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Digital adventurers

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Family Tree Editor Helen Tovey gets to grips with 'Open Data' and what it means for family history.

On Saturday (30 Jan), I went along to Free UK Genealogy’s London ‘Open Data Future Conference’ – which was discussing the online database licensing of our familiar friends FreeBMD, FreeCen and FreeReg. Sounds a bit dry, perhaps, but the implications for online history-related research are huge if Free UK Genealogy decides to licence its databases as Open Data.

First things first… What is Open Data?

In the context of the Free UK Genealogy websites, Open Data would be the most free form of licensing, allowing anyone – commercial or otherwise – to use and share information from the FreeBMD, FreeCen and FreeReg websites in any way they wish.

Why would this licence matter to you?

For us with our family history interest – whether hobbyists, PhD students, authors, or commercial family history websites – such a licence would mean that we could use the data from Free UK Genealogy websites in an unlimited number of ways. Maybe you want to create a local history app, or need information for your academic studies? Either of these options would be completely fine, as it would be for a commercial genealogy website to use the data too – and in some respects this last point is no different from the current situation, where, for instance, the FreeBMD database has been available via Ancestry.

If you have other hobbies, in addition to family history, you’ll be well aware how excellently the online genealogy community is served by the extensive range of websites we use when seeking ancestors. The reach and sophistication of the websites - from commercial global giants, to miniature sites manned by a single passionate family researcher – are extraordinarily impressive; so too is the innovative nature of the sites. And this sense of innovation is certainly there with Free UK Genealogy’s Open Data proposal.

John Sheridan, as Digital Director & Head of Legislation Services at The National Archives, supporter of the Open Data proposal, heartily believes in ‘the value of collaboration around historical sources’ and the ‘awesome opportunity’ that Open Data provides to engage people with freely accessible records. Simon Tanner (Pro Vice Dean for Research Impact and Innovation in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, King’s College London) emphasised that ‘Open Data is not just free – it’s open – it can be shared… Setting data free makes us mighty’, as ‘by being shared [the data] gets greater value’ – as more people can use it in more ways, to get more out of it.

I will admit that when I first began to understand the ‘literally no strings’ approach to licensing that Open Data is, I felt fearful – that it was a risky leap to take, to open the digital coffers to everyone to use in any manner they wish. And on reflection, I still feel uncertain as to how this model can be sustained - ads, grants, donations? - though perhaps this is no different to any free to access project. But I also feel huge admiration for the Free UK Genealogy leaders, for being risk takers, for dreaming big and generously and wanting to allow their material to be used in as many ways as possible – the only limit being the extent of our genealogical and historical curiosity. Which, we already know, is vast.

Free UK Genealogy is holding a consultation period until 13 March, during which it is encouraging transcribers past and present to come forward with their views on the proposal to licence the Free UK Genealogy databases – FreeBMD, FreeCen and FreeReg – as Open Data, because this will affect the current transcriber agreement. As Pat Reynolds, Executive Director Free UK Genealogy, suggests, we need to think, ‘How can this project benefit the future?’. Perhaps this will be a pioneering leap for family history research.

To explore examples of Open Data websites visit Simon Tanner’s useful examples:

www.oldweather.org

www.forcedmigration.org

http://newspapers.library.wales/

Find out more at http://www.freeukgenealogy.org.uk/blog/ with specific FAQs regarding the transcriber agreement at http://www.freeukgenealogy.org.uk/about/transcriber-agreement-consultation/faq/.

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