Digital Historical Sounding and the VES Project: Using the Web for historical research (or for competitive intelligence analysis)

José Álvarez-Cornett
(@chegoyo en Twitter)

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 on the 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 the Internet as searching in a deep ocean, we have named our alternative strategy to search 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 the 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 a level of confidence boundary; this is the Analysis phase. Finally, the digital fragments are woven into a narrative form 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 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 keywords 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

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


VES Life Stories

VES  Project

DHS was developed while carrying out a still ongoing independent research initiative to write down the life stories of STEM (*1) immigrants to Venezuela. In roughly forty years, from about 1936 to 1976, many foreign scientists and technologists immigrated to Venezuela.

Because of difficulties in accessing 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.

VES Profesores inmigrantes Venezuela 1

Names of some scientists who emigrated to Venezuela in the 20th Century. From left and top to bottom: Hanjal Ildikó Fényes (Hungary), Amar Singh (Punjab, India/Pakistan), Ángel Palacio Gros (Spain), Nicolás Molina (Canary Islands, Spain), Manfred Hunger (Germany), Manuel Bemporad (Argentina), Anatole Zagustín (Rusia), Susan Tai (Taiwan), Johannes Gschwendtner (Austria), and Mitsuo Ogura (Japan).

However, the realization soon dawned on me that the new emigration of STEM people from Venezuela, taking up residence in the USA, Canada and some European countries, which started about 1984 and continues to this day (see Exporting Talent: VES Project and the STEM emigration from Venezuela), is closely related to this 1936-76 emigration of European, South American, and Asian scientists and technologists. From the late 1940’s onwards, they helped build many scientific institutions in Venezuela, and were instrumental in the creation of a scientific culture in Venezuela. In some cases, they were directly responsible for the training of many of these Venezuelan STEM professionals now living overseas.

VES USA CANADA Collage 2015

Many among this great number of about 12,000 scientists and technologists from Venezuela now living overseas have achieved uncommon success. For example, Rafael Reif, President of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cristina Amon, Dean of the Faculty of Applied Science at the University of Toronto, Canada,  as well as Mario Vecchi, who had a successful and brilliant professional career, first, as an applied scientist with Bell Labs, later, in the 1990’s, as a top business executive with Time Warner, and, since in January of 2015, as Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). Additionally, Mario Vecchi is the coauthor of a scientific paper that is listed (#86, according to a Nature report) among the 100 most cited papers in the history of scientific literature.

Another success story is Hugo Gaggioni, the current CTO of Sony Electronics, who is an electrical engineer from Venezuela. Also, physicist Mayly Sánchez (Assistant Professor at Iowa State University), who was recognized by President Obama for her contributions to the experimental research of the physics of neutrinos, Andrés Gluski, the President and CEO of AES Corporation who is also a Hispanic of Venezuelan origin and Dr. José Esparza, a Venezuelan virologist (MD from Zulia University, Venezuela, and Ph.D. from Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas), who was Senior Advisor on HIV Vaccines of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, with responsibility for the establishment of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise, and who is now an adjunct professor of medicine, at the Institute of Human Virology (University of Maryland School of Medicine).

There are many other Venezuelans who are not so well-known but they are also doing stupendously, people like geophysicist José Antonio Rial, Professor of Geophysics and Climatology at the University of North Carolina, UCSB mathematician Gustavo Ponce, MIT Sloan engineer and economist, Roberto Rigobon and civil engineer José Alberto Sáez Soloaga, who is Associate Professor at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, California. José Sáez is the son of Professor Alberto Sáez Fernández (1922-2004), a Spanish physicist who immigrated to Venezuela en 1953 – in VES Project, we already related, in Spanish, the life story about his optical science, his love for his wife, his new country, Venezuela, and his passion for sailing. Recently (see our VES Bulletin of August 2015), we found new pictures about his oceanographic expeditions in the vessel XAUEN. For more names of exceptional Venezuelans, see the article Exporting Talent: VES Project and the STEM emigration from Venezuela (and in Spanish, read Talentos emigrados).

Having these life stories available on the Internet is important not only for the history of science in Venezuela but also for providing a variety of role models for Hispanic and Latino youth in the US and Canada. As is well-known, Hispanics are poorly represented in science and technology (STEM) careers but these scientists and technologists originally from Venezuela can serve as excellent role models for Hispanic youth. Moreover, it is good to have stories to remind society about the many important contributions to education, science, and technology made by Hispanic STEM professionals of Venezuelan origin.

