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African American Ancestry: Linked Open Data Aiding in Connections

Many people of African America ancestry have a deep desire to connect with who they are and where they came from. Enter Linked Open Data: the legacy of 400 years of transatlantic slave trade impacts over 150 million people globally today.  It is estimated that approximately 10.7 million Africans survived the dreaded Middle Passage, disembarking in North America, Caribbean, and South America.  Of those approximately 388,000 of the enslaved were shipped directly to North America.  The descendants that are related to these enslaved people arriving in North America now number over 38 Million people.  

Alex Haley captured it well, when he said, “In all of us there is a hunger, marrow deep, to know our heritage.  To know who we are and where we come from.” This is felt in those of African heritage; however, it is not easy to discover this past. There are numerous obstacles in the way since history has tried to hide this dark time for those of African ancestry. 

Available Records

We can find fractured pieces of connection to people of African ancestry in records.  These are hidden in small collections, such as: slave plantation records, wills, probate records, family records, conveyances, ship manifests, bills of sales, runaway slave advertisements, etc.  Independently, the records and collections offer only a glimpse of a person or group of people.  However, when these shattered fragments come together, they form a mosaic, where we start to see hints about the lives of individuals and families.  

Linked Open Data (LOD)

The many and varied record databases can be linked together through tools like Linked Open Data (LOD).  LOD uses a Uniform Resources Identifier (URI) as a single global identification system to give unique names to (names, events, locations, dates, etc.). LOD further breaks down the information silos that exist between various formats and brings down the fences between sources.  It facilitates the extension of data models and allows easy updates.  As a result, data integration and browsing through complex data become easier and much more efficient.  LOD allows for people to look up names and associations using global standards for querying.  The technology can then start to remove duplication, ambiguity and distortion.  This allows records to be linked in a common database, with reference to the original records, as the lives of the formerly enslaved are revealed.  

There is far too much data for a person to manually connect these fragments in collections.  Today, when a person finds connected records, we see this as an astonishing amount of work or by chance. Modern data analysis tools and artificial intelligence may offer insights into finding individuals and tracing their lives.  These tools working together with disparate datasets can offer a bridge for living people to their ancestors.  

Healing by Preserving the Records

Because of the scarcity of enslaved records, we should do all that we can to preserve and share these records. Then work to connect them together with their families and create experiences where descendants can discover who they are and where they came from. This may aid all humanity as we discover a way to heal this dark time in the world. 

Dr. Brent M. Hansen 

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