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What does the history of global trade look like? The collaborative database RICardo opens up trade data to shed light on this question

- February 21, 2018 in Digital Humanities, economics, historical data, Open Data, Open Humanities

RICardo (Research on International Commerce) is a project dedicated to trade between nations over a period spanning the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to the eve of the Second World War. It combines a historical trade database covering all of the world’s countries and a website which invites to an exploration of the history of international trade through data visualizations. The project has recently released a web application and accompanying dataset, which is freely available under the Open Database License. In this blogpost, Beatrice Dedinger (economic historian) and Paul Girard (IT engineer) illustrate its’ use cases and background. The new RICardo web tool has been officially released in December 2017, on the occasion of the bicentenary of David Ricardo’s famous work, On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. It is the achievement of an experiment to combine economic history with digital humanities. The RICardo project is devoted to bilateral and total trade of all the world’s countries over a period spanning from the beginning of the 19th century to 1938. Bilateral trade means the distribution of trade of a country by partners, on the export and the import side. Total trade is the sum of all bilateral flows. Notice that RICardo focuses on trade by countries; it does not provide statistics of trade by products and thus, does not allow for the analysis of trade specialization or comparative advantages. We purposefully assembled data from the 19th and early 20th century, as this database never existed as such before. Governments did not start to publish printed documents of official trade statistics before the end of the Napoleonic wars. This is mostly true for the European states but also for other areas in the world that were under European influence. Since the end of the Second World War, the International Monetary Fund is in charge of gathering bilateral trade statistics of all countries; they are now freely available on The RICardo database includes around 300.000 data points (December 2017 version) that have been collected by hand from archives found in French or foreign libraries. This is currently the most exhaustive trade database dedicated to historical bilateral trade statistics. Original data (trade flows, names of countries) being in different currencies and languages, they have been converted into a usable format by creating a relational database. The entire RICardo dataset is now freely available under the Open Database License in our versioned data repository described under the Data Package format.

Source: Estadística Comercial de la Republica de Chile (1845)

Source: RICardo_flows database

RICardo is meant for studying and discovering the history of trade and trade globalization. How did countries become economically interdependent? How did the trade volume and variety of exchanges of goods and services develop across nations? Trade databases are needed to address these and similar questions. As an example, economic historians, relying on limited trade datasets, have first demonstrated that a “First” globalization occurred over 1870-1914. When they were afforded with extended trade databases, they challenged this conclusion to now affirm that trade globalization started around the 1840s. But RICardo also allows for the study of neglected areas of the history of trade, largely because of the lack of data. It can help to explore the history of geopolitical trade relationships. If you are interested, for example, in the trade history of Chile over the 19th-mid20th century, RICardo provides you with visualizations and a dataset to describe Chile’s relationships with all its partners over the period of your choice. RICardo offers the opportunity to discover the history of international trade not only through aggregate world trade curves but also by looking at the details of bilateral trade flows: visual exploration is key to handle the complexity of trade data by switching from an aggregate to a detailed level, or from one country to another. To do so, the tool uses  a method developed at Sciences Po médialab called “datascape”. By considering data visualization from the very beginning, the research team can gain creative constraints that help to better design the dataset. Alternatively, data visualizations are a very efficient way to take care of the data, in particular, to check data integrity. This project was very enriching on a personal level in that it taught us to work in a new way. At the beginning, in 2004, the project was launched by a team of researchers at Sciences Po Paris working on financial and trade history and needing historical trade datasets to perform a research idea. It was (still is) usual that each researcher builds by him/herself a trade database for the needs of personal research, ever trying to do better than the other. This way of working points to a competitive state of mind from which we moved away. During more than ten years of work, we have faced a lot of problems that eventually led us to work in a more collaborative, creative, and challenging way. This was the driving force in the achievements of RICardo. That is why we are keen to open our data to everyone, to share the results of our work with the widest audience, to open it to contributions, to foster its usage by the community, and to arouse the curiosity of the public about a subject a priori austere but that we try to address in an enjoyable way.