VES Life Stories Collage

There is another good reason to get these stories online, as in the case of the faculty exchange between Kansas University and the Universidad de Oriente (Cumaná, Venezuela) in the Sixties shows. There has been collaboration in science and technology education between the US (or US citizens) and Venezuela for a long time: George William Hill (1900-?), in 1953, created and directed the Department of Sociology and Anthropology (UCV) and developed cooperation mechanisms between UCV and the University of Wisconsin; Professor Cecil Ray Monk (1902-1995) who, from 1948 to 1950, was the director of the School of Biology at UCV; Robert Haydn Tschudy (1908-1986) a palynologist and John S. Penny (1914-2005), both American botanists, and Exxon (Creole Petroleum) employees in Venezuela, who, in the late 1940s, in the afternoons, taught Biology courses pro bono at UCV; and Larry Ray Foreman (1945-1999), an American physicist who, from February 1975 to March 1977, was the first chairman of the Physics Department of UNET). The life story of Dr. Larry Ray Foreman is under preparation.

divider-line1-300x72DHS results

In the VES Project, we have so far used DHS to research the life stories of about 20 individuals and two institutions (one in progress). These life stories are written in Spanish (extended profiles in English are planned). Some of the case studies have had resolutions via social media networks. For example, in the case of UCV physics professor Nicolás Molina, whose life story will be published soon, we were unable to get relevant information about him from the “surface web,” the lead information, in this case, came from a picture posted in a Facebook group by one of his relatives. That allowed us to track members of his family living on three continents and get from them vital information including family pictures. In other cases, such as the story of Professor Nicolás Szczerban, the lead piece of information came from a Twitter network.

Below are a few tales about some of the difficulties or peculiar aspects encountered when applying DHS.

Gschwendtner Collage

Juan Gschwendtner

Our first application of the Digital Historical Sounding (DHS) methodology was in the case of Juan Gschwendtner who was an almost unknown person in the annals of the history of Venezuelan science and technology. From Helga Lindof’s book (*2) about the early days of the Faculty of Science (UCV), we gathered the following input data:

The name Juan Gschwendtner appears in two lists of faculty members for the year of 1957 and 1960. However, his name did not appear in the list of faculty corresponding to the year of 1963. Therefore we can say that Juan Gschwendtner, at least, from 1957 to 1960, was an Instructor of General Physics courses at the Department of Physics, University Central de Venezuela (UCV).

At the beginning of this investigation, this was all we knew about Juan Gschwendtner. We asked many people about him but no one seemed to remember his name. After applying DHS we were able to produce a sketch of his professional life within a relatively short time. The details were published, in Spanish, in the peer-reviewed journal, Revista Bitácora-e (No. 2, Julio – Diciembre 2013) (Juan Gschwendtner, physicist and hydrologist: his professional life profile created using the digital historical sounding methodology). Below we present his profile summary.

He was born in Vienna, Austria (1916), earned a doctorate degree in Experimental Physics from the University of Vienna (1940), and died in the State of New York, USA (1996). His real name was Johannes von Gozdava Gschwendtner. He was a student of professor Franziska Seidl (1892-1983) and Egon von Schweidler (1873-1948). In 1933, Franziska Seidl was the first woman who earned habilitation (from Latin habillis: it is a German academic term for the highest academic qualification a scholar can achieve) in Austria to teach experimental physics and serve as a thesis advisor.

Soon after his graduation, he was recruited to serve in the German Luftwaffe, and was assigned to the Meteorological Division were he earned the rank of captain (*3). In 1942, he seems to have deserted and sought refuge in Switzerland, and few years later he came to Venezuela–our research was not able to find out the year when he landed in Venezuela, but we have evidence that in 1949 he was working in the country as a hydrologist.

For at least ten years (1950-1960), and maybe for a little longer, he was professor of Physics and Hydrology at UCV. He was the promoter and founder of the Hydrometeorology studies at the Faculty of Engineering (UCV) (*4). In 1959, he was named alternate member of COVENIN (a Spanish acronym for the Venezuelan Commission of Industrial Norms). In the early sixties, he immigrated to the US where he became a faculty member at two East Coast universities (Scranton University, in Pennsylvania and then Dowling College, in New York). On February 12, 1996, he died in the State of New York. His last place of residence was Islip Terrace, Suffolk County, New York, 11752.

What is interesting and peculiar about this case is that all key information (his being an Austrian, a physicist who earned a doctorate from the University of Vienna, his being a professor of physics at East Coast universities, and other leads we have omitted in this short profile) came from reading an online transcript of a spiritualism session with psychic medium George Anderson (An example of his spiritual gift). This information was taken with lots of skepticism, as information that begged to be validated with more trustworthy sources. Now, this is a fascinating but long story; if you want to follow the details of how, by using DHS methodology, we verified each of the above claims, we invite you to read our tale, Validating Dr. Gschwendtner’s Story.



Hugo Gaggioni, CTO of Sony. An electrical engineer from Venezuela.

