York prof to dig into data on international commodity trading

A York University research team will comb through digitized 19th-century documents to trace the environmental and economic consequences of international commodity trading during the 19th century.

Led by Professor Colin Coates (left), Canada Research Chair in Canadian Cultural Landscapes and professor of Canadian Studies at Glendon College, the project is expected to cast light on the impacts of an earlier period of economic “globalization” as a way of better understanding the challenges of current practices. It is one of eight projects across Canada that has been granted funding in the 2011 Digging into Data Challenge.

Fourteen teams representing Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States have been awarded grants to investigate how computational techniques can be applied to “big data” to change the nature of humanities and social sciences research. Each team represents collaborations among scholars, scientists and librarians from leading universities worldwide.

Coates, who is also the director of the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies at York, is one of the principal investigators on the project titled Trading Consequences, which received $125,000 in funding. The project will examine the economic and environmental consequences of commodity trading during the 19th century and employs information extraction techniques to study large corpora of digitized documents from the 19th century. This innovative digital resource will allow historians to discover novel patterns and to explore new hypotheses through structured query and a variety of visualization tools.

"Our team of environmental historians is excited to be partners with the Universities of Edinburgh and St. Andrews in the Trading Consequences project. Canadian economic development has historically been defined by commodity flows, and it is important to understand the environmental impacts of this commerce in the past, just as it is today. The focus on Canadian data will test the techniques created through this collaborative project for mapping the scope and impact of international trade in the 19th century," said Coates.

“York is proud to receive recognition in the 2011 Digging into Data Challenge,” said Robert Haché, York’s vice-president research & innovation. “These important research projects advance knowledge as researchers work collaboratively and internationally to find new ways to analyze, search for and store data using digital and electronic technologies.”

“The Digging into Data Challenge is an international initiative that enables Canadian researchers to take advantage of the huge digital resources now available and to develop close partnerships with overseas universities,” said Chad Gaffield, president of the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). “These exciting projects cross both disciplines and national borders; they lead to new insights into human thought and behaviour.”

The successful cohort of projects received a total of nearly $5 million in funding from eight international research funding agencies. SSHRC’s contribution of $869,117 will support Canadian researchers from eight of the fourteen teams.  

For more information, visit the SSHRC website.