The map trying to record every battle ever fought

By Justin Parkinson
BBC News Magazine

Image source, Nodegoat

A Dutch company is attempting to map all the battles in history using Wikipedia. But what does it really tell us?

It looks like Europe and the US are the bloodiest parts of the world.

But the details - shown on a newly released map of all the recorded conflicts in history - rely not on academic books but information available, and editable by the public, on Wikipedia.

The Dutch data project Nodegoat is using an algorithm to piece together the details, taking the information from DBPedia, which collates information from Wikipedia, and the Wikidata database.

According to Nodegoat's Geography of Violence map, the first recorded military conflict in history was the Battle of Zhuolu, in eastern China, in about 2500BC. Then, it says, no other dateable and locatable battle is known for more than 1,000 years until the Battle of Megiddo, in the mid-15th Century BC, between Canaanite and Egyptian forces.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
A relief in Karnak shows Tuthmosis III smiting his enemies at the battle of Megiddo

The northernmost battle shown is Operation Gauntlet, which happened just 600 miles south of the North Pole, on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen during World War Two.

There are some obvious mistakes thrown up by the algorithm. The last battle on mainland British soil, according to the map, happened in 2008. This was when rioting took place in Manchester as Glasgow Rangers played Zenit Saint Petersburg in the UEFA Cup final. Some of the press reported the event as the "Battle of Piccadilly", a headline mentioned in the footnotes of the Wikipedia article on it. This seems to have been enough to trigger Nodegoat's algorithm, ensuring its inclusion on the map.

The southernmost conflict listed was even less battle-like than the Manchester disruption. Operation Shua Polar was actually an Antarctic exploration trip organised by Chile in 1990.

Anybody glancing at the map will see there are huge clusters of battles recorded in northern France and the Low Countries.

These clusters and those in the US are, in part, a reflection of Wikipedia's user base and its interests, says Geert Kessels, co-founder of Lab 1100, the Hague-based company behind Nodegoat. "What the map shows can have an educational value," he adds. "A teacher could show it to give students a picture of what we think and know about battles, but the picture would allow them to ask their students what it says about our whole view of history." It could also encourage users of Wikipedia to help create a more authoritative and comprehensive record, he adds.

Nodegoat found 12,703 battles it could give a date and location to. The quality and ordering of the information picked up by the algorithm can depend on structure of the online article, says Pim Van Bree, co-founder of Lab 1100, particularly the summary box on the right-hand side.

Image source, Getty Images

Historian Ellen Leslie is sceptical about the project as Wikipedia is an unreliable source. "It can be edited by anyone. I understand mapping all the battles in history is a massive project, but surely it would be better to contact historians and experts to gather this kind of information reliably."

Leslie adds that the map, in the broad sense of looking at conflict clusters it produces, is "interesting" but says that it's "hard to define" what constitutes a battle in the first place.

The battles on the map are colour-coded to show the era during which they happened.

The project shows "the potential for using online data", says Matt Brosnan, a historian at London's Imperial War Museum. Given the source "it is almost impossible for something like this to be historically definitive and reliable", he adds. "However, it does show how large amounts of data can be shaped into something geographically and visually interesting that aims to convey the wider sweep of history."

Nodegoat says it will continue to develop its algorithm, with an updated version of the map available in a couple of weeks. Further revisions are planned every year to take into account changes in the information available.

"There's been huge interest in this project from the Balkans," says Kessels, "where some of the European battles shown happened very recently. The map will continue to change as we get more and better information of what's happened historically. Sadly, in many parts of the world, it will have to be updated because there are still wars going on and new battles are taking place."

Follow Justin Parkinson on Twitter @justparkinson

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