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May 5, 2017

Launching the database

May 5, 2017 | By | No Comments

Before embarking on this project, Dr. Watrall said that making a database in SQL and taking online with PHP would involve too steep a learning curve to climb within the context of my participation in CHI this year. He was right. Ultimately, we decided that the most realistic goal would be to complete the database. The database provides a unique basis for thinking about the history of hydroelectricity in East Africa – namely, a quantitative basis – but unfortunately it is not yet freely available. Additionally, I can now use this SQL code as a template for expanding the database to include information about related environmental and economic phenomena in the Lake Victoria basin. I have not abandoned the hope for the database to be accessible online, but I think that the only time-efficient way for the database to get online is for me to collaborate with someone who is specifically trained to complete this kind of work.

 

Apart from the technical challenges associated with the project, there was conceptual work to be done as well in order to effectively digitize and integrate the array of sources that I used, i.e. data cleaning. Cleaning the data involved a few steps. First, I had to simplify most of the tables by dissembling them into discrete data points and reassembling them into multiple new tables. This step was necessary because the tabular data that British colonial technocrats sent to each other often consisted of complex, multifactorial tables that correlated various arrays of keys across time and space. I examined the individual data points that constituted these tables in order to distill a set of recurring keys. I used these keys as my bases for rebuilding the corpus into a database that would be amenable to computerized analysis.

The various keys map onto four axes of differentiation. The first axis compares different categories of users, with the most significant categories being “government,” “commercial,” and “railway.” It also distinguishes between the specific users that were active in the industrial towns that, in the late colonial period, began to dominate the northern end of Lake Victoria. The various entities included mines, factories, and housing complexes.

The second axis of comparison distinguishes between two different ways to use for electricity: power, measured in horsepower, and light, measured in kilowatts. Many electricity users deployed both forms, but many also restricted their use to one only. This axis also shows the database user that people used electricity to generate power for three specific types of use – namely, to run arc furnaces, to provide motive power, and to achieve steam raising.

The third axis provides a basis for differentiating between production and consumption, by reminding the database user that separate entities were responsible for each action and could only ever have partial knowledge of each other. The concept of “demand” is the key link included in this database between consumers and planners.

The fourth axis includes the terms that the hydroelectricity industry used to grapple with the difficulties of managing change over time in their development projects. Industry planners used several scales of temporal cycles in order to make these changes legible. These scales included variation within a year, which could be measured in terms of variables like “peak” and “average” use. Note that some keys force the database user to consider multiple axes of differentiation at the same time. Consider “estimated_demand,” which includes a relational element as well as a temporal element; this particular key offers to the database user a quantitative description of how people thought their relationships with each other would change over time.

Taken together, this set of keys that are shared across the corpus of statistical tables can give the database user multiple points of leverage over the social and technical contours of the hydroelectric industry and its variation across time and space. The user can produce quantitative representations of changing relationships in the consumption and production of hydroelectricity during the final years of colonial rule in East Africa.

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May 5, 2017

Mapping?

May 5, 2017 | By | No Comments

In this post, I reflect on the possibility of building a spatial map of the information that is contained in the database. The initial challenge is to learn how to build such a map using HTML and Java. HILT and CHI introduced me to the basics of this work, but I would have to go further in order to make a useful map. This post considers a couple of the benefits and challenges that would come from doing so.

The main benefit is to increase the power of the database to let the user visualize and manipulate historic information for the purpose of understanding the world of hydroelectricity in late colonial East Africa. Mapping the flows of hydroelectricity that existed between the factories, mines, and plantations of this time period can give scholars a new window onto the economic and environmental relationships that structured people’s lives.

The main conceptual challenge is how to represent change over time across space through the use of a digital platform. Most network analysis and mapping tools are not geared towards presenting change over time, and those that do face limitations. One limitation is the fact that “time” does not exist uniformly, but requires representation in multiple simultaneous registers. A potential solution to this practical obstacle to the creation of a database that represents change over time is to overlay different cycles of time in the production and consumption of hydroelectricity. Relevant cycles include daily, seasonal, and annual patterns of use.

There is also the practical challenge of mapping historic data that, in some instances, lacks clear geographic coordinates. Overcoming this obstacle, I suspect, must require archival and field research to triangulate past geographies, and is not amenable to digital solutions.

