Six degrees of Francis Bacon app receives NEH grant

Credit: Courtesy of Jessica Otis Credit: Courtesy of Jessica Otis Credit: Courtesy of Jessica Otis Credit: Courtesy of Jessica Otis Credit: Courtesy of Christopher Warren Credit: Courtesy of Christopher Warren

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Grant has recently been awarded to Six Degrees of Francis Bacon, an app that traces the social constructs of the British early modern era. The app received the Digital Humanities Award of $325,000, which is one of 300 new grants bestowed by the NEH. With this grant, the already successful network now has the potential to grow even further and become more successful as the grant will hopefully allow more connections to be uncovered.

The app was created by Christopher Warren, an assistant professor in Carnegie Mellon's English department, Jessica Otis, a faculty member in Carnegie Mellon's University Libraries-Research department, and Daniel Shore, an associate professor of English at Georgetown University. They created it using the Oxford Dictionary of Natural Biography as the basis for establishing relationships between notable people of the British early modern era. Warren, Otis, and Shore were also advised by Cosma Shalizi, an associate professor in Carnegie Mellon's statistics department, Lawrence Wang, a Ph.D. candidate in Carnegie Mellon's statistics department, and others from the department of statistics in creating the social network. Information systems teaching professor Raja Sooriamurthi and his students also contributed. Their contributions allow any users to add information to the app in a way that resembles the information crowdsourcing of Wikipedia.

Because anyone can contribute to the website, the app has potential to grow. As it grows, it creates an even larger web of connections. Receiving the NEH Grant will facilitate this growth as the team aims to improve the website's quality and accessibility. The website, as it stands, consists of a giant web of names that all connect back to Francis Bacon. For example, if you needed to know if Jane Austen knew Michael Faraday, the app would show you the acquaintances they had in common and how those people were connected. Grey and red nodes on the website denote those with the least connections in the 1500–1700 period, while blue nodes sprout several connections. The common connection entwining every node, however, is Francis Bacon, for whom the site is named. By relating everyone back to one person, the information stays organized and user-friendly.

Six Degrees of Francis Bacon has allowed people to research who knew whom and how this could have influenced the lives of different people. It creates a bridge between technology and the humanities as people are now able to use computers to research what could once only be found in writing. It makes personal connections from the past easy to document with today's modern technology. By relaying past information in a modern way, Six Degrees of Francis Bacon also makes these connections easier for more people to understand.

The aim of the NEH grant is to “help bring humanities experiences to Americans across the country,” NEH Chairman William D. Adams said in a Carnegie Mellon press release. By making the entire social constructs of the British early modern era digital, Six Degrees of Francis Bacon is a tool that can facilitate research. It has also been proven to be useful in classrooms by creating relationships between scholars similar to how social media sites like Facebook create connections between people today.

Six Degrees of Francis Bacon creates a unique network by tracing the connections between people of the past. Understanding how the people of the British early modern era were related can not only give context as to why certain people maintained the relationships they did, but can also reveal relationships that might not have been previously known. By giving users a modern glimpse into the past, this app hopes to allow its users to fill in the blanks missing in history.