Season 2 Podcast Kicks Off with “Making Big Data Talk for Public Health: Merlin Chowkwanyun”


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Season 2 of the Public Historians at Work podcast from the Center for Public History has made its premier. This season’s first episode features a discussion with Dr. Josiah Rector as he talks with Dr. Merlin Chowkwanyun on the use of collaboration between big data and humanities.

Listen to the podcast episode here!

As a historian of public health, Chowkwanyun felt that there had to be a way to find a seat at the table of medical and health discussions. He decided to pursue a Master of Public Health degree in order to understand the medical terminology being used in primary source documents.

With this new knowledge in hand, Chowkwanyun talks about his time putting his new skills to use by creating the site known as, “Toxic Docs.” This site is a dataset and website that contains millions of pages of once-secret corporate documents about asbestos, polyvinyl chloride, benzene, silica, and lead from large corporations such as Monsanto, British Petroleum, Texaco.

The content of this site includes company memos, studies that were never published, and PR campaigns that expose inter company knowledge to the toxic nature of products that were covered up or ignored.

The documents primarily came out of a legal process known as “discovery.” During lawsuits against these companies, “discovery” allows for everything to become public records. Unfortunately, these documents were unorganized and difficult to obtain. By bringing them all together on one site, Chowkwanyun has created a site that is keyword searchable for easy, public, and free access to researchers of all fields.

“I like busting myths, I like recovering narratives that no one has ever told,” says Chowkwanyun. He describes how Toxic Docs is one way to help people discover these narratives. “There are groups of people harnessing technology for the public good. I think Toxic Docs is one modest contribution towards that.”

Chowkwanyun describes how he has hopes that Toxic Docs can bridge the gap between historical inquiry and court room as Toxic Docs makes all of the information available regardless of whether it will aide a court case or not.

Along with discussing the importance of providing information to the public, Chowkwanyun describes his desire to bring together big data and digital humanities to raise critical questions about current institutional structures. One is his call to change in the way that racial health disparities are viewed.

He challenges public historians and public health professionals alike to provide more than numbers to describe these groups. Chowkwanyun describes the need for political, institutional, and fundamentally historical context to help explain why these inequalities exist and encourages public health scholars to think in a more methodological way when presenting these topics.

When asked about how historians should use their work for activism, Chowkwanyun agreed that there is a need for such work, but that each historian should decide for themselves how they should use their talents to accomplish their goal. “There is no one right answer for everyone because everybody’s style of activism, and what they can do is all different.”

Read more about Dr. Chowkwanyun and his work here!

Check out more of our “Public Historians at Work” episodes.

Public Historians at Work a podcast series from the Center for Public History at the University of Houston. In this podcast series, we speak with academics, writers, artists, and community members about what it means to do history and humanities work for and with the public. In our first season, we’re examining public history work as it relates to studying the roots of systemic racism in our city, state, and nation. Can public history work bring about meaningful change? And if so, how?

For more resources on these topics, make sure to check us out at www.uh.edu/CLASS/cph or find us on facebook and twitter @UHCPHistory. Together, we can help reclaim our past!