Liberating lives: invisible Australians and biographical networks

Presented at the Life of Information Symposium, 24 September 2010.
Slides are available on Slideshare.

Charlie Allen's palm print
This palm print belongs to a 12-year-old boy called Charlie Allen.

Charlie was born in Sydney in 1896.

His mother was Frances Allen (sometime sweet shop owner and brothel keeper), his father Charlie Gum (a buyer for Wing On company).

Charlie was raised by his mother, but in 1909, at the age of 13, he was taken to China by his father.

His father returned to Sydney, leaving Charlie in China. He lived with relatives in the town of Shekki (inland from Hong Kong) for 6 years.

Charlie was homesick, but had no means of getting back to Australia. His mother attempted to enlist government help but to no avail. Charlie finally returned in 1915.

The following year he enlisted in First AIF (well actually he enlisted three times, and was discharged as medically unfit each time).

Charlie married in Sydney in 1917 and had two daughters soon after. He returned to China in 1922 for 7 months.

Charlie Allen died in 1938 as the result of an industrial accident. He was 41.

How do we know all this about Charlie Allen?

We know this because there are fragments of Charlie’s life scattered throughout the holdings of the National Archives of Australia.

The CEDT from 1909 when he left Australia with his father:

Charles Allen 1909 - CEDT front

NAA: ST84/1, 1909/22/41-50

A letter from his mother to Prime Minister Billy Hughes, seeking help to return Charlie to Australia:
Letter to Billy Highes from Charlie's mother.

NAA: A1, 1911/13854

His WWI service record:
Charles Allen's WWI attestation form


An identity form relating to his trip to China in 1922:

NAA: SP42/1, C1922/4449

But of course Charlie is not alone in the archives.

Charlie’s father was Chinese, he was therefore categorised as a ‘half-caste’, as someone who was not white, and fell under the restrictions imposed by the White Australia Policy.

The certificate from 1909 granted Charlie an exemption to the Dictation Test. Without it, he may not have been allowed back into the country.

Every time one of many thousands of non-Europeans resident in Australia sought to travel overseas and return home again they needed one of these certificates.

We’re all of course familiar with the general outlines of the White Australia Policy, and the way it underpinned conceptions of Australia as a nation in the first half of the 20th century.

But what we sometimes forget is that it was also a massive bureaucratic exercise.

Forms and certificates were printed, issued, used and filed. Regulations were modified, guidelines were distributed and administering officers were managed and advised. Individual cases were reviewed, policy was changed and new forms and certificates were printed, issued, used and filed…

For example, between 1901 and 1911, 400 circulars were issued to port officers about immigration restriction. The confidential manual on immigration restriction grew from one page in 1902 to more than 200 in 1912.

Much of this system is now preserved in the National Archives.

For the years between 1902 and 1948 there remain:

  • More than 50,000 CEDTs
  • 90 shelf metres of records
  • 15,000 case files

And within those many thousands of files are the scattered fragments of lives such as Charlie’s — lives that were controlled, monitored and documented in a vain attempt to make Australia ‘white’.

We’ve already seen today some wonderful examples of how these fragments, these slivers of existence, can be found, extracted, aggregated and displayed. But I think it’s worth considering for a moment what happens when we do this.

The historian Tim Hitchcock, behind projects such as the Old Bailey Online and London Lives, has reflected on the impact of digitisation on our access to archives. Archives, he notes, tend to reflect the assumptions and practices of the institutions that created them.

But by providing new ways into these records systems, technology can undermine the power relations that persist within their structures.

‘What changes’, asks Tim Hitchcock, ‘when we examine the world through the collected fragments of knowledge that we can recover about a single person, reorganised as a biographical narrative, rather than as part of an archival system?’

I don’t know, but I think we should find out, don’t you?


I hope you’ve all collected a mini card. These themselves provide a little glimpse at the real face of White Australia and I’d invite you all to head over to the National Archives website, do battle with the monster that is RecordSearch, and look up the file references that are on each card.

The cards are part of a project that Kate Bagnall and I are trying to develop — Invisible Australians.

I should note too that the cards, and most of the examples I’m showing you here today are the product of Kate’s long and detailed research into Chinese-Australian families. In modern project management parlance, Kate is the domain expert, while I am merely the technical resource.