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May 5, 2017

Partial connections in ways of knowing: Technocrats vs. The Database

May 5, 2017 | By | No Comments

In some of my earlier blogging in CHI, I reflected on the extent to which a digital database would reflect the ways of thinking and knowing that were used by the people who produced the data points from which the database is built. Here, I try to collect those thoughts.

The epistemology of the database and the epistemology of hydroelectric planners only have “partial connections” (Marisol de la Cadena, Earth Beings, 2016). This fact brings advantages and weaknesses to scholarship based on a database such as this. A key strength is that the data reflects the areas of interest of historical actors; a limitation is that it recombines and reframes the information in ways that may not actually bear relevance to people’s actual lives.

In the context of this database about hydroelectric planning in late colonial Uganda and Kenya, the constraints of this limitation are somewhat minimized because the source information already exists in tabular form. Digitizing and recombining hydroelectric records introduces contemporary epistemologies to reframe historical knowledge in a way that is largely foreign to the discipline of history – but I do not think that it is an activity that would have seemed totally foreign to the technocrats of the Uganda Electricity Board of the 1950s, who were already beginning to experiment with the use of computers to analyze their data. To see the creation of a digital database from their knowledge as a natural extension of it would be teleological, but I think it would be an overstatement to say that the two epistemologies are only coincidental.

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April 28, 2017

My MySQL table

April 28, 2017 | By | No Comments

Using WampServer, I produced an SQL database of information regarding the production and consumption of hydroelectricity in several towns in Uganda and Kenya from 1954-63. I chose this dataset because these years saw the largest increase in hydroelectric power in the history of East Africa. This dramatic hydroelectric expansion was comprised of several dams, but was based mainly on the completion of the Owen Falls Dam across the Victoria Nile in Jinja, Uganda – which remains the largest single source of hydroelectricity in the region. This set of development projects emerged during what became the final decade of British colonial rule in East Africa, and has had a profound influence on the economies, environments, politics, and science of the region in the postcolonial era. By producing a database that allows the user to track these changes across time and space, I have created a basis for researching the history of electricity in East Africa through quantitative means.

Extant scholarship, particularly work by the historians Robert O. Collins, Terje Tvedt, Heather Hoag, and Allen Isaacman and Barbara Isaacman, presents the contours of the political and technical debates about dam construction in East Africa. This historiography has yielded progressively more fine-grained analyses of the water politics of constructing dams on the Nile and elsewhere in East Africa, including especially interactions between governments and displaced communities. Yet, it has done little to contextualize or question the data that planners used to make decisions about the construction and operation of the dam, or the roles played by commercial and industrial elites in materializing demand for electricity. This database should offer a means to complement their research.

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March 31, 2017

Connecting SQL and PHP

March 31, 2017 | By | No Comments

I have now created a database of tables about the production and consumption of hydroelectricity in the final decade of colonial rule in Uganda and Kenya, i.e. the years after the construction of the Owen Falls Dam for which I have been able to digitize data (I am also trying to get comparable information from the postcolonial era). The use of phpMyAdmin in WampServer made this a straightforward process, with only the minor hiccough that, at first, I misunderstood how to save work within it. With that obstacle out of the way, it really does make generating SQL easy by using PHP shortcuts to do so.

I think I saw one exception to this, however, and found it easier just to write the SQL manually: in instances where I was generating multiple tables with the same series of keys. These instances included a set of tables that changes in the values of certain variables over time, and a set of tables that compare the same information across multiple townships in Uganda. In these instances, it was faster to cut-and-paste those tables into a new SQL script and change select values for each key than to use phpMyAdmin’s UI to create new keys and values.

Moving on to making PHP script with which to access this database, I learned another thing that the phpMyAdmin UI does exceptionally quickly: generate PHP arrays from SQL tables. I have saved these arrays in Brackets, because they will make it easier to make the form with which visitors to the site will query the database. I have revisited the education in PHP that offered in the O’Reilly “Head First” series, and on CodeAcademy. I need to write PHP script that can pull substrings from within each table (so that users can query specific data points) and that can adjoin tables (so that users can compare information across the narrow range of shared keys that I made the database around).

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March 20, 2017

SQL

March 20, 2017 | By | No Comments

I have not updated the blog about my project in a while. Its scope has been pared down significantly – as Ethan has said from the start that it would. The main change is that in order to make the creation of a database manageable within the time parameters of the program, given my total lack of experience with SQL, I have had to identify one highly uni-variant form of data within the corpus of economic and environmental statistics that exist in relation to the Lake Victoria basin. I selected tables relating to the production and consumption of electricity in East Africa, for historiographical and methodological reasons. The generation of hydropower at Owen Falls is an emerging point of emphasis in the historiography of East Africa, and will likely have considerable significance within the context of my dissertation. Therefore, I think that data from Owen Falls and other sites in East Africa offers a useful point of focus for this exercise.

