Digital Historical Sounding, a search methodology

Digital Historical Sounding Collage


What a dilemma!

You are faced with a conundrum. You need to profile an unknown institution or research the life story of a barely known individual but the information you require is not available because the physical archives are closed down, the information repositories are located overseas, or due to confidentiality issues you have been denied access to files, the files you need have been destroyed, or, worst case scenario, no one ever bothered to document it in the first place. Then there is the case that due to time constraints, you are forced to produce a profile so quickly that there is no time to visit libraries or archives. What to do in such cases?


Digital Historical Sounding, a search methodology

An alternative strategy to searching physical information repositories is to use the Web and social media networks to gather the information you need to create profiles or to make a rough sketch of institutions or individuals.

In 2001, Michale Bergman, the founder of the deep web intelligence company BrightPlanet, made an analogy about how searching in Internet is like searching in an ocean. The part that is accessible by search engines such as Google is the “surface web” and what isn’t is called the “deep web”.

Searching on the Internet today can be compared to dragging a net across the surface of the ocean. While a great deal may be caught in the net, there is still a wealth of information that is deep, and therefore, missed. The reason is simple: most of the Web’s information is buried far down on dynamically generated sites, and standard search engines never find it.

Because we view searching Internet like searching in a deep ocean, we have named our alternative strategy to searching in physical archives Digital Historical Sounding.

To explain what this is all about, we make an analogy with archeology. We have divided our search methodology into four phases.

Prospecting, Excavation, Analysis and Exhibition

Digital Historical Sounding (DHS) is a method to use Internet connectivity, search engines, and social media to explore virtual territories for digital fragments about the object of our inquiry (an individual, group of people or an institution); this phase is called Prospecting.

Once the digital “archeological” sites have been found, the next step is to search within databases and social media networks to extract digital fragments; this is the Excavation phase.

Many conference reports, white papers, proprietary journals, and databases are part of the deep web – those places to which search engines such as Google or Yahoo have no access. Digital objects rescued from Internet and the deep web – from online databases and social media networks– now need to be checked and verified to make sure they are trustworthy or to establish for them a level of confidence boundary; this is the Analysis phase. Finally, the digital fragments are woven into a narrative form in order to show the outcome of the investigation; this is called the Exhibition phase.

DHS Digital Sounding

Digital Historical Sounding framework.

Persistent search

Information on the Web is highly dynamic, what isn’t available today could be available tomorrow, or within weeks or months. It could also disappear. In the DHS methodology, we distinguish between active searching (i.e. a person facing a computer actively doing searches using search engines and quarrying databases) and persistent searching.

Persistent search is not something unique to DHS, in fact it is part of the infotention skills needed in the 21st century. I learned my information literacy, including infotention skills, from my online teacher, Howard Rheingold, author of Net Smart: How to Thrive Online (MIT Press, 2012). Part of the infotention skills–according to Rheingold– includes “Knowing how to put together intelligence dashboards, news radars, and information filters from online tools like persistent search and RSS.”  Persistent searching is a way to have computer networks beam you the information you are seeking using key words and platforms like Net Vibes, Feedly, The Old Reader and Google Alerts that crawl the web searching for bits of information.

Publicness (Public Sharing) and Social Media Openness

Digital Historical Sounding leverages the new social media openness paradigm –the willingness of people to collaborate and provide information over social media networks– to get leads and gather information. In his book, Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live (Simon and Schuster, 2011), Jeff Jarvis coined the word publicness to represent this new age of openness and willingness to share information, thoughts or actions.

Social media openness Publicness

JARVIS, Jeff (2011). Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way we Work and Live, Simon & Schuster.

The act of publicness, among other things, brings about many benefits: it makes and improves relationships (“To make connections with people, you need to be open and share. When you decide not to be public, you risk losing that connection”); it enables collaboration, builds trust and disarms taboos; it also enables the wisdom of the crowd and helps to organize us better, as Clark Shirky explained in his book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (The Penguin Press, 2008).


Where to use it

Digital Historical Sounding (DHS) was developed within the context of a history of science and technology project to research the life story of a group of scientists and technologists. It was later used to gather data to study the foundational history of two scientific institutions.

DHS was developed while carrying out a still ongoing independent research initiative to write down the life stories of the STEM immigration to Venezuela. In roughly a forty year period, from about 1936 to 1976, many foreign scientists and technologists immigrated to Venezuela.

Because of difficulties to access physical archives, I was forced to develop a methodology to use the Web and social media networks to make approximate sketches of the lives of several scientists and technologists who came to Venezuela from Austria, Hungary, Germany, Poland, Spain, Russia and other Soviet Union Republics, Punjab (India/Pakistan), Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay. This project has produced more than 20 profiles.

However, since the DHS deals with gathering of information, profiling of people and institutions, this methodology can also be applied in journalism and in business contexts for competitive intelligence purposes to study competitors, companies and why not products and its online interaction with customers.



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