Taking a GAP year…

Google has so far digitized over 12 million books in over 300 languages, much of which was previously available only in prestigious university libraries. The amount of data now available, then, is enormous, which is both very exciting and has huge potential for us as researchers, but, frankly, is quite bewildering in scope. What’s there? And how can it be used? In a call that went out in April of this year (2010), Google threw down the gauntlet to the academic community to come up with some suggestions.

That’s where the GAP (or Google Ancient Places) project comes in…

As a team of experts drawn from the fields of Classical Studies, Archaeology and Computing, myself, Leif Isaksen (Southampton) and Eric Kansa (Berkeley) aim to address these two primary concerns, the what and the how, first by pioneering a search-facility that facilitates the discovery of data that is of general interest to humanities scholars (in this case, locations associated with the ancient world), and then by experimenting with ways of visualizing the results.

So with GAP you’ll be able to discover all references to a particular ancient location, and then visualize the results in GoogleEarth to gain a unique snapshot of the geographic spread of the references. Or you’ll be able to discover all ancient locations mentioned in a specific book, and visualize them in GoogleMaps as and when they are mentioned alongside the actual text (as an example, see the HESTIA ‘TimeMap’, which shows locations mentioned in a chapter of Herodotus (http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/hestia/findings/index.html). In the former case you know about the place, and want to find the books; in the latter you have the book, and want to find out about the place. Moreover, you’ll be able to do this either as a scholar whose research has a historical or geographical basis, or as a member of the public visiting, for instance, an ancient location and wanting to download information related to it on your iphone―a case of literally putting knowledge into people’s hands…

Leif and I have been working on HESTIA (http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/hestia/), an AHRC-sponsored project which investigates places that the ancient Greek historian Herodotus mentions and the stories that he tells about them. But until now we had no way of finding out what later authors said about these locations. Similarly, Eric has been working on a project called ‘Open Context’ (http://opencontext.org/), which houses primary data and documentation related to different archaeological sites, posted by the very archaeologists excavating them. Again, it would be great if the archaeologist could find out what has been written about these sites, when and where…

The important thing is that this information is now available to all―and that is tremendously exciting as well as testing. Not only are digital resources transforming dissemination practices (in, for example, how scholars/experts communicate their message to a broader public); no doubt they will also change the way that we―both as researchers and members of the public―do things.

We don’t yet know where this GAP year will take us, but thanks to the challenge that Google has set us, we have the chance to start shaping research practice and help bring the knowledge derived from it out of ‘ivory tower’ institutions into everybody’s homes. Something the OU has been doing since its inception.

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