 

It also offers a relatively accessible point of entry into writing SQL, because the information consists mostly of simple X-Y tables with recurring categories, e.g. Power (Horsepower) produced, Light (Kilowatts) consumed. Still, I have had to do some data cleaning, because these observations were not necessarily made to be compared with one another and were not produced in a standard form like Blue Books (at least, I haven’t digitized any relevant Blue Books). This data includes some tables that are pre-grouped. The largest bodies of information among these groups are a time-series that charts power and light production at sites across Kenya and Uganda across a decade, and a set of revised projections for the demand for electricity based on a revised estimate for the cost of power generation. These groups of tables seem to offer the most low-hanging fruit for the linking of tables through SQL – and the most historically-sound use of the language in this context, given the fact that the creators of these tables intended to group them.

 

The tables in these groups have also categories in common with other tables outside their own groupings, and so through the use of SQL these data can reveal an integrated picture of electricity production and consumption. This can give researchers increased access to the history of the region, but can also impose an ahistorical image onto the hydropower industry in East Africa, because historical actors did not necessarily see the industry in the ways that a database might present it. Then again, this tension can also be valuable in trying to understand the historical trajectory of hydropower.

 

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March 20, 2017

Archivaton

March 20, 2017 | By | No Comments

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-38324045

 

I attended the event described in the article above. The general purpose of this series of events is to preserve scientific environmental knowledge that is supported by the US federal government and is therefore at risk of loss under the Trump administration. The last sentence of the article best captures the specific purpose of the Toronto event: to create a “prototype” for a process that its organizers neologized as an “archivathon” (a Google websearch of the word doesn’t return any uses outside of the context of this project; a Google ngram doesn’t plot any uses). Around 80-100 people volunteered at the event, which occupied the entire floor of the School of Information’s information library. The volunteers included a core group of organizers including faculty from the University of Toronto and the University of Pennsylvania, and people like myself, i.e. those responding to the organizers’ call for volunteers. Many of the volunteers were vocally uncomfortable with the presence of communications media, both conventional and social, but also said that their presence was necessary (the media being what got us there, anyway).

 

The organizers asked us to split into three working groups: 1) a group of people doing the heavy lifting of going through the EPA website in advance of a webcrawler program, once the program had been written; 2) a group called “hacker’s corner,” which was geared towards writing the webcrawler and split off into its own separate room; and 3) a group oriented towards overseeing the logistics and structure of the data processing that was occurring in the information library that day. Additionally, the organizers also asked that a small number of people create two ‘floating’ teams of volunteers to go between the three working groups in order to document their work – one team via social media, and one via ethnography. I decided to take ethnographic notes, documenting volunteers’ experiences with the archivathon. I spent most of my time listening to people in the third group.

 

The third group divided into three subgroups. One included some of the lead organizers, each managing specific logistical tasks; this end of the table was fairly quiet. The other two groups included those who were creating a schema for an inventory of the EPA website. The first was tasked with creating an inventory of the EPA website, and the second with creating a rubric for libraries and other organizations to use in order to identify and prioritize materials for digital preservation in case federal support is cut. The inventory group worked mostly in pairs, each taking a specific section of the EPA website to map out conceptually (again, the character of the Toronto event was preliminary). The rubric group worked as a whole. Its members were heritage institution workers and/or digital humanities specialists, and seemed familiar with the interests and limitations of the people who would be using the rubric. Balancing ease and efficacy in the use of the rubric was an overarching theme here. Listening to each group offered different, albeit brief views into the practice of cultural heritage informatics in a sharply political context.

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November 4, 2016

Introducing John Doyle-Raso//Building a database of Lake Victoria’s environment and economy

November 4, 2016 | By | No Comments

Hello all! I am a second-year doctoral student in the Department of History. I am especially interested in studying environmental history and histories of science and technology, focusing on water politics in Africa. I am interested in historicizing the water politics of Lake Victoria as part of the broader water politics of the Nile Basin. I plan for my dissertation to address the policy shift from swamp reclamation to wetland preservation in Uganda in the second half of the twentieth century. I will conduct archival and oral research in English, Kiswahili, and Lusoga. My supervisor is Dr. Laura Fair; the other members of my comprehensive examinations committee are Drs. Walter Hawthorne (to round out my major field in African History), Jamie Monson (for Environmental History), and Georgina Montgomery (History of Science).

