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Machine Learning Reveals Hidden History of Runaway Slaves

Machine Learning,History,Satellites
Nancy Atkinson
Keenon Ferrell
June 18, 202310:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)

Impatience isn’t usually a virtue.

But entrepreneur Bill Perkins found that a little impatience can sometimes spur innovation. And even uncover hidden history.

Perkins already has a long and varied list of accomplishments, as a successful hedge fund manager, professional poker player, film producer, and author. But he’s recently added ‘space sector entrepreneur’ to that list because of an unlikely space-meets-history story, where impatience overcame impossibilities.

The result is Perkins’ new company called SkyFi, where anyone can have easy access to high-resolution satellite images from anywhere on Earth, anytime. If you’ve ever tried to purchase even a single orbital image of our planet, you’ll find it’s not as easy as it sounds — or, as Perkins says — as it should be. SkyFi changes that with an app and API that puts satellite data and the tools to analyze it in the palm of your hand.

The story behind the company’s genesis is equally transformative; an intriguing tale of figuring out how to use state-of-the-art artificial intelligence tools to uncover the hidden histories of runaway slaves in the 1800s.

While that might be one of the most improbable segues ever, it all happened because of Perkins’ impatience.

“Yeah, it was a daisy chain of serendipity that led me to be part of the space industry,” Perkins told Supercluster. “But I’m just a guy who loves history and data, and is usually impatient for an answer.” 

Freedom on the Move

It all started in 2018 when Perkins heard about a crowdsourcing project from Cornell University called Freedom On The Move. The goal of the project is to create a comprehensive database of details from runaway slave advertisements posted in American newspapers prior to the Civil War, during the 18th and 19th centuries. To achieve this, researchers enlisted the help of the public to sort through scans of these ads, which were placed by enslavers trying to locate fugitive slaves, or by vigilantes and police departments who had captured African Americans who they deemed to be runaways.

The detailed column-length advertisements offer monetary rewards, but also include a wealth of personal information about the fugitives, such as their name, appearance, age, marital status, places of origin, or if they were possibly running to reunite with a spouse or child. By themselves, the ads were almost like a miniature biography.

Collectively, the ads constitute a comprehensive and rare source of information about the experiences of slaves in America.

But the data extraction process was slow. The project relied on volunteers to transcribe scans of these ads — which are sometimes hard to read — into plain text. The next goal was to somehow go through the text to pull out the relevant pieces of information, such as names, common jobs, and other details to create a database so that historians could put together stories of individuals while gathering information for an overall history.

“I am really passionate about this idea of uncovering these hidden histories,” said Perkins, who is African American. “But I'm super impatient and couldn't wait for the crowd-sourcing because I just wanted to know these stories right away and know the details at scale. I thought, why can’t we just use optical character recognition (OCR) to scan the text, and then build something using machine learning, training it to pick out all the details about each person?”

Perkins, who founded the investment management firm Skylar Capital, turned to his quantitative analyst, Eric Anderson, currently CTO of SynMax, another Bill Perkins company.

“My job at Skylar,” Anderson explained, “was to ingest enormous amounts of information and distill it into succinct pieces of intelligence that can be used to make trades. Bill saw what I was doing as a potential key to helping Freedom On The Move.”

While Anderson worked on creating a machine using novel AI-based technology that could scan text and extract information, Perkins coordinated with Freedom On The Move, getting access to some of the 20,000 ads the volunteers had already digitized. Perkins and Anderson used that data to train their model to understand key terms like names, job descriptions, height, and features like scars or skin color, to extract as much personal information as possible from the ads. After several iterations and tweaks to improve accuracy, they were able to set their new machine to work.

“The work that Freedom On The Move had been doing for years got 20,000 ads digitized. But we were able to get 60,000 ads completely scanned in a matter of seconds,” Anderson said. “Not only that, we built this machine to churn out historical data, with research-ready information culled from these ads.”

Their work has helped uncover a treasure trove of previously hidden information. Perkins started a separate organization called Runaway Project, which works cooperatively with Freedom On The Move. But Runaway Project has worked to get access to additional databases that contain thousands of other runaway slave ads that were published from 1705-1865. With all this information they are curating a free database that unlocks a huge piece of history.

