Professor Ian Milligan at the University of Waterloo is charting the content of millions of archived political web pages spanning the last decade, allowing the public to compare what Canadian political leaders and pundits said in the past compared to now. pulls from collections that the University of Toronto Library has been collecting for a decade. Professor Milligan and his research team at Waterloo, as well as project collaborators from York University and Western University made the data searchable and accessible, drawing on code that staff at the British Library developed.

“We’ve got access to a collection of 50 archived websites from political parties and interest groups, allowing you to search them back to 2005,” said Milligan, a professor in the Department of History at Waterloo. “It means, for example, that anyone can find out what parties and groups said about climate change or free trade in the 2008 or 2011 election, or at any point between elections.”

A search comparing depression against recession, for example, shows parties and groups such as the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Green Party and the Council of Canadians tended to describe economic downturn as depression, whereas the New Democrats, the Liberals and the Conservatives more typically use the term recession.

"We can use these searches to quickly find the historical allegories that some made towards the Great Depression, and economic action plans to remedy the situation,” said Professor Milligan.

Users can quickly access previously public content that is now stored as big data in a digital archive. The website’s search tool produces millions of historical results that wouldn't turn up in a Google search because the pages are no longer live. It also provides sophisticated analysis functions.

“You can run keyword searches, such as finding out the context of a word — Alberta and oil for instance — as well as being able to trace the prevalence of cultural ideas over time,” said Milligan.

The tool can trace how often a term or phrase appears in each year of the collection’s 10-year range. It contains interactive graphs where users can click on any point in a graph line to open all the citations associated with a specific term at a specific date.

In order to compare and analyze shifting rhetoric and platform points, users can compare what one party has said over the past few years about topics ranging from global warming to public transit. The tool also tracks the change in language, such as tar sands becoming Canada’s Oil Sands.

The project is possible through funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Insight Development Grant and an Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation’s Early Researcher Award.

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