The HistoAtlas project is a free, historical geographic information system. It is much more than just a collection of maps. It tries to gather as much as possible information about history and puts it on a map, timeline or a graph. Its main purpose is to get people interested into history and to educate them about what has happened in the past. You can find some more information about the project in the FAQ.
HistoAtlas is written collaboratively by volunteers from all around the world. HistoAtlas covers existing knowledge and does not create new knowledge (original research). This means that people of all ages and cultural and social backgrounds can write articles. Anyone is welcome to add information, cross-references, or citations, as long as they do so within the editing policies and to an appropriate standard. Substandard or disputed information is subject to removal.
Finding a lot of good historical maps is not an easy task. And most of these maps are very inconsistent with each other. HistoAtlas provides a system to actively maintain historical information derived from historical records and check if it is consistent. It does not pretend to invent new historical facts but to put everything together so it can be presented as one whole story.
The second aim of the project is to provide an interface in which it is easy to view and manage information. Its objective is to be able to learn people about history. It will provide more than just maps but also everything that explains what is happening on the map, also providing information of all the important aspects of recorded human history, because a map does not have any meaning without it.
HistoAtlas is more than just a simple reference or a historical geographical tool. It tries to be an interactive education system. Not just presenting simple articles but exposing relations between different information in a way the user is stimulated to learn more, presenting him with maps that evolve as time changes and exposes the events that triggered these changes, giving him with a system to find relevant data easily.
HistoAtlas is an open project making sure everyone benefits from it. Everyone can use the information and can collaborate on the project. Its main audience is the general public but it should also have enough historical details so also historians should be able to enjoy it.
HistoAtlas was started beginning 2008 by Stefaan Desender in association with GIM, an expert in GIS and open standards in Belgium. The first version of the project was put online on June that year. However the initial system did not preform to well when editing and viewing and has had a makeover. A new site was launched in May 2009 but is still being actively enhanced as the time goes on.
HistoAtlas aims to be a free historical encyclopedia. All content is made open and is created by collaboration. Although anyone can edit content it targets to be the most precise global historical reference.
The classical way to write a reference work is by looking for professors and researcher with lots of knowledge, make them do even more research about a lot of topics so they can write articles about it. This is a slow and costly process, because you only have a few people doing lots of work. This makes it hard to open up the information to anyone without charge.
This has however been changed by the introduction of collaborative encyclopedia, which Wikipedia pioneered. Here the data is not produced by professionals but by lots of amateurs who want to share knowledge for the benefit of everyone. This strategy allows you to distribute lots of data in different fields to anyone without any charge. So everybody benefits.
The biggest criticism on collaboration projects is probably that you can not produce any detailed information this way and that the content might be incorrect. In theory this is a fact. In practice Wikipedia has more articles than any other encyclopedia; the articles are a lot longer and contain a lot more details than most other general references. Although this is an item that people like to argue about and I will not get involved in. There are some people who have good reason not to have interest; scientist can not be assured that the data is accurate, politicians can not manipulate the data and managers can not sell data that is already available for free.
In concept there are some similarities to what on line encyclopedia like Wikipedia are doing. But when there is already an encyclopedia that already has some historical data why should there be a project like this anyway?
This project has a different view on how the data should be presented and used. It is a history oriented geographic information system. It structures information more transparently so you can search it more efficiently and present it in different ways. Wikipedia and other encyclopedia are not able to this because of the limitations of the way they handle data.
- They have a hard time describing properties and correlations between entities.
- Indexing is only on content and basic metadata. (Just try to get a correct list with Wikipedia of all the historical figures born in London.)
- Information is passive and is not used to build dynamically generated maps nor tested for inconsistencies.
On the other hand, like Wikipedia the information and application will be made available under an open license, meaning it will be maintained by volunteers who want to share their knowledge.
HistoAtlas is a historical atlas of global data. It targets relevant facts of the history human culture. Dinosaurs where very nice animals but are considered irrelevant and there was no one around to record the big bang. Also, nobody cares about the fact that you have declared your backyard independent and made your cat the queen of the new country. The course of the life of your cat is not really interesting anyhow and consists mainly of taking naps and chasing balls of string.
Historical data exists in various details. We now have records of any time the Queen of the UK picks her nose, but in ancient times we don’t even know for sure if some of the pharaohs actually existed. It is not possible to have the borders of the Macedon Empire in same detail as contemporary borders. People back than didn’t argue that much about a square centimeter more or less.
The data must to be the best possible it can obtain as a global atlas wants. Also putting in to much detail will only clutter the database. So, HistoAtlas tries to achieve relevant maps at a scale of 1:1,000,000 where possible and less when not possible for geographic data and a time resolution of a day where possible and a month, year, decade, century, millennium, era … if not.
The vision that HistoAtlas puts forward is the one of a collaborative system. But, as a scientist you also want to be sure that the information is correct, so you will get on board and start using it. Making sure that data is correct will be a high priority of the system. For now only a basic system has been put in place, but this will be extended in the future. Making sure the system is very manageable, transparent and easy to explore is the key to finding flaws and removing them and even discovering new relations.
The data on HistoAtlas is available under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License. This license is commonly used by open communities and guarantees that all data can be used or modified by anyone under the terms of this license.
Multiple licenses have been considered including the GNU Free Documentation License. However this license has a lot of inconveniences when using it. For example you need to print out the whole license each time you print an article and give it to a friend. The Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License is much more usable and guarantees that the data wil remain available to the general public and is compatible with most collaboration sites so we can share our data.