If we look again at one of the CEDTs, we can see that there’s a lot of useful structured data:

  • name
  • place of birth
  • age
  • height
  • destination
  • date of departure
  • name of ship

Invisible Australians has the modest aim of extracting this data from the 50,000+ forms in the National Archives. But of course that’s just the start, because each person might have used a number of certificates — so then it’s a matter of matching these identities.

Invisible Australians

And then there are a range of other related forms, not to mention case files, alien registration documents, naturalisation applications…

Obviously we can’t do it alone. We’ll be creating a crowdsourcing tool to extract and link the data.

It’s ridiculously ambitious, totally unfunded and is likely to take over our lives.

Is it worth it?

Imagine being able to navigate the network of lives, families and relationships. To follow their journeys, to share their tragedies, to celebrate their small victories against a repressive system.

Imagine being able to watch them age.

Pauline Ah Hee and Shadee Khan

Is it worth it? We think so.


For Tim Hitchcock technology opens up the possibility of writing a new history from below, exploring how the poor, the marginalised and the powerless navigated the institutions of the modern state. But it’s not just about search engines and databases. He talks about making ‘best use of the technology of emotions and representation — how you use words and pictures and a story to impact, not just on what people think, but what they see in their mind’s eye’.

In this project, the photos matter. I hope the irony in our project title is obvious.

Some of the faces of Invisible Australia

This is the real face of White Australia.

The photos remind us that the project is not just about shifting data around — these are lives, these are people.

But this brings its own challenge, for if we are seeking to liberate these lives from the fragmentation and obscurity of bureaucratic systems then we should be asking what are we liberating them into?

A database?

This is not just an exercise in data creation and management. We also have to think carefully and creatively about issues of representation, access and discovery.

We have to give these lives back their freedom to associate, to have relationships, to make connections.

We need to embed these lives in a variety of contexts and combinations. To make room for serendipity, celebration, sadness, and yes, even play.

We need to bring these lives into a rich and ongoing conversation with the world.

But how?


I’ve been working on a little experiment for the National Museum of Australia called The History Wall. What the History Wall does is quite simple, it pulls together data on the fly from a variety of sources including People Australia, the Australian Dictionary of Biography, the National Library’s newspapers project, historical population data from the Bureau of Statistics, photos from the Flickr accounts of the PowerHouse Museum and the National Archives, and the collection database of the National Museum itself. It chooses randomly from all this stuff, throws the results up into the air and then displays them however they happen to fall. No two views are ever quite the same.

The History Wall

It’s something more than a timeline. To me it’s more like a celebration of context and serendipity. There’s a richness to it, a sense of discovery and fun, but there’s also fragility — next time you look it might be gone.

It’s a bit like history itself.

It’s a bit like the world.

How do we create spaces for our data to merge and mingle? How do we encourage the development of new contexts and connections?

I think the first thing we have to do is stop thinking about databases and dictionaries, registers and encyclopaedias. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not being critical of the wonderful projects we’ve seen today. I just think we can use all this work better if we stop thinking about individual resources and start developing on a web scale, on a global scale.

Yes, we have the technology. Time today has spared you from a detailed discourse on the Semantic Web, but I do want to focus on one aspect.

You may have heard of Linked Data, it’s a set of guidelines to help you publish your data to the Semantic Web. There are only four basic principles and I’m only going to talk about one of them. It’s one of those deceptively simple things. You look at it and think, ‘yeah, ok’, but before too long it’s starting to turn your brain inside out.

Use URLs to identify things in the real world.

Yeah, ok…

You know what URLs are, web addresses, the things you type in your browser’s location field.

And hopefully you know what things in the real world are: people, places, objects, events, ideas…

Now you may have detected a problem here, because no matter how many times you click the refresh button, your web browser is not going to be able to use such a URL to magically deliver you the real world thing.

Well, unless you’re on eBay.

Fortunately, the Linked Data guidelines provide for a bit of technical trickery that allow your browser to retrieve not the real world thing, but some information about that thing — perhaps in the form of a web page.

Why bother?

Names are powerful.

We share and use names to talk about things. Computers are the same. If we use URLs to identify things in the real world, then computers can start talking about them.

We can define and explore real-world relationships in an online environment. We can create rich, meaningful linkages across databases, across disciplines, across the world.

We can start building and thinking on a web scale.


Thanks to the People Australia project, I can confidently claim that this is me:

I keep meaning to get it on a t-shirt.

