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Today’s project showcase comes from Dr. Kevin W. Fogg, associate director of the Carolina Asia Center at UNC. Dr. Fogg studies the history of Islam in Indonesia and modern Indonesian political history. Dr. Fogg, along with Dr. Syahrul Hidayat of the University of Indonesia, won a British Academy Small Grant to support the project. See the full project online here.

Indonesia proclaimed its independence in 1945, but with an imperfect constitution. Indonesia’s first constitution was crafted hastily by a Japanese-convened assembly that was not representative of the whole archipelago. The body that wrote the first constitution included only members on Java in 1945, underrepresented Islamic interests, and had to debate under the watchful eyes of the Japanese occupying forces. In the 1950s, the country elected a Constitutional Assembly to design a new one. This body, called the Konstituante (from the Dutch word for “constituent”), was twice the size of the national parliament at the time (over 600 members as opposed to parliament’s 273)—making it the best sample of the early Indonesian political elite.

I found profiles for all the members of the Konstituante in the Indonesian National Archives during my doctoral research in 2009. The profiles were only available in hard copy and hard to compare across three large binders. Creating a digital database was an obvious solution to make these materials available to a wider audience. A digital database also facilitates prosopography (the study of groups of people in history). I worked together with a political scientist, research assistants and a web programmer in Jakarta to create the bilingual website Konstituante.Net. International researchers hoping to compare the data from Indonesia with other countries at this time (for example, showing how Indonesia elected a higher percentage of women than either the UK or US in the 1950s), can use the English pages. Most users, though, are Indonesians, who are accessing the materials in Indonesian. This website has individual pages for each member of the assembly, plus some broad collective data on the whole sample. With my collaborator Dr. Syahrul Hidayat, I have published a more extensive study in the Indonesian Journal of Political Research. The full data set is also available for other researchers to request (without digging through the paper copies in the National Archives!).

The project hired a programmer to design both the database and website. These were made with PHP CodeIgniter MVC Framework and MySQL for data storage, also using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript—all high-level programming tools for which we needed a trained expert. Most of the work to make the data ready for analysis, though, could be done by the historians and political scientists on the project with minimal technical expertise. The profiles were all scanned into PDF format using the equipment at the Indonesian National Archives, and basic editing tools (both Adobe Acrobat Professional and Microsoft picture editing tools) were used to clean up the images and extract the profile photos. The biggest time commitment was the work of research assistants to type up the content from the scanned images into the database, making it searchable and crunchable data.

The uses of this digital tool have been wider than originally foreseen. Each month, over 2,000 users click through the pages. Just the overview history of the Konstituante alone got over 600 reads in September 2021. The profile pages have become a reference for students and members of the public trying to find out about Konstituante members – the database is the biggest footprint that many Konstituante members have on the internet. In an arrangement with Wikimedia Foundation Indonesia, the images scanned from the archives are now available for public use. Anti-corruption NGOs have been interested in this data to shed light on the founders of some of the country’s most wealthy or well-connected political dynasties. On the other hand, many descendants of Konstituante members have contacted the research team to express appreciation and enthusiasm that their foremother or forefather’s contribution is now better known.

The next step is to expand this database from just the Konstituante to capture other moments in Indonesia’s legislative history. (The fancy terms for this are going from a synchronic sample—just one moment in time—to a diachronic sample that will show change over time.) I have compiled profiles of the national legislature from 1953, 1956, and 1961, but again the printed sources that have this data are now quite hard to find. Once the project programmer duplicates the database framework, we will start the data entry process again. Research collaborators in Indonesia are hoping to bring the sample all the way up to the current era. More than that, they have proposed to use data from the electoral commission since 2000 to show not only successful winners of legislative seats but also the unsuccessful candidates’ profiles, allowing for additional modes of analysis.

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