Hugo Gaggioni

Initially, he was not part of our research project. We were unaware of his name, his work and his being a Hispanic of Venezuelan origin. We were advised by a Facebook message from one of our readers who had read our essay about the professional life of Venezuelan electrical engineer, Mario Vecchi that we needed to look into the life of Hugo Gaggioni, because (a) He is the Chief Technology Officer of Sony Electronics, and (b) He is an electrical engineer whose work has had an impact in the daily life of almost everyone. Besides his expertise in digital television and HDTV, he was one of the earlier developers of compressing algorithms and, between 1988 and 1996, he represented Sony in the workshops that gave origin to the MPEG (Moving Picture Experts Group) standard. So every time we download a video or listen to music on an iPod, we can do so because of the work Gaggioni had done in the past.

We already wrote, in Spanish, Gaggioni’s life story. It is quite an interesting tale.  Here we only give a summary. Hugo Rogelio Gaggioni Piñero (this is his full name in Spanish) was born in Caracas, on January 11, 1954. He was an upper-level electrical engineering student at Simón Bolívar University (USB) in Caracas when he got a Venezuelan government scholarship that sent him over to England to study engineering at the University of Essex. He had originally applied for the scholarship to finish his studies at USB but the scholarship was granted on the condition that he had to study abroad. This bureaucratic decision by the scholarship board turned out to be highly beneficial to Gaggioni’s professional career. There, at Essex, he met Professor Donald Edwin Pearson who was a pioneer in digital TV in the mid-1970s. Hugo Gaggioni studied at Essex for a B.Sc. in Telecommunications and graduated with First Class Honours. He then took an M.Sc. in Electronics, graduating in 1979.

As Hugo Gaggioni explained to the magazine Broadcasting & Cable:

“Most students went to the United States, but I was selected to go to Essex and I had no idea what Essex was good in,” he says. He found out: “It was very good in digital television,” a technology so foreign in the 1970s that he had no idea what he was in for. But, as he says, suggesting the power of a higher authority, “Someone else was pulling the strings.”

Regarding his 1979 thesis project, Adaptive Predictive Interframe Coding of Television Pictures Using Velocity CompensationGaggioni told Broadcasting & Cable that:

They asked for a project and I chose to develop an interframe compression, which back then was absolutely crazy. It took me three years to build the equipment because we didn’t have computers [that were] fast enough.

Gaggioni returned to Venezuela to teach at USB but after a year he traveled to the US to study for a master’s degree in Systems Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania (M.Sc., 1982) and, in 1985, he began a Professional Engineering degree at The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, Columbia University, earning a Prof. Eng., Electronic Engineering degree in 1987.

In between schools, he worked for the Bell Communications Research organization–in his own words– “as a member of the technical research staff in the development of video compression algorithms for HDTV systems.” Between, 1980-1987, Gaggioni worked for the electronic and entertainment company RCA.

At RCA, Gaggioni met his second mentor, Larry Thorpe. Our research was not able to pinpoint exactly when that happened, but we think it was between 1980 and 1982, maybe during a summer job. Thorpe liked Gaggioni’s work and when Thorpe left RCA for Sony he brought Gaggioni over.

Larry Thorpe about Gaggioni:

“He is quite skilled in some of the contemporary technologies—compression is his specialty,” (….) “He also showed a lot of interest in high-definition in its early days, which is why I brought him over to Sony.”

“He has a great gift,” …. “He is very skilled at presenting and explaining difficult technical things. If he were in front of managerial people, he could dumb it down. If he were in front of technical people, he could more than hold his own in front of top experts.”

And the rest is history. At Sony, Gaggioni y Thorpe began to promote the High Definition (HD) technology –carrying heavy suitcases with equipment to NBC, CBC, and ABC studios and, also, to medical laboratories to show the benefits of HD– and from the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) they promoted the HD 1080-lines video format.  Thorpe left Sony Electronics in 2004 for Canon, but Gaggioni remained at Sony, climbing up the ladder to his present position of Chief Technology Officer.



Physics Department, Universidad de Oriente, Venezuela

This was an unplanned, but highly rewarding, application of the DHS methodology. We were studying the life of physics Professor Amar Singh (born in 1941 near Lahore, Punjab, in present-day Pakistan) who came to Venezuela in 1971 after earning a Ph.D. degree in Experimental Physics at The University of Kansas (KU). However we were having difficulties understanding many of the issues he had to face at Universidad de Oriente (UDO) in Cumaná, Venezuela, where he landed a job as a physics professor, when we looked around for the history of the Physics Department of this institution, which was created in 1958, we soon realized that this history was yet to be written.

Thus, we had no other option but to apply our DHS methodology to an institution to get a rough sketch of the environment Professor Singh found when he arrived there in 1971. To our surprise, we ran into an extremely interesting history–that this writer who has a degree in physics from a Venezuelan university (UCV, 1981) was not aware of.

