How statistics reveal insights from the past by turning life events into data points

By Adam Crymble in StatsLife 

Family history giant Ancestry.com claims to have digitised 12.7 billion records that document an element of millions if not billions of individual lives. Maybe a marriage, or a birth, or an arrest, or a discharge from the military. These are what historians call ‘life events’. Unless you’re related to one of these people, or the person happens to be a notable figure, chances are you wouldn’t care about them all that much. You don’t have to feel bad – our collective descendants won’t care about us either.

For data historians though, the individual lives can be aggregated with others to give us a view of whole populations that lived in the past. Through these billions of records we can look for emerging patterns that change over time, as societies evolve, cities grow or shrink, and the age structure gets older or younger as chance may be. These individual lives, seen through documentary fragments in libraries and archives, and digitised to sell to family historians via subscriptions, offer us a chance to see the big picture of history like never before. This is what Kate Börner calls the ‘macroscopic’ view, which lets us ‘observe what is at once too great, slow, or complex for the human eye and mind to notice and comprehend’.

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