“There are not many diaries from slaves or other accounts from that time of the people I call the true freedom fighters,” Perkins said, “and I think these stories need to be known and celebrated.”

A Rediscovered History

One of the often-overlooked traumas of slavery is how enslaved people’s history is systematically taken away from them.

“Most of us have the benefit of knowing exactly where we came from or the ability to look for it,” Anderson said. “I can trace my family history back to the exact English town my ancestors came from, find out when they emigrated to New York, and locate their signatures on immigration documents. It’s a powerful experience to have that connection to your past. But with slavery, that history was severed, and there are no records of the existence of millions of people.”

Perkins and Anderson see Runaway Project as an opportunity to remediate that since the runaway slave ads contain perhaps the only written record of these people. They have a goal of eventually digitizing between 200,000-250,000 runaway slave ads.

With the amount of information extracted so far, Runaway Project has found larger patterns buried in the data. For example, 85 percent of runaways were male, the median age of the runaway slaves was 25, the most common skills were that of carpenter or cooper, the most common month when people ran away was July, and those aged 15-20 years old commanded the highest reward. These details are helping historians put together a cohesive picture of life as an enslaved person during that era.

But the personal stories are incredibly compelling. Anderson shared a story of how the Runaway Project database allowed one of his co-workers to finally know details of one of her ancestors.

“Tatiana had a story that had been passed down through her family that one of her ancestors was a runaway slave,” Anderson said. “She had no documents or records, but she had approximate dates, ages, and a couple of variations of a name. We took that to the database and within 20 minutes we found the ad describing her ancestor with information irrefutably tied to the story she had. So, we went from just having a verbal history to getting something concrete. That’s the power of the data."

To help tell these personal stories, Perkins and Anderson started a Twitter account @FromSlaves which shares details collected from the ads.

“Instead of just posting the information — which can be dry and not very ingestible,” Perkins said, “we can humanize it more if we tell the story from the perspective of the runaway."

Each tweet includes the ad for the runaway and includes personal details that provide insights into the time period.

The Runaway Project is also making its methodology available for other researchers to use.

“While what we developed is useful for what we’re doing,” Perkins said, “I want my efforts replicated to help other researchers in other fields. Once you digitize data and run AI machine learning, you can find all sorts of information that is hidden in the data.”

Looking Toward Space

Perkins also realized this process of surfacing information from existing data could be beneficial for his other companies. However, when he wanted to purchase satellite images to garner data for his hedge fund, he found the process bureaucratic and frustrating enough that he decided to try to change it.

He set about creating a satellite data marketplace with the goal of modernizing, democratizing, and ‘easifying’ access to satellite imagery. The goal was to make purchasing satellite imagery as simple as using an app on your phone.

“I can order anything on my phone from pizza to a car,” Perkins said. “I should be able to have access to satellite data, too."

The new customer-focused company SkyFi partners with over a dozen satellite, balloon, and aerial imagery operators to revolutionize the process of obtaining current, high-quality Earth images on demand, with views in daytime or nighttime, in visible or multispectral wavelengths, or even video.

SkyFi’s customers range from individuals who want a satellite image of their wedding or want to plan a remote hiking trip, to students and researchers monitoring environmental trends in climate change or deforestation, to businesses that want to monitor assets from anywhere, or commodity brokers who need to monitor things like crops growing on any continent.

Perkins said he relishes hearing from users about how SkyFi is making their lives and work easier. 

“I’m just an inquisitive, impatient trader,” Perkins said with a smile. “But it feels good to help in [advancing] our understanding of our world, as well as in the preservation of history. While the work we’ve done with Runaway Project is really rewarding, the fact that it led to SkyFi feels even better. If we can help someone prevent, solve, or do something to better our world [today] because we made it easier and cheaper to get access to the data, that’s what I’m here for. That’s what I really care about, having an impact on the world.”

What questions do you have about the world? SkyFi is launching new analytics tools to make the most of Earth observation data. Learn more at the SkyFi Beta Insights Survey.

Nancy Atkinson
Keenon Ferrell
June 18, 202310:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)