Working to define “factoid prosopography”

The Department of Digital Humanities (DDH) (previously the Centre for Computing in the Humanities) at King’s College London first developed the idea of factoid prosopography back in about 1995. It grew out of a need then to think about how to do prosopography in a structured data (database) environment.  Since these early days, CCH/DDH has been involved in 6 prosopographical projects (latest finished in 2016) that consciously took up the factoid approach.  Furthermore, the idea of a factoid prosopography has generated interest from historians around the world who wish to do their own projects independently from DDH.

Although papers have been published on the idea of the factoid in prosopography (see Bradley and Short 2005 and Pasin and Bradley 2015), they provide only a rather high level overview of what the structural implications for a factoid prosopography might be.  Hence, this new site, developed by me, at:

http://factoid-dighum.kcl.ac.uk/

entitled Factoids: A site that introduces Factoid Prosopography.

Why have I created this site? I was not the originator of the idea of the factoid (this was developed by Gordon Gallacher and Dion Smyth in 1995, before I was at KCL).  However, I am the only one at DDH to have been involved in work (ranging from junior developer in the early days, to senior developer and then co-investigator more recently) in all six of the prosopographical projects that took a factoid approach and that involved DDH.  Based on this sense of continuity alone, it seemed natural for me to be the right person to describe the factoid approach as we have developed it at DDH.

The Factoids site contains three sections:

  1. a brief document that describes what I think factoid prosopography is all about,
  2. links to the various projects that CCH/DDH (and in particular, I) have been involved in that describe themselves as factoid prosopographies (along with two prosopographies done with the participation of CCH/DDH and myself that do not!), and
  3. a first attempt at a formal ontology (called the “Factoid Prosopography Ontology”: FPO) that is meant to capture what seems to me to be some of the important formalisms that have underpinned the CCH/DDH factoid prosopographies.

Item 3 deserves a brief explanation. This formal ontology is expressed as an RDFS/OWL ontology (and is, in fact, distributed through GITHub).  Why is this useful? Well, as one of the earliest thinkers about computer ontologies put it, an ontology is “an explicit specification of a conceptualization” (Gruber 1995, p. 908), and through it, as Noy and McGuinnes say, allows one:

  • To share common understanding of the structure of information among people or software agents
  • To enable reuse of domain knowledge
  • To make domain assumptions explicit
  • To separate domain knowledge from operational knowledge
  • To analyze domain knowledge (Noy and McGuinness, undated)

Prosopography data from different projects, by its very nature, is likely to gradually link together.  A structured data prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England is likely to connect through common persons and places with prosopographies for, say, Scandinavia that explore material of the same time period.  The more consistent the structure that they share, the more straightforward and stronger the connection that can be made between them.  As Gruber says, “[w]e use common ontologies to describe ontological commitments for a set of agents so that they can communicate about a domain of discourse without necessarily operating on a globally shared theory.  We say that an agent commits to an ontology if its observable actions are consistent with the definitions in the ontology.” (p 908)

By proposing FPO in the languages of the Semantic Web, RDFS and OWL, I was able to think of FPO as formulation of a formal core for factoid prosopography, a core that could be naturally expanded using the range of techniques that RDFS and OWL enable to meet the differing needs of various projects that implement it.

I think of FPO as still being rather preliminary, and as the title of this blog suggests, FPO should be most definitely thought of as work in progress. Indeed, for this reason I have assigned it a version number of 0.2 to it! Furthermore, although other projects can choose to commit to the view of factoid prosopography that FPO represents, DDH’s view of what formal structure enables and constitutes factoid prosopography, as presented in FPO, needn’t be the only possible view, of course.  Others are most definitely free to take up some part of the idea of factoid to suit the needs of their own project and yet implement a quite different approach to modelling their prosopography.  However, I think it fair to say that DDH has had perhaps the longest, and the most, experience with working successfully on the factoid approach, and for that reason alone it is worthwhile presenting, in some detail, what DDH’s views on these matters might be.  This is what the new Factoids site and the FPO prototype ontology are aiming to achieve.

References

Bradley, John and Harold Short (2005). “Texts into databases: the Evolving Field of New-style Prosopography” in Literary and Linguistic Computing Vol. 20 Suppl. 1:3-24.

Gruber, Thomas R. (1995). “Toward principles for the design of ontologies used for knowledge sharing?” In International Journal of Human-Computer Studies. Vol. 43, No. 5–6, November 1995, pp. 907-928.

Noy, Natalya F. and Deborah L. McGuinness (undated). “Ontology Development 101: A Guide to Creating Your First Ontology”. Online http://www.ksl.stanford.edu/people/dlm/papers/ontology101/ontology101-noy-mcguinness.html

Pasin, Michele and John Bradley (2015). “Factoid-based prosopography and computer ontologies: Towards an integrated approach”. In Digital Scholarship in the Humanities. Vol 30 No. 1, pp. 86-97.  published online June 29, 2013 doi:10.1093/llc/fqt037.

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