All posts by John Bradley

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.

Prosopography of the Byzantine Empire (PBE) comes back to life

One of King’s oldest digital prosopographical project has recently returned to life, and is now freely available online at http://www.pbe.kcl.ac.uk.

The Prosopography of the Byzantine Empire (PBE) began as a project back in the late 1980s to produce a prosopography of individuals who appear in sources from the early Byzantine Empire (641-867 AD).

The principal compiler and editor for PBE was John Robert Martindale with Dr Dion Smythe as Research Associate and Dr Mary Whitby as Research Assistant to the project. PBE was supported by the British Academy from the beginning (and, indeed, the Academy has generously continued to support work in this area up to the present day), with a scholarly committee formed of prominent scholars including Professor Robert Browning (chair of the project until his death in 1997), Professor Averil Cameron (chair), Professor A.A.M. Bryer, Dr Larry Conrad, Professor Donald Nicol, Sir Dimitri Obolensky, Professor Charlotte Roueché, Professor John Haldon, Professor Judith Herrin (deputy chair), Dr James Howard-Johnston, Professor Paul Magdalino, Mr John Robert Martindale, Dr Rosemary Morris, Professor Margaret Mullett, Mr Harold Short, Dr Dion Smythe and Dr Mary Whitby. An agreement of collaboration was signed in 1993 between the British Academy (for PBE) and the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences (for PmbZ).

After the PBE work was done funding was acquired (initially from the precursor to the current AHRC, the AHRB) to begin prosopographical work on a third period of the Byzantine Empire – a project that came to be called the Prosopography for the Byzantine World (1025-1150); available at http://www.pbw.kcl.ac.uk.

PBE has an interesting story to tell to Digital Humanists, since, unusually for its day, the project was conceived of from its very beginning as a digital project to be published in some kind of electronic form. It was taken up by what was then King’s College London Computer Centre’s Research Unit in Humanities Computing (which eventually became what is now the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s). Thus, staff within the RUHC were actively involved in the conception and development of PBE as a digital product: initially Gordon Gallacher, Mark Stewart, and (when he joined the department in 1997) John Bradley. Throughout, the work was planned and coordinated by Harold Short (who was technical director). Indeed, in the mid and late 1990s there emerged a then highly original vision for prosopography when Gallacher, Stewart and Smythe developed a model to represent prosopography as a structured data project based around a relational database for storage.

In the 1990s it was not at all obvious in what form a digital publication that would be accessible to Byzantine scholars should be published, especially since the data itself was held on a centralised relational database held at King’s. Furthermore, at the time many Byzantine scholars did not have ready access to the internet and were not yet familiar with the World Wide Web. Thus, the publication was originally conceived of in terms of a Digital CD disk that would hold the materials, and could be purchased and then used by scholars on their own personal computers. Even when, in the later 1990s, the CD medium still seemed the way to go, it was still not clear what software would be used to make a PBE CD usable on any computer Byzantinists would be likely to have. After some early prototyping by John Bradley, it became evident that the database data could be expressed in terms of a set of HTML web pages, and after approval of the PBE committee, he developed the procedures that extracted the data and generated the materials that were put onto the CD as a set of highly interlinked HTML pages (approx 13,000 pages). The original disk even included a version of the early web browser NetScape that could be installed from the disk itself if the CD user did not already have a web browser on their computer.

Web technology was not as mature in the late 1990s as it is today. First, the PBE materials contained some amount of ancient Greek text, and although today Unicode support on pretty well any contemporary computer provides for the display of Greek as a matter of course, in the 1990s there was yet no adequate support to display Greek text on most computers. Thus, a Greek font was located (SPIONIC was used), and technical work was carried out to translate the Greek representation as it was in the database (extended Greek Beta-Code) into a representation that would work with this font. The font itself was also provided on the CD. Next, some degree of interactivity was thought desirable for this material. Thus, a small set of Javascript programs were hand-crafted and weaved into the CD materials to support facet-like filtering of data. In the late 1990s JavaScript was a much more limited creature than it is today (there was then no mechanism to get at the actual HTML of web pages, for example), and this use of Javascript to support enriched browser-based user interaction on humanities data was a very new and innovative development at the time. Finally, page layout technologies such as CSS were only in the earliest phases of development, so richer layout and navigation was created by the use of HTML frame technology.

