Wednesday, 30 October 2013

A gang of seventeenth century puritans and research impacts ...

I’ve recently become interested in the history of the Providence Island Company.

In abbreviated terms, in the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth centurey there was a slew of Merchant Venturers companies set up to fund and initiate exploration for new lands.

This was in the main a reaction to the Spanish conquest of the Aztec and Inca polities and the resultant flood of wealth. There was a range of companies, including the East India Company, but one of the most interesting was the Providence Island Company.

The what ? Well if you know anything of the disputes between the king and parliament, and look at the names of the principal investors in the Providence Island Company, some names leap out at you - John Pym for one, and others less well known such as Gregory Gawsell, who was later the treasurer of the Eastern Association, one of the most effective Parliamentary military organisations in the early stages of the civil war.

In short the Providence Island Company provided a legitimate vehicle for men who went on to lead the Parliamentary side in the early stages of what became the first English Civil War.

None of this is of course new. Historians have known this for years, just as they know that various country houses, such as Broughton Castle in Oxfordshire, owned by the protagonists are known as the scenes of various conversations and resolutions in the run up to the wars.

In short they all knew each other, and many of them were connected to the people who signed Charles the first’s death warrant.

So being a geek, I thought it might be fun to try and build a social graph and then feed it through a network analysis tool such as Gephi.

There is of course no convenient list of names and relationships, so I started building one using YAML - perhaps not the ideal choice, but it lets me do little index card entries for each person, with information like who participated in which body, and who knows who. Due to it’s flexibility YAML allows me to create a little folksonomy rather than trying to make a formal database while I’m working out what I want to do.

At some point I’ll probably need to write a little code to express the YAML content as RDF triples. The great virtue of YAML is that it’s text based, which means that I can use regexes and suchlike to extract information from the file.

As a data source I’m using wikipedia and following links to compile my YAML folksonomy. Very geeky, but it keeps me amused.

And it’s quite fascinating in a geeky sort of way. For example, Thomas Rainsborough, a Leveller leader (in so far as the Levellers had leaders) was related by marriage to John Winthrop, the Puritan governor of Massachusetts and had also visited the Providence Island colony, even though he had no direct relationship with the directors of the Providence Island Company.

Once I’ve got a big enough data set I’ll transform it and feed it into Gephi and see what comes out.

However this is not just an exercise in geekery, it does have a degree of more general applicability.

Universities are very interested these days in the impact that their researchers have. Using similar social network analyses it ought to be possible to show who has collaborated with who, and who regularly they have collaborated with people.

As as result of our Metadata stores project we actually have a lot of this data, and will shortly have it in an RDF expression.

Potentially by analysing information such as the email addresses used in subsequent papers it might be possible to show where secondary authors (typically graduate students and postdocs) have moved to. Coupled with some bibliometric data this might just give us a measure of the impact graduate students and postdocs within five years say of their moving elsewhere.

In other words trying to gauge the impact of researchers, not just research papers …

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