The most exciting thing about People Australia is not the EAC records or the aggregation of resources — it’s the identifiers, because they enable us to say things about people anywhere on the web that computers can understand and relate back to a specific real world entity — a person.

You can start doing it now with Wragge’s Identity Browser.

Wragge's Identity Browser

This is a little tool I built using the People Australia API. It makes it easy to find identifiers for people and organisations, and it supplies you with some code that you can drop into a blog post or web page that will tell a computer that a name relates to a thing called a ‘person’ , that this person’s name has a certain standard form, and that this person can be uniquely identified by People Australia.

Even if you don’t publish a website or a blog, you can use People Australia identifiers to build semantic linkages. Wragge’s Identity Browser also creates machine tags for you. Machine tags are like normal tags but with built in semantics. When coupled with identifiers they enable you to do some pretty powerful things.

You could for example use machine tags in Flickr to tell computers that a certain photo depicts a person uniquely identified by People Australia. In fact, people have been doing just that.

Flickr Machine Tag Challenge

The Flickr Machine Tag Challenge is a sort of scoreboard that I built to encourage people to start adding People Australia enriched machine tags to photos. More than 1200 tags have been added to over 1000 photos. Feel free to join in!

The point is that the technologies already exist to enable us to build web scale biographical resources. Not dictionaries or databases as we know them, but networks capable of constant expansion, elaboration, and cooperation.

What we need are more tools to make it simple, recipes to make it obvious, examples and applications to make it popular, and leadership to make it all seem possible.


Of course most of the lives we hope to liberate through Invisible Australians will not be represented in People Australia.

Not yet.

But Invisible Australians will offer a point of aggregation and disambiguation that will enable our people to find their way from the bureaucratic recesses of the White Australia Policy to a place on the national stage.

And we will encourage others to do likewise. Basil can’t do all the work. The centralised system has to be fed through centres of aggregation and collaboration.

Similarly, there are many great resources already out there relating to Chinese-Australians. There are hordes of family and local historians compiling and publishing biographical data. We want to identify people in these resources and link to them.

We want to publish up to People Australia and link down to a single headstone in a lonely country cemetery.

But to do this we need to help people make their resources linkable. To help them create persistent, re-usable URLs, and expose their data in standard formats. To create Linked Data, even if they have no particular interest in the Semantic Web.

Invisible Australians

Invisible Australians is not just about extracting data from archives. It’s also about working with others to build capacities and demonstrate possibilities.

It’s ridiculously ambitious, totally unfunded and is likely to take over our lives.

Is it worth it?

We think so.

Hacking a research project

Amongst the holdings of the National Archives of Australia are some of the most visually arresting documents you’ll see — thousands and thousands of forms from the early decades of the twentieth century, each with a portrait photograph and palm print, each documenting the movements of a non-white resident. Along with many other certificates, regulations, correspondence and case files, these forms are part of the massive bureaucratic legacy of the White Australia Policy.

These certificates allowed non-white Australians travelling overseas to re-enter the country. NAA: ST84/1, 1906/21-30

But these are more than just interesting looking pieces of paper, they are snapshots of people’s lives. The forms capture data about an individual’s place of birth, physical characteristics and more. Over time a person might have submitted several of these forms, so by bringing them together we could trace their history, we could map their journeys — we could even watch them age.

The system which sought to render non-whites invisible has captured and preserved the outlines of their lives. By extracting and linking this data we could build a picture of another Australia, an Australia in which non-white residents lived, loved, struggled and succeeded, despite the impositions of a repressive regime.

I talked about these records at the AAHC conference last year, inspired in part by Tim Hitchcock’s chapter in the Virtual Representation of the Past. Tim Hitchcock argues that technology can allow us to restructure archives, looking beyond institutional hierarchies to the lives of individuals contained within:

What changes when we examine the world through the collected fragments of knowledge that we can recover about a single person, reorganised as a biographical narrative, rather than as part of an archival system?

I don’t know, but I’d like to find out.

During my AAHC talk, Dave Lester suggested that the extraction of data from these forms might make a good crowdsourcing project. It’s a great idea. As you can see, the data is generally well-structured and legible, it should be possible to construct a simple series of forms that would allow volunteers to transcribe the data. The next stage would be to try and match identities across forms. That’s more complicated, but projects such as Tim Hitchcock’s London Lives show how users can construct identities by connecting a range of historical documents.

