1. médialab Sciences Po
  2. Activities


How to study 18th century’s economic exchanges with uncertain historic data ?

Reconstructing the economic landscape of France at the turn of the 1789 Revolution, grounding on uncertain data. PORTIC involves an interdisciplinary collective of historians, computer scientists and designers in three enquiries based on two existing economic history databases, providing an opportunity to experiment with new formats for collaboration and publication.


Project presentation

The ANR PORTIC program (2019-2023) intends to study the spatial and economic dynamics at work in the process of building increasingly integrated markets announcing and accompanying the Industrial Revolution. To this end, it cross-references data on the navigation of French ports with data dealing with the balance of trade, in order to better grasp the articulation between regional, national and international areas of French trade in the 18th century. It is based on two existing corpuses - Navigocorpus and Toflit18 - produced during two completed ANR programs. The cross-referencing of the two corpuses makes it possible, among other things, to estimate more precisely the respective shares of national and foreign trade, to refine knowledge about ports that articulate markets and their interactions, to analyze regional phenomena of specialization between several ports, and to measure the impact of conflicts on the economy of a port, to take the measure of smuggling across the Channel, to weigh up the share of the French in international transport services that escaped the trade statistics of the time, or to calculate the ratio between the value of trade and the tonnage or manpower assigned to maritime transport as a function of flows. While historians and economists will use this data to advance knowledge about the contribution of international trade and navigation to French growth in the 18th century, PORTIC also aims to enable everyone to explore the data, using this site, which proposes a progressive and guided approach to the data, taking into account their "imperfect" nature.

Indeed, PORTIC, a project co-constructed by historians, economists, geomaticians, computer scientists, and specialists in information communication via the Web, develops tools that allow a clear, scientifically irreproachable and calibrated visualization of historical information for different audiences, taking fully into account their so-called "imperfect" nature. The imperfection of historical data derives from documentary gaps, contradictory information delivered by different sources, or imprecise content. This uncertain nature of some of the information, which is fundamental when aiming at understanding the past, is currently insufficiently integrated by data visualization tools, especially flow visualization tools. It is thus a matter of providing correct access to this knowledge and making the public aware of the degree of certainty of the information.

The digital humanities accompany all stages of the project. First of all, they allow the sometimes aberrant and contradictory characters of data to be brought to light by research tools and by the implementation of semi-automated interactive procedures by which researchers qualify the value of the information. This aspect, a prerequisite for the project, will not be visible on this site. Next, we are in the process of creating a data visualization interface that will properly take into account the incomplete, uncertain or imprecise nature of the data, preventing erroneous conclusions during consultation. Finally, educational pathways and à la carte filters will allow different audiences to access the data according to their needs. Finally, a dedicated section will enable the youngest audience to familiarize themselves with specific historical realities through a playful approach.

Everything developed by PORTIC is of course shared under free software licenses.

médialab’s contribution

The medialab participates in the PORTIC project through the mediation of three historical enquiries designed to explore issues that can be addressed through the intersection of the two PORTIC databases. For each of them, the medialab organizes intensive interdisciplinary work sessions (“datasprints”) that provide an occasion for collaboration between historians, engineers and designers. At the end of each session, we collaboratively build web publications mixing prose, data visualization and digital interactions, that allow to trace the path and conclusions of each of the investigations and to share them with peers and a wider audience.