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How to... use digital tools for research

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The world of linked data

The Semantic Web is the web of linked data, as opposed to documents; social science is, like science, essentially about the examination of data. (For more on the Semantic Web, see the information management viewpoint, "The Semantic Web – a new tool for libraries?" ).

The linking of data means that every item of data within a data set, in, say, a spreadsheet or a database, is given a web address – a unique resource indicator or URI – which is then machine readable, and enables the data item to be located independently of its set. Crucially, it also means that data sets can be combined.

This means that the researcher can ask many more questions, and obtain far more detailed answers. Examples include:

London Lives

The London Lives project () is a tool for researching lives of people who lived in London in the eighteenth century, whose details are not easily available in more conventional sources. Subtitled "Crime, poverty and social policy in the metropolis", it comprises a searchable database of 14 archives, 15 further data sets, and 240,000 manuscripts.

The archives include parish archives, as well as records from criminal proceedings, coroners, hospitals and guilds, workhouses, income tax payments, salaries, etc. This all adds up to considerable biographical information on hundreds of thousands of individual Londoners.

Government data

Another example is the way that governments at both local and national level are making their data sets publicly available. The US Federal Government launched in 2009, and the UK followed with in 2010. Other countries have open data projects, notably Australia and New Zealand, The Netherlands, Sweden, Spain, Austria and Denmark, and, at the city level, Vancouver and London (Sheridan and Tennison, 2010).

Both projects have as their stated aims greater transparency, democratic accountability, and participation. Providing detailed information on health, education, transport, taxation, spending, crime, etc. helps citizens be better informed and able to see how their own particular area of local government compares with others (Shadbolt, 2011).

Public bodies can be held accountable (e.g. publishing death rates per hospital). Those in government who watch spending can look at value for money and good investment and procurement decisions, so public service delivery can be improved.

The above examples show how the general public can use data; however, it is not difficult to see how government data sets can benefit researchers working in the areas of social policy, sociology, geography, and political science.

There is another benefit, however: the data.gov.uk project provided high standards for linked data which enables the publisher to retain control, and helps prevent inappropriate misuse. This in turn sets a standard for other linked data projects, which will benefit research in other areas.

For an account of the technical development of data.gov.uk, see Sheridan and Tennison, 2010.

Geo-spatial information

data.gov.uk paid particular attention to two types of data: statistical and geo-spatial. This was because practically all data sets contained statistics, such as the number of pupils of a certain age in school, and references to a real world location (Sheridan and Tennison, 2010).

Linked data for geo-spatial information enables data to be compared across physical space. The EU has decreed that European countries should be able to exchange spatial information, and in the UK, the Ordnance Survey has opened up its data for public use. The challenge, however, is to provide identifiers for spatial objects that represent objects in the real world, and also take account of changes, such as those to boundaries.