Then there are connections to resources outside of the archives — photographs, local histories, newspapers, genealogies, cemetery registers and more. By keeping our system open and extensible, and by working with others to help them expose their information in standard ways, it should be possible to develop the framework for an evolving mesh of biographical data.

So, how do we get started? This is the point when you usually have to start thinking about money — how can I fund this? In Australia that generally means a journey into the arcane world of the Australian Research Council. The ARC suffers from all the problems of a peer-reviewed system, but added to this is a rather antiquated notion of what research is.

In the rules covering each of the main schemes it’s clearly stated that the ‘compilation of data’ and the ‘development of research aids or tools’ are not supported. I spend part of my life working for the Australian National Data Service, an organisation that seeks to highlight how the sharing and reuse of data can open up new research possibilities. The ARC, however, seems to think that data has little value beyond its original research context.

Of course you can still mount a case for such activities. Applicants for a ‘Discovery’ grant can argue that data creation is integral to their project and provide details of the ‘specific research questions to be addressed’. But what if you don’t yet know what the questions are? Part of the point of a project such as this is to try and find out what questions we are able to ask. Until we start to compile, link and explore the data, the ‘specific research questions’ will be little more than convenient fictions, dreamt up to satisfy the prodding of peer reviewers.

Tom Scheinfeldt wrote a fantastic blog post recently, responding to concerns about the failure of many digital humanities projects to make arguments or answer questions. Drawing examples from the history of science, Tom argues:

we need to make room for both kinds of digital humanities, the kind that seeks to make arguments and answer questions now and the kind that builds tools and resources with questions in mind, but only in the back of its mind and only for later. We need time to experiment and even… time to play.

The ARC does not fund play.

You might imagine that the ARC’s infrastructure funding scheme would offer more hope for a project such as this. And yes, there are many worthy projects involving databases and online tools that have been supported in this way (and I have benefited from some of them!). But it seems that in the minds of research funders infrastructure is always BIG. Grants start at $150,000, and applications are expected to involve multiple institutional partners. Projects have to be scaled up to fit the ARC’s definition of infrastructure, often resulting in complex, lumbering, long-term projects whose products are out of date by the time of their release.

There is no room in our current infrastructure models for agile, innovative, user-focused digital toolmakers seeking small amounts to experiment with apps, prototypes, datasets or visualisations. I often look with envy upon the US National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Humanities Start-Up Grants.

In any case, neither I nor my partner in this endeavour, Kate Bagnall (@baibi), are currently in academic positions, so our chances of gaining any sort of research funding are next to none. We have the expertise — Kate has spent many years researching Australian-Chinese families and knows the records back-to-front, while I just can’t help playing with biographical data — but is that enough? How can you mount an ongoing research project without institutional support, research funding and the various badges and signifiers of academic authority?

I don’t know that either, but I have some ideas.

Ah Yin Pak Chong

Mrs Ah Yin Pak Chong. NAA: ST84/1, 1907/321-330

I didn’t manage to get a contribution together for Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt’s crowdsourced-in-a-week book, Hacking the Academy, but watching the process from afar I did begin to wonder about how we might hack the way we build and run major research projects. This is what I have in mind:

  • To strip down the large, lumbering beasts and design projects that are modular and opportunistic — able to grow quickly when resources allow, to bolt on related projects, to absorb existing tools.
  • To follow the data freely across technological and institutional boundaries, developing open networks that invite participation and use.
  • To develop a floating pool of collaborators, both inside and outside of academia, who are able to come and go, contributing whatever and whenever they can.
  • To make everything public, accessible and standards-compliant, so that even if the project stalls it could be picked up and developed by someone else.

Most of all I just want to be able to do it. I don’t want to second-guess the ARC. I don’t want to spend months negotiating with potential partners or begging for an institutional home. I want to build, experiment and play. I want to make a start.

So that’s what we’re going to do.

We have a topic, plenty of raw materials, some basic principles and the beginnings of a plan. We even have a name — Invisible Australians: Living under the White Australia Policy.

As the project develops, I’ll be blogging here about some of the technical stuff, while Kate will be exploring the content over at the tiger’s mouth. I hope to have a prototype of the transcription tool ready to demo at THATCamp Canberra, while Kate is already at work putting together guides on using the records and developing an Omeka site that follows a number of Chinese-Australian families through the archives.

Can we hack together a major research project? Let’s find out.