U of G Prof Wins Grant to Dig Up Data

Friday, January 6, 2012


A University of Guelph economics professor belongs to a winning team in a prestigious humanities and social sciences research competition.

Kris Inwood’s project in mining information from one of the largest population databases in the world was named one of the victors of the 2012 Digging Into Data Challenge today.

Sponsored by
Canada, the United States, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, the competition promotes innovative research using digital resources to learn about people and cultures and to develop multidisciplinary partnerships.

In total, 14 international projects were selected; Canadian researchers are on eight of the teams. 

Canada will contribute nearly $1 million in funding through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). The United States will invest nearly $5 million through the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation.

“The significant commitment of these various governments confirms the importance of humanities and social science research,” said Kevin Hall, Guelph’s vice-president (research).

“These innovative projects will help advance knowledge and realize the economic payoff from digital technologies and resources. The collaborations marry the soft and hard sciences, with engineers and computer scientists working alongside historians, artists and economists.”

Funded projects include the use of high-resolution imaging to study ancient Egyptian mummification and natural language processing to analyze large text archives in studying human rights abuses.

“Initiatives and analysis of this sort were unimaginable before having access to today’s information and communications technologies,” said Gisele Yasmeen, SSHRC’s vice-president (research).

Inwood and his collaborators will analyze census data from the 19th and early 20th centuries from
Canada, the U.S and the U.K. They will examine the effects of economic opportunity, mobility and health on social structures in Europe and North America. Universities in Montreal, Alberta, Minnesota, Essex and Leicester are involved in the project.

“It’s a very big job, it takes a collaborative effort,” he said. Inwood will tackle Canadian census material for 1851-1881 and 1881-1911. He and his colleagues will use data from all three countries to develop a portrait of life during those 30-year periods.

“For example, we’ll be able to see the circumstances in which people changed occupations over their lifetime, how it affected career development, family and mobility, and even how those mobility patterns affected inequality,” Inwood said.

The project will provide insights into health, mortality, aging and even family dynamics -- “how people came together, how and when they split up,” he said.

“Often when you do long-run comparisons to see what is different today versus 100 years ago, you find that there are more similarities than differences.”

Inwood hopes this prestigious grant will help the researchers attract additional support.

His “Mining Microdata” project extends another initiative funded last year by the Canada Foundation for Innovation. In that project, called “People in Motion,” Inwood uses data mining and other computing techniques to learn how experience, family circumstance and even genetics affect adult health, migration and social mobility. Collaborators are history professor Graeme Morton and Prof. John Cranfield, Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, along with post-doctoral scholars Luiza Antonie (computing science), Rebecca Lenihan (history) and Andrew Ross (economics and history).

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