Even by the time the PBE CD was published by Ashgate Publishing Ltd in 2001, it was becoming evident that an online version of PBE, served over the WWW, was becoming an appropriate way to make PBE available.  However, as it turned out, publishing PBE on the WWW had to wait many years. At last, due to the kind permission of Ashgate Publishing and a bit of work recently by John Bradley and Ginestra Ferraro (DDH), the full set of materials that were originally available via the CD have been at last been made available online for free at http://www.pbe.kcl.ac.uk. After being presented with a few modern-looking front pages, the user quickly finds him/herself being presented with web pages as they were designed in 1998-2001. However, not all of the technical design is exactly as it was on the CD, and a few features behind the scenes have been updated to reflect more modern browser standards. The special Greek font is no longer needed because the Greek text has been translated into Unicode for the online PBE version, and the Javascript interactive component has been updated to take advantage of more recent, and more satisfactory, components and practices.

One could argue that the PBE project represented an important stage of development for the Digital Humanities, and certainly for DH at King’s.

  • It was the first at King’s of the kind of highly collaborative academic projects that blended academic and technical innovation, and that aimed to explore the potential of digital publication. This approach, proposed and developed originally by Harold Short, proved to be highly successful, and provided the model for more than 40 subsequent highly successful multi-year collaborative projects that have operated at DDH according to similar principles. The Clergy of the Church of England database, the Fine Rolls of Henry III, the People of Medieval Scotland, the Art of Making in Antiquity, and many others are the fruit of this approach.
  • PBE was the first project where the factoid approach to structured prosopography was developed and then used. The factoid approach, originally developed by Gordon Gallacher and Dion Smythe, has undergone further development from its form in PBE, but has been used very successfully in a good number of structured prosopography projects including the Prosopography of the Byzantine World, the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England, the Breaking of Britain project, the Making of Charlemagne’s Europe project, and has been taken up by other prosopographical projects worldwide.
  • The PBE CD represents a very early attempt to think about how to publish highly structured data over the WWW in a form that was effective for humanist use. Subsequent work on how this should be done can be traced over many years in the approaches used by several other long standing online research projects at DDH such as the Stellenbibliographie zum “Parzival” Wolframs von Eschenbach, Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland, Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi Digitisation Project, British Printed Images to 1700 and Early Modern London Theatres.
  • Finally, PBE represents a very early attempt to use Javascript in a Digital Humanities project to enhance client/browser side interactivity for its users. Javascript has developed a very long way from what it was like in the late 1990s, and it is now capable of supporting very rich and complex user interaction. However, even under the limitations of what Javascript could do in the 1990s, PBE’s use of it revealed some of what Javascript’s potential was as a tool to provide enriched interaction in humanities scholarly resources.

PBE was originally published on CD with the conscious aim by its committee of keeping its cost as low as possible so that it would be affordable to as many researchers as possible. Since then, the WWW has made it possible to publish freely available complex resources to any scholar with access to the internet, and this development is clearly still in the process of transforming scholarship. We are very grateful to Ashgate publishers for agreeing to permit this material that was originally published by them on the CD to be now made freely available to an international scholarly community.

Festschrift to honour Harold Short published

A book has just been published that celebrates the recent retirement of Professor Harold Short from King’s Department of Digital Humanities (DDH).  Published by Ashgate publishers, and entitled “Collaborative Research in the Digital Humanities“, it is a festschrift honouring Harold Short and his work.  As is characteristic of a festschrift, it contains chapters by many colleagues of Harold’s from around the world and reflects upon some of the remarkable aspects of collaborative research that have been enabled and revealed by the Digital Humanities. Continue reading Festschrift to honour Harold Short published