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Centenary of the First World War

Martin Bellet - 28/03/2014

When digital technology makes sense of history

© Cendari

The European CENDARI project is targeted at historians and aims to simplify the organisation and use of the many resources they already have and continue to collect. Inria is providing its expertise in data visualisation.

The CENDARI project, launched in 2012, plans to offer European historians a working environment which is connected and easy to use, providing access to a maximum amount of public and private information. The project is led by Trinity College, Dublin, and supported by the European Commission; it is still in the experimental phase and currently only available for two periods, the mediaeval era and the First World War. "In a perfect world, all resources would be digitised in the same language , explained Jean-Daniel Fekete, a partner in the CENDARI project and the leader of the Aviz team. Historians would simply need to do a "Google search" to access the information. The reality, of course, is much more complex. Most resources are not digitised and probably never will be, as too much of the information is scattered throughout archives and libraries, with different conservation rules" , explained the researcher. "Our mission therefore involves providing historians with the digital tools to enter, structure and cross-reference documents and share information, in order to facilitate their research and check their theories."

For historians

"When I joined the CENDARI project, I noticed that computer scientists and historians working on the project had never met and talked! We therefore organised participative design sessions in several large European cities in order to identify everyone's requirements , explained Jean-Daniel Fekete. After this stage, we understood that they needed a simple tool suitable for the mass of data they had to process." And what could be more effective than an interactive map? Jean-Daniel Fekete, a data visualisation specialist, has designed a system of zoomable maps with points which correspond to protagonists from the time or to battles, all linked to a time line. "Researchers will be able to enter information, link it to these maps and cross-reference it with the data already entered by other historians. The advantage of this method is that it will allow them to detect visually, and therefore simply, whether there are any inconsistencies in placing a given person in a given place, for example. They will also be able to follow the relationships between documents, people, places and organisations more quickly."
The sharing of information is therefore essential if CENDARI is to be a success.
"This project will create a real network, by connecting places, people and dates. Historians find this dimension particularly rewarding. The only problem is that they do not necessarily want to share their research in advance , stated Jean-Daniel Fekete. We had to offer them a compromise. Their notes will remain private, but certain data (the entities: names, places and dates) will be accessible to everyone."

Ready for the centenary

The first system trials have already started. Three historians/testers are working on a real scenario, namely the phenomenon of green cadres in Austria-Hungary at the end of the First World War. "The feedback is very positive , confided Jean-Daniel Fekete. But we still have work to do in order to facilitate inputting and stabilise the system. We do not want to go too fast; it is essential that our project is as effective as possible, so that we can encourage future users to join."  Some fifteen historians are ready to use it by the end of the year, if everything goes as planned. One hundred years after the start of the First World War, CENDARI should be able to offer the entire scientific committee a new way of analysing this tragic period in our history.

Keywords: Jean-Daniel Fekete Archives Aviz team Visualisation Data First World War