Monday, October 02, 2006

My Data or Our Data?

One of the ongoing debates in the genealogy industry is over who owns the data. This question has been analyzed in a number of ways including the legal/copyright angle. What's more interesting to me is how average people feel about the data they come across and piece together about their ancestors.

In some ways this debate reminds me of a favorite game my two oldest kids used to play whenever riding in the car. One would start the volley by saying: "He's my Dad!" The other would retort, "No, he's my Dad!" They would continue until the object of their debate became so enraged he ended the game for them (much to their dismay). After this they usually started another game: "I'm a boy!" "I'm a girl!" "Well, I'm a boy!" Those were the days.

At times I feel the same frustration over the debate on ownership of genealogical information. Here's a different way to look at the problem. Let's not talk about dead people, let's consider living people. Imagine that you have grandchildren (may be a stretch for some of you). Suppose that one of your grandchildren was digging through your filing cabinet and found your birth certificate. For some reason they didn't want to share it with the other grandchildren. Imagine another of your grandchildren really wanted a copy of the birth certificate so after some bargaining paid grandchild number 1 for a copy of the birth certificate with an agreement that he wouldn't show it to anybody else.

I know there are some gaping holes in the analogy but I do wonder how our ancestors feel about some of our strange attitudes toward the facts of their lives. The biggest hole in the analogy is that I do believe there can be a reasonable value exchange when one party has gone to some effort and expense to make information about our ancestors more easily available. The fee however should be for the service of making it accessible, not for the information. The information (in my opinion) is community property.

I've just put my kevlar vest on, I'm ready to post this, let the debate begin.


Norm said...

All avid genealogists would agree that we need to have the data to proceed. Some would even think that we have a right to it, given that so much of the data was compulsorily acquired by church or state. But what of the data that was recorded in private forms, such as family Bibles and so on? Can we demand access to that? And what about those stubborn ancestors who did their best to avoid discovery by covering their tracks? We all defer to those living relatives who deny us access to their data, so are the deceased automatically disenfranchised?

Crwth said...

Perhaps we need to differentiate between owning the data, and owning the collation of that data.

The dates, names and locations of events, and the facts about them, can hardly be "owned", but the connectivity between these data are a creation of an individual -- not necessarily unique, and not necessarily difficult, but it is "their" information at that point. Granted, it may be something as simple as searching birth registrations and linking a few children to their parents, but the legwork was that individual's, and the tangible conclusion, a few links in a family tree, is in this case their creation.

Relationships found through hard work, deciphering hard-to-read texts, following name re-spellings, and searching gravestones might reach a unique conclusion, but in the end that result isn't owned any more or less than a transcription of a birth certificate which could have been done by thousands.

As for what rights that gives the individual, it's thankfully, as far as I know, untested. In this litigious world, I fear the day that a citation comes back to haunt me, seeking remuneration for the perceived "benefit" I've enjoyed for filling in my family history.

RussellHltn said...

Funny you should bring this up. I just posted some comments on this a few days ago on one of your older blogs, but I don't know as this software helps anyone know that there are new comments to older blogs.

Anyway, let me respond by asking a couple more questions: First, how big a problem is this? What percentage of the total family tree of mankind is being "horded"? I'm thinking it's a small percentage. If I'm correct, then the amount of work that's being withheld is a small amount compared to the work ahead and can be ignored in favor of turning our attention to the huge undertaking before us.

Second question: What would a hoarder feel if they found that someone else was piecing together the same family tree and making it public? All of a sudden that "secret" information is no longer so secret and there is absolutely nothing they can do about it. Two people with the new tools can make progress that would have taken far more effort a few years ago. My guess is that after initially being upset, the hoarder may well have a change of heart. They may find that there is no longer any advantage to withholding "their" information. That whatever they felt they gained by hording is disappearing.

So, to skip your question and go to the solution, my suggestion is build a site that encourages new people to collaborate on "our data". And to encourage the hoarders to upload their information by assuring them it won't be published without their permission and as a major convenience to their own research. Then the hoarders can be informed when they are being left behind. Hopefully things will work out from there.

RussellHltn said...