Community building through the DM2E project

- April 9, 2015 in Digital Humanities, Featured, linked-open-data, projects

This blog is cross-posted from the Open Knowledge blog. During the past three years, Open Knowledge has been leading the community building work in the Digitised Manuscripts to Europeana (DM2E) project, a European research project in the area of Digital Humanities led by Humboldt University. Open Knowledge activities included the organisation of a series of events such as Open Data in […]

The Crusade for Curious Images

- December 19, 2014 in #BLdigital, Digital Humanities, Events/Workshops, Front Page, Open Humanities

In December last year the British Library released over a million images on to Flickr Commons. The images were taken from the pages of 17th, 18th and 19th century books digitised by Microsoft and gifted to the British Library. One-year on and it seems pertinent to mark the anniversary with an event held at the […]

Open Humanities Awards: second round

- April 30, 2014 in Digital Humanities, Featured

We are excited to announce the second round of the Open Humanities Awards, running from 30 April until 6 June 2014. There are €20,000 worth of prizes on offer in two dedicated tracks: Open track: for projects that either use open content, open data or open source tools to further humanities teaching and research DM2E […]

Let’s Map Open Correspondence Data!

- May 16, 2013 in Digital Humanities, Featured, Open Humanities

At the Open Knowledge Foundation we seek to empower people to use open data and open content in ways that improve the world. In part this is about the provision of tools, such as our world-renowned CKAN open data portal, but it’s also about bringing people together who are passionate about making a change and giving them a space whether that’s online or face-to-face to wrangle open data, write code and take action together. At the recent Open Interests hack participants developed a suite of apps that help us understand lobbying in the EU and how money is spent. A couple of weeks ago Open Data Maker Night in London people wrangled data from local authority websites to find out which companies receives the lion’s share of the Greater London’s Authorities resources. Across our various Working Group mailing lists people from all over the world are debating, sharing data and experimenting with code in a huge variety of domains from open science to open government data.
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At bottom this is about bringing people with bright ideas coming together to collaborate around open content and open data to build things that have transformative potential.

The Open Humanities Hangout

Over the past few months a group of people interested in open culture, including myself, have been getting together on Google Hangout in order to build stuff with the vast amount of open cultural data and content that’s out there. In the cultural sphere much of the transformative potential of open lies in widening access to our treasured cultural heritage whether that’s classic literary texts or the paintings of the great masters. But as ever it’s not only about opening up huge amounts of data and content, there’s already a hell of a lot of that already on the Internet Archive and Wikimedia Commons, this is also about empowering people to actually use this material in ways that they deem valuable. So on the Open Humanities Hangout we’ve tried to do things that address both these challenges: In order to address the problem of access we’ve held hangouts on how to run a book scanning workshop and how share the works we’ve digitised online. On another occasion, we collectively reflected on how to evangelise about opening up cultural resources and distilled the results in a set of principles which we then shared and discussed on a public mailing list. In terms of building stuff to help re-use, we’ve built an app that helps you to get to know Shakespeare better called Bardomatic. We’ve hacked on an annotation tool for public domain texts called TEXTUS trying to make it easier to use and deploy on Word Press. We’ve created interactive timelines of the great Western medieval philosophers helping to improve and de-bug the Timeliner tool in the process.
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The Challenge: Mapping Networks of Correspondence

I want more people to join the Open Humanities hangouts – more Java Script coders, more designers, more literature students, more bloggers… anyone who loves the humanities and wants to see the great works of our past accessible and re-usable by everyone regardless of their background or location. I’m putting forward a challenge for our next set of monthly Hangouts based on some of the great work some of the Open Humanities Working Group members have been doing around open correspondence data and open booking scanning. I’m challenging the Open Humanities Hangout crew to construct a workflow that will enable anyone to turn a published set of letters and turn it into a visualisation of a network of correspondence. One of the great success stories of the so-called Digital Humanities is the wonderful Mapping the Republic of Letters project, a collaboration between Stanford and Oxford Universities that visualises the networks of correspondence of early modern scholars. The beautiful and insightful visualisations that have been created in the process have captured the imaginations of technologists and humanists world wide. roflviz_dashboard-800x497 I want to see a million Mapping the Republic of Letters project. I want it to be as easy as possible to map the correspondence of historial figures, so that anyone can do this. This includes the first year school students wanting some beautiful images for their coursework and the scholar who will use much richer data to give a more through, in-depth and academic visual story for a research paper. I want the underlying tools to be open source and well documented and perhaps, most importantly, I want the underlying data, that collection of metadata about who sent what when to be open for everyone to use and add to. This effort doesn’t require the existence of a huge repository of data about letters that we tap into (although this might merge in the process). This is about small sets of open data, sourced and formatted in appropriate ways by passionate groups of people all around the world that can be combined and connected easily using open source web-based components.

