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Data Mining Uncovers 19th Century Britain's Fat Habit

By The Conversation

April 9, 2014

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The Trading Consequences project, which includes history and computer science researchers from the University of Edinburgh, York University, and the University of St Andrews, has produced new insight into the hunger for sugar, coffee, and rubber in the 19th century, as well as how fat became a worldwide commodity.

The researchers used text mining to open up more than 200,000 historic documents to investigate the trading of goods since the 19th century. At the end of the 18th century, the British started importing different kinds of fat to supply the expanding soap, candle, margarine, and explosives industries.

Text mining made it possible to identify links between commodities, locations, and dates to uncover how commodities were discussed in space and time. In addition, information visualization was used to make the information accessible and explorable. When the two techniques are combined, the researchers say they can build a picture of how trade developed over time, based on dates or places mentioned in the records of a trading company operating several hundred years ago. For example, a location cloud visualization provides an overview of the most frequent locations that were mentioned in relation to a selected commodity, such as coffee, which helps build an picture of how the coffee trade spread.

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