Civil War Data 150: Unfinished Dreams

Michigan and Pennsylvania Relief Association. Ladies ministering to the wounded and sick soldiers. From the NYPL Digital Gallery.

Civil War Data 150 headed by Jon Voss, initially began as a partnership between The Archives of Michigan, The Internet Archive and Freebase. Later, the project added two additional partners: The University of Richmond and HistoryPin – Voss’s newest project. Civil War Data 150 (CWD150) was created to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, which began in April of 2011. The project’s initial plans included continued growth of the project over the four years of the sesquicentennial, from 2011-2015. CWD150 was a multifaceted project that encompassed – and planned to encompass – a number of different data sources, tools and applications as well as a social media component. Along with promoting the digitization of archival documents from the Civil War, CWD150 championed for institutions to adopt Linked Open Data. Libraries, archives, museums and even individual researchers were encouraged to contribute Civil War data to the project.

CWD 150’s stated goals in a 2010 presentation were:

  1. Identify sources and map metadata into Freebase.
  2. Create web apps to enable users to add to or modify shared metadata with strong identifiers.
  3. Engage the public in the process of interacting with and adding value to the data.

Data and Technology

CWD 150 hoped to gather data from archives, libraries, museums and individuals throughout the world. However, the majority of the data used in the finished applications came from Wikipedia (via Freebase) as well as the Tuft University’s Perseus Project. CWD 150 planned on gathering data not only through submissions and partnerships, but to also identify primary datasets through web crawling, screen scraping, XML sums, and CSV files. The next step in the project was to map the metadata in Freebase. Once the data was structured, CWD 150 planned to create their own web apps and also make their data stronger by encouraging Civil War historians and others to add specific schema through a crowdsourcing tool.

Web Applications and Tools

Conflict History           was a web application, which utilized the Freebase and Google Maps APIs to create a dynamic, geographic timeline of the history of war and conflict throughout the world. The majority of the text utilized by the Freebase API came from Wikipedia, and users of Conflict History were encouraged to edit the information on either Freebase or Wikipedia. Conflict History was developed by TecToys, a web and mobile studio founded by Thimon Sistermans. In October of 2012, Sistermans announced on the Conflict History website that the application would be taken down to be updated as the data sources and web technologies utilized by the tool were quickly becoming outdated. Sistermans also announced that the site would be relaunched in January of 2013. As of March 2013 this notice is still posted on the website and the tool does not appear to be updated.

CWD150’s involvement with Conflict History appeared to be more of a supportive role than a direct partnership as they appear to have been two distinct projects. Although the two projects do not appear to have collaborated with each other, the benefits of supporting and promoting one-another could have definitely lead to improvements in both projects. CWD 150’s call to action towards the releasing of Civil War data as Linked Data would have immediately benefited Conflict History as the Freebase API would have benefited from these updates, therefore making Conflict History a more powerful tool. Additionally, Conflict History would have benefited CWD 150 through its dynamic timeline, something that CWD 150 could encourage the releasing of data with without having to devote time and resources to creating their own mashup.

Live Tweeting the Civil War + 150             

Live Tweeting the Civil War + 150 is a now defunct project embarked on by CWD 150. The project utilized Dyer’s Compendium (1908), which was turned into structured data by Tufts University’s Perseus Project. The downloadable XML from the Perseus Project was unfortunately not structured as Linked Open Data, which CWD 150 planned to remedy by converting the XML to CSV so that it could be placed in a relational database and broken down by event date. Next CWD 150 planned to utilize a Python script – inspired by Ed Summers’ PaperBot 7 – to automatically create tweets appropriate to each day of the sesquicentennial. Finally CWD 150 hoped to add a link to each tweet directing users to different resources.

Analysis of Civil War Data 150, or What Can Be Learned from a Promising, Unfinished Project         

Although CWD 150 is an unfinished project, there is still a lot to be learned from the documentation surrounding the project through blogs, presentations, podcasts and articles. Primarily, CWD 150 is a significant project in the short history of Linked Open Data, as it created a call to arms for the creation of Linked Open Data and the sharing of archival documents and materials throughout the country. The issues that led to the termination of the project are not stated anywhere on the the project’s website but it can be assumed that this ambitious project did not have the staffing necessary to fulfill all of its goals.

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