End of the Year Speaker, April 29 at 7 pm


History as Data Science: Using Computational Analysis to Explore the Archives of the National Security State

Professor Matthew Connelly, Department of History, Columbia University

Monday, April 29 at 7:00 pm in Parker-Reed Room, SSW

The scope of official secrecy is rapidly expanding. The sheer scale of the national security state, the growth of electronic media, and the power that still comes from compartmentalizing information means that the government is only releasing a tenth as many pages of classified information as it produces. Hundreds of millions of secret documents are piling up, raising doubts about how we will be able to reconstruct the past and ensure government accountability. But historians are now teaming up with data scientists to analyze the millions of documents that are being released. Since these were among the first official documents produced and stored on computers, we can use techniques like natural language processing and machine-learning. It may now be possible to make out the broad patterns of official secrecy, attribute authorship to anonymous documents, and perhaps even predict the content of redacted text. But the political and ethical questions remain: what does the public need to know, and when do they need to know it?

Matthew Connelly is professor of history at Columbia University. His publications include A Diplomatic Revolution: Algeria’s Fight for Independence and the Origins of the Post-Cold War Era (2002), and Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population (2008). He has written research articles in Comparative Studies in Society and History, The International Journal of Middle East Studies, The American Historical Review, The Revue francaise d’histoire d’Outre-mer, and Past & Present. He has also published commentary on international affairs in The Atlantic Monthly, The Wilson Quarterly, and The National Interest. He directs the University Seminar on Big Data and Digital Scholarship, the dual masters program with the LSE in International and World History, and the Hertog Global Strategy Initiative, a research program on the history and future of planetary threats. He received his B.A. from Columbia (1990) and his Ph.D. from Yale (1998).


About James Fleming

James Rodger Fleming is a historian of science and technology and professor of science, technology, and society at Colby College. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), elected “for pioneering studies on the history of meteorology and climate change and for the advancement of historical work within meteorological societies,” and a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society, elected for his historical contributions. He recently held the Charles A. Lindbergh Chair in Aerospace History at the Smithsonian Institution and the AAAS Roger Revelle Fellowship in Global Stewardship while a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Books include Fixing the Sky (Columbia, 2010), Globalizing Polar Science (Palgrave, 2010), Historical Perspectives on Climate Change (Oxford, 1998), and Meteorology in America, 1800-1870 (Johns Hopkins, 1990). He enjoys fishing, good jazz, good barbecue, seeing students flourish, building a community of historians of the geosciences, and connecting the history of science and technology with public policy.
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