps -- and align them with other data, such as county-level census data. The project aims to demonstrate how scholars of American history, working on a range of subjects from global finance, to capital markets, labor migration, the law, environmental change and culture, could "dig in" to this data to produce new forms of "cyberscholarship."

Each international research team was required to have partners in Canada, the United Stats and the United Kingdom. The UNL project, which received a grant of nearly $100,000, will combine efforts and researchers from University of Portsmouth (U.K.), University of Victoria (Canada) and McGill University (Montreal, Canada).

UNL researchers will include Thomas in history, and Stephen Scott, Ashok Samal and Ian Cottingham in computer science. The grant will allow the hiring of graduate research assistants to aid in the 18-month project, which is to begin in April. The UNL-team funding will be matched in the United Kingdom where the team led by Professor Richard Healey from University of Portsmouth will receive funding of 98,900 pounds (roughly $164,500). Together the research team will combine data and share programming.

Thomas said the competition was one of the stiffest yet for humanities scholars, and innovative as well, because it requires transatlantic partnerships.

The advent of what has been called "data-driven inquiry" or cyberscholarship has changed the nature of inquiry across many disciplines, including the sciences and humanities, revealing new opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration on problems of common interest, according to the NEH. The creation of vast quantities of Internet-accessible digital data and the development of techniques for large-scale data analysis and visualization have led to many new discoveries in genetics, astronomy and other fields, and to connections between academic disciplinary areas. New techniques of large-scale data analysis allow researchers to discover relationships, detect discrepancies, and perform computations on data sets that are so large that they can be processed only using computing resources and computational methods developed within the past few years. With books, newspapers, journals, films, artworks and sound recordings being digitized on a massive scale, it is possible to apply data analysis techniques to large collections of diverse cultural heritage resources as well as scientific data.

"Like any research in computer science or the sciences, this humanities research is speculative in a good way, and the challenge that the NEH and these other funding agencies have put forward is essentially this -- they are asking the teams to give us an idea of what something might look like, if you have huge amounts of data, what do you do with it?" Thomas said. More than just digitizing content and creating databases and interactive Web sites, this research should visualize a new area of computational discovery and presentation, he said.

Thomas's work with railroads and their development as evidence of a global process of social change provides an example of a broad research area to be examined under data-driven inquiry.

"Railroads are a huge domain of data -- they're all over the place in terms of their significance and what is written about them," Thomas said. "Our challenge is to figure out how to take a big subject like this and sift through this digital data to present in a way that scholars can use. That's the goal. It's ambitious. It's not a matter of digitizing the content and putting it online, it's about how we can create new tools to see how these data are related. This is about discovery. With huge quantities of digital data, we are on the brink of a massive change in scholarly communication."

Thomas' work in digital humanities at UNL earned earlier grants and acclaim. In 2007 he received a prestigious Digital Innovation Fellowship to expand his digital history project, "Railroads and the Making of Modern America," that tracks the growth of railroad networks across space and time. And in 2008 the British Association for American Studies awarded him an Eccles Fellowship where he studied at the digital humanities center at King's College. And in 2006 he and his computer science colleagues received seed funding from UNL's Office of Research.

"Without that early support from UNL we would not have been in the position to win this prestigious award," Thomas said. "It made a big difference in our competitiveness. With this award and others like it, UNL has become a national and international leader in the field of digital humanities."

Read more about the Digging into Data Challenge at, or about Thomas and his railroad research at and on the UNL Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at

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