EPFL study uses digitized archives to study 17th-century plague epidemic

On December 8th, EPFL published an article about a study in which researchers used digitized historical records to provide novel insights into the spread of the bubonic plague in Venice, Italy.

The study was led by EPFL researchers in the College of Humanities Digital Humanities Lab (DHLab), led by dhCenter member Frédéric Kaplan, and the School of Life Sciences Digital Epidemiology Lab, led by Marcel Salathé.

They based their research on newly collected and digitized daily death records, or necrologies, from the city’s Patriarchal Archives. They used data science techniques to analyze the spread of the bubonic plague, which is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, in the Italian city between 1630 and 1631.

Notably, the team identified two distinct peaks of deaths, for which they propose explanations based on computational models of disease dynamics. Their work was published in October in the open-access Nature Research journal, Scientific Reports.

This work, the investigators conclude, underscores the importance of digitized records for understanding the societal impacts of historical phenomena, and for digital data collection as a tool for studying global patterns of disease spread as well as local dynamics.

“It took more than five years to collect, annotate and model the data, but the results demonstrate that scientifically precious datasets can be extracted from century-old archival documents. These “big data of the past” can change our views on currently studied phenomena,” Kaplan said.

Read the full article on the EPFL website.

Source: 8 December 2020. Celia Luterbacher, EPFL. Digital data reveal new pandemic dynamics in 17th-century Venice.