VIDEO via FreeBase: Charting Culture by Mapping Migration

By Lisa Raffensperger | July 31, 2014 2:00 pm

It’s enough to put an old-fashioned family tree to shame. A visualization of the migration routes of more than 150,000 people, from 600 BC to the present day, brings to life human history in the Western world in an engrossing and novel way.

The model, produced by Maximilian Schich, at the University of Texas at Dallas, along with collaborators from the U.S., Switzerland and Hungary, represents the birth and death dates and locations of individual people. These data came from community database Freebase, a well-known German encyclopedia of the world’s artists, and Getty’s online artist names database.

The sample included such notable individuals as David, King of Israel, and Leonardo da Vinci, but, since Freebase is editable by anyone, it also included average folk. “You will have people where we know that there was a carpenter in Nuremberg, who lived from 1530 to 1590 say, where people know the birth and death location, and know there was a carpenter with that name, but we don’t know anything else. So that’s not exactly the definition of celebrity,” explains Schich.

Mapping Migrations

The animation flags up those big historical events familiar from history textbooks — from the rise of the Roman Empire, to the colonization of Australia and the Americas, to the U.S. Gold Rush in the mid-1800s. Says Schich, “It’s interesting that we get the laws of migration, already, out of this tiny fraction of world population as a whole.”

On the other end of the spectrum, the data points to previously overlooked tidbits, such as changes in the number of artisans flocking to Paris at different times in the city’s history.

Future plans to expand the dataset to get a fuller picture of human history are being made, Schich says: “What we hope, as the next step, is to get data from other language areas — to cover the Hispanic world in a better way, to cover China and India, etc.” Look forward to an even more populated map of history at the human scale.

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