Researching e-Science Analysis of Census Holdings: The ReACH project

  1. 1. Melissa Terras

    School of Library, Archive and Information Studies - University College London

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e-Science technologies have the potential to enable
large-scale datasets to be searched analysed, and shared
quickly, efficiently, and in complex and novel ways. So far,
little application has been made of the processing power of grid
technologies to humanities data, due to lack of available large
scale datasets which would warrant such high performance
computing, and little understanding of or access to e-Science
technologies. The ReACH workshop series, funded by the UK’s
Arts and Humanities Research Council, was established in June
2006 at University College London to investigate the potential
application of e-Science and high performance computing
technologies to a large dataset of interest to historians,
humanists, digital consumers, and the general public: historical
census records.
The ReACH series consisted of various workshops undertaken
over the summer of 2006 to investigate the academic, technical,
and managerial aspects that would have to be taken into account
in order to set up a large scale project which would utilise
UCL’s high performance computing facilities to analyse large
scale historical census datasets from the UK’s National
Archives, in conjunction with the genealogy firm, Ancestry.
By undertaking a scoping study in this manner, it was hoped
to determine the academic merits of such a proposal: it may be
feasible to undertake this analysis, but would it be useful to
historical researchers? What would the analysis do? What would
the technical implementation of such a project involve? What
staffing and funding costs would be required? The workshop
series featured input from various project partners, and
interdisciplinary experts, to ascertain whether a full scale project
would be worthwhile to undertake. Moreover, the workshop
series aimed to ascertain if and how e-Science (defined as “a
specific set of advanced technologies for Internet
resource-sharing and collaboration: so-called grid technologies,
and technologies integrated with them, for instance for
authentication, data-mining and visualization. (AHRC ICT
2006)”) can be applied to the arts and humanities.
Public interest in historical census data is phenomenal, as the
overwhelming response to mounting the 1901 census online at
The National Archives demonstrates (Inman, 2002). Yet the
data is also much used for research by historians (see Higgs
2005 for an introduction). There are many versions of historical
census datasets available, covering a variety of aspect of the
census, and digitised census records are one of the largest digital
datasets available in arts and humanities research. In the Arts
and Humanities Data Service repository collection alone there
are currently 155 datasets pertaining to historical census data
(from the UK and abroad) created for research purposes (AHDS
2006). Commercial firms dealing (or having dealt) in genealogy
information (such as Ancestry1, Genes Re-united2, QinetiQ 3,
British Origins4, The Genealogist5, and 1837Online6 ) have
digitised vast swathes of historical census material (although
to varying degrees of completeness and accuracy). There is
much interest from the historical community in using this
emerging data for research, and developing tools and
computational architectures which can aid historians in
analysing this complex data (see Crocket, Jones and Schürer
(2006) for an advanced proposal regarding the creation of a
longitudinal database of English individuals and households
from 1851 to 1901, see also the work of the North Atlantic
Population Project7). However, there have been few
opportunities for the application of high performance computing
to utilise large scale processing power in the analysis of
historical census material, especially analysing data across the
spectrum of census years available in the UK (7 different
censuses taken at 10 year intervals from 1841-1901). Although
certain digitized datasets of the UK census are in the public
domain (18818) most were digitized by commercial companies
and are unavailable to the academic researcher. Most historians
do not have access to, or do not know how to use, high
performance computing facilities.
The aim of the ReACH series was to bring together disparate
expertise in Computing Science, Archives, Genealogy, History,
and Humanities Computing, to discuss how e-science scale
techniques could be applied to be of use in the historical
research community. The project partners each brought various
expertise and input to the project:
• UCL School of Library, Archives and Information Studies9,
who have expertise in digital humanities and advanced
computational techniques, as well as digital records
• The National Archives10, who select, preserve and provide
access to, and advice on, historical records, e.g. the censuses
of England and Wales 1841-1901 (and also the Isle of Man,
Channel Islands and Royal Navy censuses)
•, who own a massive dataset of census
holdings worldwide, and who have digitized the censuses
of England and Wales under license from The National
Archives. The input of Ancestry was central to this research
to gain access to the complete range of UK census years in
digital format. • UCL Research Computing12, the UK's Centre for Excellence
in networked computing, who have extensive high
performance computing facilities available for use in
The project aimed to investigate the reuse of pre-digitised
census data: presuming there was not funding available to be
in the business of digitisation of other record data for any pilot
project. The project also wished to investigate the use of
commercial datasets (as many of the large census data sets are
owned by commercial firms: in this case, Ancestry), and the
licensing and managerial issues this would raise for future
projects. The project also wanted to establish how feasible, and
indeed useful, undertaking such an analysis of historical census
data would be.
The results of the well attended workshop series was a sketch
for a potential project, and recommendations regarding the
implementation of e-science (high performance computing)
technologies in this area. However, at this time, it was not
thought possible to pursue the potential project at this time in
the following e-Science call which emanated from the AHRC
in October 2006 due to a variety of reasons which are elucidated
in this paper. Reasons for not taking the project forward at this
time were not technical or managerial, but historical: it will be
a few years before all the digitized data required to make this
project a success will be available (or be of high enough quality,
see Holmes 2006). Nevertheless, the scoping nature of this
project did highlight interesting aspects of the application of
high performance computing to humanities data: discussing
the nature, size and quality of humanities datasets (as opposed
to scientific datasets), and managerial and technical expertise
in data management, security, and licensing. Importantly, the
nature of working with a commercial company on their sensitive
data was also explored from a legal aspect, highlighting issues
regarding use and reuse of digital data for the arts and
humanities: who “owns” resulting datasets from collaborative
This paper describes the methodology of the workshops,
reporting on suggestions made during the series regarding
potential applications of high performance computing which
would benefit academic historians, sketching out a future project
regarding how historical census material can be analysed
utilising high performance computing, and extrapolates
recommendations that can be applied in general to the use of
e-Science and high performance computing in the arts and
humanities research sectors.
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8. The 1881 Census for England and Wales, the Channel Islands and
the Isle of Man (Enhanced Version) was deposited in the Arts and
Humanities Data Service repository by K. Schürer (University of
Essex. Department of History) in 2000, and is available from <h
9. <>
10. <
11. <>
12. <
Arts and Humanities Data Service (AHDS). Cross Search
Catalogue. 2006. Accessed 2006-10-31. <http://www.ah
Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). AHRC ICT
Programme Activities and Services. 2006. Accessed
2006-11-13. <
Crocket, A., C. E. Jones, and K. Schürer. The Victorian Panel
Study. Report Submitted to the ESRC (Award Ref:
RES-500-25-5001), May 2006. 2006.
Higgs, Edward. Making Sense of the Census Revisited: Census
Records for England and Wales 1801-1901: A Handbook for
Historical Researchers. London: Institute of Historical
Research, 2005.
Holmes, R. "The Accuracy and Consistency of the Census
Returns for England 1841-1901 and their Indexes." M.A.
Dissertation. School of Library, Archive and Information
Studies, University College London, 2006.
Inman, Phillip. "Genealogy." The Guardian (Thursday
September 26, 2002). Accessed 2006-11-03. <http://www,,798

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2007

Hosted at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, United States

June 2, 2007 - June 8, 2007

106 works by 213 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (2)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None