It turns out that the UDO School of Science was created in 1960 and that many of its first professors came from the University of Kansas (KU) under an agreement between UDO, KU, and the Ford Foundation. This agreement was named Plan KUUDO. We will not get into the formal details of this plan, except to say that these were times when Venezuela was making progress in many areas including education, that the cost for the first two years of this program was US$ 750.000, and that, under the KUUDO plan, the professors who came from KU we divided into senior and junior professors –if you read Spanish, see our story here, or you can read professor Andrew Torres’s article Plan KUUDO: An Experiment in a New Dimension of University Responsibility .

Under this plan, the following physicists came from Lawrence, Kansas to Venezuela: Jacob Enoch (1927 – 2008), senior physicist between 1965-67; Loren Alan Lockwood, junior physicist between 1965-67 (Lockwood went back to Kansas to get his Ph.D. degree, and, in 1971, he returned and joined the UDO faculty and worked there until retirement); Richard Eckert, junior experimental physicist between 1966-68; Vaughn Nelson, between 1967 y 1969; Gordon Gray Wiseman, senior experimental physicist (Ph.D., University of Kansas, 1950), stayed only for a summer (1966 or 1967).

We used our DHS methodology to contact as many Plan KUUDO professors as possible, not only physicists but also biologists and mathematicians. We were able to obtain testimonials and pictures from several professors. These, we think, are important digital fragments to write the story of UDO School of Science. Fragments of a past that were locked in the neural memory of the professors and the silicon memory of their computer’s hard drives.

Below, are some pictures courtesy of Professor Eckert. But for the details of the testimonials, related information, and more pictures, visit the entry, KUUDO Testimonials.

divider Page-BreakerConcluding remarks

We have shown that Digital Historical Sounding (DHS) is a good methodology to carry out web searches for historical research purposes, and because there are some similarities in research needs in other areas, DHS can also be applied to other fields such as in journalism and for competitive intelligence.

The DHS methodology is most useful when the object of inquiry is fairly unknown and when many targets–objects of investigation– are pursued simultaneously, as in the case of our independent study about the founding faculty of the UCV School of Physics (Project EDF-SHD, a project where we are concurrently investigating the professional life story of thirty (30) immigrant physicists).

Working with DHS  is not the same as working with a document from a physical archive, DHS can sometimes produce wrong information, as when people’s memories are retrieved from the net – for instance, the narratives they have written and posted online about their institutional experiences. Even after careful verification, in some cases, this information can to some extent remain uncertain.

However, DHS can produce very good, albeit rough, sketches of people, situations, and institutions. Often it is possible to get unique information–not the kind of document you will find in a physical archive. As in the case of our work on Venezuelan electrical engineer Mario Vecchi, who, in 1995, was the technical leader of Time Warner’s Road Runner venture to deliver Internet broadband connectivity to several cities across the US. At a restaurant, during a dinner business meeting with his associates, Vecchi drew on a napkin the technical concept for the Road Runner broadband service. Someone saved the napkin, and years later digitized it and uploaded it to the cloud where we found it.

We developed this DHS methodology while carrying out the VES Project, which is an independent research initiative.  The process of getting the information, its analysis, and the writing of essays is a time-consuming labor demanding many working hours, therefore, the VES Project needs funding to continue researching and writing the life stories of the Venezuelan STEM migration.

The VES project needs the support of its readers to continue writing the saga of the STEM migration to and from Venezuela. If you like our work and want to support it, you can use PayPal to donate by clicking the DONATE button below. THANKS!

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(1) STEM= Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics

(2) Helga Lindorf, Primeros Tiempos de la Facultad de Ciencias de la Universidad Central de Venezuela, 2008, Fondo Editorial de la Facultad de Ciencias.

(3) Several Internet sources agreed that Gschwendtner was a Luftwaffe officer but we were not able to validate the information, mainly because of lack of funds. We believe Johannes von Gozdava Gschwendtner was a land-based scientist staff of Wekusta (Wettererkundungs-Staffeln) but the online databases we consulted, which are incomplete – as of April 2014, they carry data on about 49,000 commissioned officers out of the 140,000 known officers to have existed during the Third Reich–, did not carry his name–, however, the files of most Austrians who served in the German Wehrmacht are housed in the”Wehrmacht materials” of the Austrian Archives of Republic. Since these data are not available online, for a fee, the Archives of Republic (Österreichischen Staatsarchiv) could search on our behalf.

(4) See our published article (Revista Bitácora-eNo. 2, Julio – Diciembre 2013) for references to his hydrology papers.

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José G. Álvarez Cornett (Twiter: @Chegoyo)
Member of COENER, the “Physics and Mathematics for Biomedical Consortium“, and the American Physical Society (APS). Alumni Representative before the School of Physics Council, Faculty of Science, Central University of Venezuela.

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