I began my postsecondary studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, majoring in peace studies and sociology and minoring in biology (I have an abiding interest in ecology and evolutionary biology). Thanks to an Undergraduate Student Research Award, I was able to do four months of oral research about village-level water politics in Dodoma Region, Tanzania, at this time. After my bachelor’s degree, I completed the dual master’s degree program in world and international history at Columbia University and the London School of Economics. My thesis addressed the final years of colonialism in East Africa, 1953-63, in light of the completion of the Owen Falls Dam across the Victoria Nile in 1954.

I plan for my doctoral research to extend my master’s research to address the transition from colonialism to independence in East Africa, to narrate people’s experiences with the changing politics of the lake aside from those of a narrow class of development experts, and to be the first book-length study of Nile water politics to foreground changes in East Africa. I will focus on the change in environmental policy from one of swamp reclamation to one of wetland preservation, bookended by the dates 1954-1986. This change was happening globally at the time, but had uniquely wide-ranging significance in East Africa due to the position of the region at the source of the Nile.


For my project for the CHI fellowship, 2016-17, I will build a database to document and visualize economic and environmental changes in the Lake Victoria basin. The database will both inform my analysis and serve as a way to access freely information that I have collected in Africa, Europe, and North America – a vital issue in African studies, wherein research participants and other local people often lack access to research findings.

I participated in the HILT 2016 digital humanities training prior to joining CHI this year. At HILT, I learned about an array of programs and tools for analyzing and representing data digitally; the CHI fellowship continues my exposure to these approaches. I am especially interested in programs such as CartoDB, Cytoscape, and Google Fusion Tables. Network analysis programs like Cytoscape would enable me to analyze the dynamics of overlapping networks, including: the relevant scientific communities; government, activist, and other political actors; and relationships between political and scientific leaders. Programs such as CartoDB and Google Fusion Tables would let me map these networks, and the resources about which they communicated. Environmental history is highly amenable to such approaches, given its focus on space across time.

I intend to focus on data regarding water as well as the energy and commodity industries in the Lake Victoria region in the late colonial and early postcolonial eras. I will pull this data from sources that I digitized from African, American, and European archives. This corpus contains disparate information on economic variables, such as the inputs and outputs of different industries, as well as environmental variables, like rainfall and lake level. Creating the database will help me better understand the historical context I will research for my dissertation, by structuring these sources of data spatially and temporally.

I will be able to add to this database as my research advances. For example, this summer, I visited a number of different government scientific offices in East Africa and learned that many continue to update environmental records dating to the colonial era (with some gaps). In particular, there are long-standing government programs for hydrometeorology and limnology – two disciplines with major economic and political implications in the Lake Victoria basin. The database and skills that I will develop in the CHI program would help me to ascertain what scholarship I can and cannot produce based on such sources.

In particular, my work in CHI will advance two of my primary goals for my scholarship. First, it will help me represent changes in water and land use in East Africa in an integrated manner. Land politics are central in the historiography of East Africa, and water politics were integral in shaping land usage, e.g. agriculture, forestry, mining, and wildlife conservation. Yet, the relationship between land and water in the Nile basin has received little attention, and so our understanding is incomplete.

My second goal is to produce knowledge about changes in environmental policy that occurred during the transition from colonialism to independence. Historians of development, environmental politics, and water in this context have focused on projects started by colonial governments and continued into independence. Most depict continuity, emphasizing the power of the twinned discourses of development and modernization. Thus far, historians have tended to argue that postcolonial governments continued the forceful drive for modernization begun under colonial rulers without significant changes occurring. Yet, the history of Lake Victoria affords opportunities to study historical change in this context. For instance, the collapse of the East African Community in 1971 ended a number of long-standing organizations aimed at integrating economic, political, scientific, and other activity in the region. Additionally, the policy shift from swamp reclamation to wetland preservation has reversed the valence of state objectives regarding a key link between land and water. By focusing on the shift from reclamation to preservation, I will challenge the prevailing depiction of development and modernization in Africa as extensions of the colonial state. A database of economic and environmental data over time would make it easier to analyze these changes.