Jim Clifford

"Digging into Data": Commodities on the Move

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Dr. Jim Clifford is an environmental historian with particular interest in Britain and the British World during the 19th century. His current project "Trading Consequences" is a collaborative effort with team members at York University, the University of Edinburgh and St. Andrews University, which examines the environmental and economic consequences of commodity trading in the British Empire.

"Trading Consequences" brings together historians, linguists and computer scientists to develop an innovative approach to examine the prevalence of commodities across a geographical space. By developing a system to text mine, or extract structured information from millions of pages of scanned historical documents, Clifford and his project collaborators have utilized a unique method to illustrate the relationships between commodities  and geographical locations in  the documents. Each time a commodity, such as wheat, is in the same sentence as a place name, such as Saskatoon, the program pulls the data and attempts to determine the correct coordinates for the location. This digital methodology gives historians an advantage previously unavailable.

Text mining can extract information from millions of pages of text, significantly increasing the amount of information available to historians, particularly when combined with traditional close reading of archival documents. The "Trading Consequences" team is also developing a visualization tool for researchers to explore the text mined data. Clifford explains that this project will soon become an open resource, where other historians will be able to explore the database through the online visualization tools.   

With the database nearly complete, Clifford is using this new resource to explore the reliance of East London industries on raw materials from around the world. Soap factories relied on tallow from Russia, the United States, Argentina, and Australasia, along with palm oil from West Africa and coconut oil from Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Producers of the anti-malarial drug quinine, needed cinchona bark from Peru and later from plantations in Ceylon and Java. Many more factories developed products that relied on overseas commodities and all of these industries combined contributed to significant environmental transformations in many locations across the globe. This research builds on his doctoral research, which focuses on the environmental history of West Ham and the River Lea on the eastern edge of 19th century London.  

This project received funding from Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) as part of a "Digging into Data" grant.