Paper Digital Humanities Australasia 2018

The Prosecution Project - getting and sharing big data (87)

Yorick Smaal 1
  1. Griffith University, Upper Mt Gravatt, QLD, Australia

In this paper I propose to review The Prosecution Project as an exercise in data-gathering and data-sharing, along the way considering questions of what difference digital makes, what kinds of research it makes possible, what kinds of information dialogue it encourages, and what kinds of transformation of research community it fosters.
As originally conceived The Prosecution Project was an exercise in academic research. Its driver was a question about the characteristics of the criminal trial in Australia in the century after the convict era. The rationale for the kind of data collection we would undertake was a query about the nature of official statistics, their fitness for answering questions we wanted to ask. Australian archival data in the fields we were working in (police, courts, prisons) was generally regarded as quite robust, with great potential if mined in the way that for a number of decades the convict records had been. We hoped to be able to test the quality of official statistics in ways not done before, and to explore social relationships and processes that two-dimensional linear statistics generally obscured.
Like any other research being conducted across this period of a rapidly changing digital landscape, The Prosecution Project offers one particular example of the possibilities and limitations of digital research seeking to capture the potential of big data.
After five years of data collection, it is valuable to review the history of this digital project, its design process, the transformation of its research community, the changing scale of the project, and its potential to articulate to other research domains. In brief, this means:
- recounting a design process in which researchers worked in tandem with software and web designers to develop a reseach infrastructure that was flexible, scalable and retained a high degree of researcher control;
- acknowledging the shift from individual researcher to academic research team to a broader conception of a research community involving professional and general community users, a shift contingent on the productivity of the Internet;
- describing the growth of the project from one organised around a very discreet data source to a wider embrace of material framing and contextualising that data;
- and tracing the network of connections between this project and related projects, national and international, that seem likely to establish an unanticipated legacy.