Another question: Has anyone looked into why people "hoard" their information? I'm guessing that by in large people are willing to discuss some details of what they have, but are unwilling to share their work in it's entirety. If true, then perhaps this can be used to open the door by getting them to collaborate on some of the details.

To some extent, the fear may be that others profit (as in getting money) off of "their" work while the true author gets nothing.

Norm said...

As to hoarding - my experience over the years at my local family history centre has been that the truly successful researchers get fed up of amateurish efforts. The diligent researcher sometimes feels that giving up their data to all and sundry can occasionally result in misguided people changing / challenging / ignoring their hard-won bounty. Thus they would prefer to write the family history book, instead of contributing the same data to the pedigree resource file. I can understand their point: I've spent years investigating some difficult lines and I'm not having that effort diminished by some come-lately who thinks that they can do it better :)

Anonymous said...

Well I will put in my 2 cents worth.

I don't mind sharing my research information but would like to get some type of credit for the hard work I have done. I guess this is just some type of fobia I have.

I have had some bad experiences where I shared and then have the person I shared with use the work and claim it was their own work.

Maybe if there was a way to imbed some type of source information where credit would be shown but I do not know if this is possible.

Dan Lawyer said...


In response to your questions:
1)What percentage of the family tree is being hoarded? I honestly don't know. That is a very hard question to answer. I don't think there are many people that are trying to 'hoard' information. I do believe that almost everyone has some information that they aren't comfortable sharing. For example, as some of the seasoned genealogists have pointed out, many people have great conerns about their hard work being messed up. On the other hand, many novices are hesitant to share because they aren't sure they've got it right and they don't want to expose their lack of expertise. I think there are a lot of people that have information they don't want to share publicly.

2)What would a 'hoarder' do if they saw their same information being made public? The novice would probably feel reassured while the more expert would wonder if their GEDCOM file had been passed around yet again.

I agree with the direction you propose for a solution. There needs to be away to collaborate where we can safely share without the fear of losing control of the way we've put the data together.

Dan Lawyer said...

It seems that most people for one reason or another have a valid need for a private workspace and the ability to control what they choose to share publicly. At the same time, it seems that the work would be sped up if we could share and work together more easily and more quickly without the fears we all feel around our infomration.

How do you balance this?

Norm said...

Perhaps the answer could be trust - as it so often is :)

I would be happy to share my information if I could tag it with some sort of reliability indicator, which would enable others to determine why I'm making the links that I have shown. Thus extracted information from parish records or civil registration would normally be accepted as correct, unless you have compelling proof that it's wrong (which it occasionally is). By the same means, I could tag some information as calculated or assumed and maybe have a link to a note explaining the process used.

This process of evaluation would encourage mutual trust and confidence, and help to instruct newcomers in the sources which can be used to establish links. There would also be an implied invitation to fill in the blanks or improve shaky links.

tim said...

We don't yet have an effective model for collaboration that I'm aware of. We still work with the notion of the serious genealogist as a kind of amateur scholar, spending hundreds of lonely hours compiling data in libraries. The LDS church's site is called familysearch, not familyshare. Genealogical tutorials still detail the drudgework of ordering ordering old documents. In order to collaborate now, there are a number of sites we can upload gedcoms onto, but we have no control over what conclusions others will derive from our info, and perhaps little hope that we'll receive productive feedback from distant relatives that stumble upon it. I don't upload my information because I'm unsure if all of it is correct and I don't want anyone regarding my conclusions as gospel, and a site that only offers a gedcom upload and a pedigree display doesn't provide opportunity for me colour or qualify or discuss information.

I have noticed others who are seriously concerned about less diligent searchers tainting their findings. Looking through pedigrees on rootsweb or ancestral file, a researcher soon finds factual data that they know is erroneous. Perhaps if a space existed where common descendants and other interested researchers could share and discuss information, and work together to solve unknowns, there would be less suspicion that information would be misused by others. A site that allows commenting, a revision history (the wiki model), and that links to easily accessible source documents - government collected information should be public domain - might allow people to be more confident about sharing information.

I see no reason to collect genealogical information except to share. Collaborating with others and testing my conclusions against others can only make my findings stronger.