How do we begin?

To my eyes, this effort will involve the documentation of at least 4 steps:
  1. Scan in a published collection of letters
  2. Turn this scans intro structured data that contains relevant information on respondent, date, location
  3. Geo-code all those locations
  4. Visualise the results on a map
We’ve already made some progress on steps 1. – 2. and there’s a wealth of information already available on how to do your own scanning and OCRing including manuals on how to build your own scanner. For 3. – 4. there’s already some brilliant information over on the School of Data. However, I want to see this information synthesised into a single point — so any student, teacher or researcher can get all the information on how to go from that collected volume of letters of so-and-so on their shelf to a beautiful visualisation.

What might result if we’re successful?

Well for one, I hope that a beautiful and insightful set of visualisations might emerge about the correspondence of a number of important figures all over the web. But perhaps a longer term goal is to stimulate the creation of databases of correspondence that are open to everyone to use and add to. To begin with we’ll be constrained to the published volumes of correspondence in print, but if we get enough people contributing we can re-combine these published volumes in all sorts of interesting ways filling in gaps and ultimately creating datasets that might enable us to map whole networks of correspondence for a given period.

Get involved

So the challenge is on. The next Open Humanities Hangout will take place at 5pm BST on Tuesday May 28th. If you’re thinking of joining ping me a quick message on!

Open Humanities Awards: Under 10 Days Left to Apply!

- March 4, 2013 in Digital Humanities, Featured

OpenHumanitiesLogos A couple of weeks ago we announced the Open Humanities Awards a fantastic new initiative to support innovative projects that use open data, open content or open source to further teaching and research in the humanities. There are €15,000 of prizes on offer for 3-5 projects lasting up to 6 months. The winners will be given the opportunity to present their work at the world’s largest Open Knowledge event, OKFestival. The deadline for applications is 13th March so there is less than 10 days to go before we start judging the applications. We want to support a whole variety of projects that support humanities research and use the open web. So whether you’re interested in patterns of allusion in Aristotle, networks of correspondence in the Jewish Enlightenment or digitising public domain editions of Dante do think about applying! Go to the Awards website to apply and for any queries email me on


- February 13, 2013 in Digital Humanities, Featured

OpenHumanitiesLogos We are excited to announce the first ever Open Humanities Awards. The are €15,000 worth of prizes on offer for 3-5 projects that use open content, open data or open source tools to further humanities teaching and research. Whether you’re interested in patterns of allusion in Aristotle, networks of correspondence in the Jewish Enlightenment or digitising public domain editions of Dante, we’d love to hear about the kinds of open projects that could support your interest!

Why are we running these Awards?

Humanities research is based on the interpretation and analysis of a wide variety of cultural artefacts including texts, images and audiovisual material. Much of this material is now freely and openly available on the internet enabling people to discover, connect and contextualise cultural artefacts in ways previously very difficult. We want to make the most of this new opportunity by encouraging budding developers and humanities researchers to collaborate start new projects that use this open content and data paving the way for a vibrant cultural and research commons to emerge.

Who can apply?

The Awards are open to any citizen of the EU.

Who is judging the Awards?

The Awards will be judged by a stellar cast of leading Digital Humanists:

What do we want to see?


The Mapping the Republic of Letters project is a great example of what is possible with humanities data

We are challenging humanities researchers, designers and developers to create innovative projects open content, open data or open source to further teaching or research in the humanities. For example you might want to:
  • Start a project to collaboratively transcribe, annotate, or translate public domain texts
  • Explore patterns of citation, allusion and influence using bibliographic metadata or textmining
  • Analyse and/or visually represent complex networks or hidden patterns in collections of texts
  • Use computational tools to generate new insights into collections of public domain images, audio or texts
You could start a project from scratch or build on an existing project. For inspiration you can have a look at the open-source tools the Open Knowledge Foundation has developed for use with cultural resources. As long as your project involves open content, open data or open source tools and makes a contribution to humanities research, the choice is yours!

Who is behind the awards?

The Awards are being coordinated by the Open Knowledge Foundation and are part of the DM2E project. They are also supported by the Digital Humanities Quarterly.

How to apply

Applications are open from today. Go to to apply. Application deadline is 12th March 2013, so get going and good luck!

More information…

For more information on the Awards including the rules and ideas for open datasets and tools to use visit