How Big Data is Changing History

By James O’Malley – April 4, 2016

Little Atoms

Technology is transforming how we see the past

Historian Richard Bulliet appears to have spent much of the 1960s and 1970s poking holes into punch cards. He was studying the growth of Islam across the Middle East and was taking family information from biographical compilations, and making it machine readable – essentially creating a massive family tree. “I coded this data in ways that enabled me to search and recover repeated technical terms or family relationships as these matters evolved over five centuries.”, he told me. It was made possible thanks to the structure of Islamic names containing the father and paternal grandfather’s name (Both “ibn” and “bin” mean “son of”), as well as some long dead elders having the foresight to keep detailed records.

Having compiled his data, he was able to then compute it and draw new conclusions that would shift the thinking in his field.

“As it turned out, the study of conversion to Islam up to that point had focused on the first two centuries of Islam. My analysis pointed to the early third century [of Islam] as the midpoint in a process that spread out over four or more centuries”, he says, adding that. “The excellent fit between my proposed chronology and the political, institutional, and intellectual history of Middle Eastern Islam led to my chronology becoming generally adopted in the field.”

This new insight was all thanks to quantitative analysis rather than traditional historical methods. “I don’t believe there was any way of arriving at this result in a more convincing fashion by the traditional technique of collecting rare, and often hyperbolic, textual references and guessing at the impact of legal or governmental actions”, he explains.

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