National Archives of Australia

Issue 11 July 2013

Hackers get creative with Archives data

How creative can you be with the National Archives’ collection? If 2013’s GovHack event is anything to go by, the sky’s the limit. Zoë D’Arcy, Acting Assistant Director-General of Access and Communication, explains why the Archives is part of GovHack.

It won’t surprise you to find out that most people now look at the Archives’ collection online. For many, that means delving into RecordSearch to find one or two special records to help populate their family tree or more extensive searching for more academic research topics.

However, a growing number of researchers are interested in what stories can be told about Australia’s history, not just by looking at individual records, but by using our online data to look broadly across our collection. For example, what can you find out about the patterns of migration over the last 100 years using data from the Archives’ immigration records? And how can you then use that bigger picture to drill down and find the stories of individual people that arrived?

Here at the Archives we’re interested in this too – in exploring new ways to improve public access to our collection. This is why we love being part of GovHack.

‘Hackers’ gather across Australia

GovHack is an annual competition held nationally over one hectic weekend in June for people who love working with data. Calling themselves hackers, they are actually a wide range of computer-oriented professionals, who are passionate about creating new and interesting ways to engage with government information that is available online. This year, there were teams working from eight locations around Australia competing for prizes in the broad categories of Open Government, Digital Humanities, Science, and Data Journalism.

Participants at GovHack in Canberra, 2013. Photographer: Sharen Scott /Share_s on Flickr (under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0); for full terms and conditions see

The Archives was one of many Commonwealth, State and Territory government departments making data available, and part of our interest was in seeing how our collection data could be ‘mashed-up’ with other government information to tell a story.

This was not the first time the Archives has been part of GovHack. In 2012, we were very impressed by the ways competitors used our data. In fact, their work led to the Archives releasing a new way to easily search our photographic collection, which allows users to tag, comment on and pinpoint where historic photographs were taken.

The Archives’ PhotoSearch prototype.

So this year, we were keen to see what competitors would make of our Passenger Arrivals Index. This is an online database of names from passenger lists in series K269 held in Perth, which currently includes almost 900,000 individual names and covers arrivals into Fremantle and Perth Airport for the years 1921 to 1950.

Mash-ups, maps and migration history

We weren’t disappointed. Over a period of only two days, 900 hackers worked tirelessly to produce some wonderfully creative projects. Not all used the Archives’ data, but we were very impressed with the quality of work from the teams that did.

One great example of how our data can work in a ‘mash-up’ was the Arriving in Style project from a Canberra team of the same name, who combined our Passenger Arrivals Index with weather information from the Bureau of Meteorology, newspapers from the National Library of Australia, and photographs from the Archives’ collection. The end result was a website that showed the arrival of each individual ship into Western Australia, what the weather was like that day, and what the disembarking passengers might have seen or read in the newspapers.

An example of a page from a passenger list, 1952. NAA: K269, 28 Jun 1952 North Cape

The entry that was judged the winner, however, was the project One But Many, submitted by Brisbane team ‘Hack the Evening’. Team members Anna Gerber, Tamara McKenzie and Brendan Halliday took the Passenger Arrivals Index and combined it with Australian Bureau of Statistics historical migration data to create an application that helps users learn more about Australia’s migration history.

The application used a virtual map to show migration departures from ports around the world during the period 1921–49. Using additional video footage and Wikipedia information, the group aimed to show what events might have influenced migration patterns, including those to Australia. You can find out more in this clip produced by Hack the Evening.

Once again, the GovHack event has given the Archives some interesting ideas about how we can present our collection online to a broad audience. We’re always looking for ways to improve, and you can keep an eye on our Labs Environment for some of our trials. We would love to hear what you think.

Want more?

Find out more about the competition on the GovHack website

Fact sheet 220 – Passenger Arrivals Index

Read more about new Archives’ online projects in the Labs Environment blog

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