Regina Gualco said...

Dan Lawyer said "The information (in my opinion) is community property." Well, what do you mean by "information"?

Do you mean sources, such as documents and photographs? You used a birth certificate as one example, and I agree that sources should be shared. If I have spent time and/or money acquiring a copy of a record, I want to share it with others so as to spare them the time and expense of acquiring a copy. Ditto for one-of-a-kind items (e.g. a family bible). I don't "own" these family heirlooms; I am only the caretaker. It seems wrong not to give copies to whomever asks.

Do you mean the data extracted from sources? I believing in sharing the data, and I think that's true of most family historians. Like thousands of other genealogists, I regularly exchange bits of genealogical data with other people via email and message boards.

Do you mean the conclusions drawn from the data? I intend to publish my family history when I am done carefully connecting the bits of data together and placing them in proper historical context. What I won't share is my family history while it is a work in progress, and I don't understand people who take me to task for not sharing my "gedcom". Is their any other field where researchers are expected to share their accumulated, raw data and their preliminary conclusions with whomever asks?

RussellHltn said...

First of all, I used the word "hoard". I know that's an overly harsh word, but I'm couldn't think of a better term right now for those who choose not to share.

I think Tim's right. We don't yet have a good model for genealogical collaboration. That model will make all the difference.

One weakness of current methods is that it's hard to update. Once we submit what we have, it tends to be "set in stone" (Ancestral File, PRF, etc.) So the first thing that needs to happen is allow the submitter to make changes so they don't feel "trapped" by earlier conclusions. And yes, show confidence in those tentative conclusions.

I've got mixed feelings on "credit". Wiki seems to do very well. Not sure if there's credit in the background, or not, but it's not obvious. I think one concern might be "glory hounds" that will go for quantity over quality just so they can get their name in there.

At the same time, I'm not sure as we want a system that allows anyone to be dismissed. If you put something in, then your are on record as disagreeing and that won't disappear until you change that. That way amateurs can't undo the experts.

But one thing I am sure of, is that downloaded GEDCOMs will need to have source information pointing back to the site and the date it was downloaded. That way we can hope that others will see that and know where to get the current version and we can put a big dent in the tendency for GEDCOMs to take on a life of their own.

Of course the system has to allow for sources. Either pointers to on-line or allow uploading of images. It seems that on the net, those who can source survive, those who can't, don't. I think that will take care of the experts vs. the amateurs. If the expert has documentation, but someone else says "Aunt Sallys says it's wrong", well, who are you going to believe? (And yet there's that tip from Aunt Sally to go see if there might be something to it.)

A private scratch pad may be necessary to get people to buy in, but once the collaboration model is worked out, we'll hope that people will use it less and less. After all, you'd rather have someone helping you find things then do it all yourself.

Anonymous said...

As an LDS church member, I am hesitant to put my data "out there" for fear that others will download it and re-do the ordinances I am doing. Perhaps when the new FamilySearch becomes available, I will have that fear eliminated, and I can feel ok about posting my data. However, I want to have first access to do the temple work on MY research, so I won't post it until I have completed the temple work. I know of a man who downloaded someone else's research from and submitted the entire download for temple work. The problem was that I had already submitted 55 of those names using MY research data so the result was much duplication. (He didn't check the online IGI first.) Many LDS people seem to be looking for the easy way out. They want to do temple work, but they don't want to do the genealogy first, so they usurp other people's research.

Stanley M. Berkner said...

1. Public data is JUST THAT!! PUBLIC!! ... bmd certificate3s, Baptismal/christening certificates, church records, ssdi...ETC!
2. I have been researching my future grandchild's (due in March) family records, from both my wife and me.
3. I have at least 300 names in FTM, mostly unverified data. The next step is verification.
4. At 50%, I plan to post it. I am including ANY deecendents of any siblings, if I have the data. This will simplify it for others who may finds a relative on their lists. I have already benefited from the work of others, why can it not go around again?
6. Under the copyright law, ANY thing I write is copyrighted. When posted, I plan to release my rights to it, as long as it is not claimed by others as their original work, and atibute it to the site[s] where they find it.

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