• 2022 Annual Return: Much progress made, but more to do!

    We have recently completed and filed our annual accounts (link) for Free UK Genealogy CIO, the charity that operates FreeBMD, FreeCEN and FreeREG projects. Last November, we shared the news that we had turned around our financial position after a few years of challenges. These accounts confirm the journey that we have been on, turning around a £30,000 deficit into a £43,000 surplus, and delivering the much strengthened financial position we now have:

    Many people have contributed to this turnaround and we would particularly like to thank:

    • Kate Streatfield, Nick Riches and William Speight, whose efforts on the Fundraising Steering Group bore fruit with the BigGive campaign last Christmas and increased donations
    • Our partners at MyHeritage and Publift who have worked with us to improve the effectiveness of our advertising without degrading the user experience
    • All our staff and volunteers whose ongoing efforts have helped keep costs under control.

    But as we said last year, financial stability is not an end in itself: it means we can focus on supporting our websites and our volunteers and delivering our objectives – making genealogy records available –  in the best way possible. Our report also illustrates the urgency of this focus:

    The continued reduction in volunteers highlights the importance of improving our transcription systems and the volunteer experience. Whilst 15 million new records is very impressive, this has continued to fall. Now that our financial position has been turned around, we also need to turnaround the decline in our volunteers and transcription rates - two key measures of how we deliver our objectives.

    This was why we organised our Strategy Weekend in June, which brought together staff, volunteers and trustees to discuss our priorities. We have adopted “Quality, Value, Growth" as our focus as we look to strengthen our projects in the years to come.

    We have started to appoint the additional committees we agreed at the strategy weekend, to focus on the key priorities and challenges that we are facing.

    This will take time to bear fruit; however, just as we have been successful in turning around our financial position, we are confident that we can also turn around our slowing progress with our projects.

  • FreeCEN: Taking Another Stride Forward

    FreeCEN is undertaking a major project to improve data accuracy and consequently further improve the quality of its search results.

    FreeCEN, along with other FreeUKGenealogy projects, has long been regarded by many as providing better quality transcriptions than those from commercial companies. We have a reputation for achieving a very accurate transcription of the censuses.

    The new "FreeCEN2" website was launched in 2017 as an enhanced programme to replace "FreeCEN1". It records more detail from the censuses and allows transcribers to work on the 20th century censuses as well as on the 19th century returns.

    We're now undertaking a major project to improve searching. This project will have several steps (some recently achieved)

    • The civil parishes as recorded in FreeCEN1 and migrated into FreeCEN2 have been reconciled with the National Archive index. This has removed anomalies and mis-typed entries from our data and therefore markedly improved the results from our current FreeCEN2 searches.
    • FreeCEN2 now matches Place of Birth entries with a Gazetteer that records place names along with their nineteenth century counties, their latitude and longitude, and a link to a source that supports that the place exists or existed. This Gazetteer contains England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland places together with overseas places that have been geolocated by volunteers. This Gazetteer now has over 60,000 worldwide records. Volunteers match places of birth as recorded with the place in the Gazetteer (adding new ones when necessary) and where needed record an alternative correction. Both place names are displayed in the search results.
    • Our next step will be to review over 40 million records imported to FreeCEN2 from FreeCEN1. An automated system will highlight those records that need to be reviewed. Once an alternative place name has been identified it will be propagated to all similar records in the database. All places of birth that can be identified will then have been linked to the Gazetteer. This process will start in the near future.
    • The geolocation of over 60,000 place names in the Gazetteer, linked to each place of birth, will allow FreeCEN to develop new searching capabilities based on latitude and longitude. That means that we will also be able to search around a particular point. It also means that we will be freed from the limitations of text searching for places of birth. A new and improved place of birth search will subsequently be able to be implemented to replace the obsolete search in FreeCEN1.

    We'll then look to develop specific search capabilities - such as searching for a person among shipping returns or searching for a person by their occupation.

    All of these enhancements will keep Free UK Genealogy, and FreeCEN in particular, as a sought-after alternative to commercial genealogical companies by people researching their family trees. The work by FreeCEN is mainly done by volunteers with transcribing, proofreading, coordinating, data management and system development among their roles. It is only through their support and hard work that FreeCEN has become the high-quality genealogical research tool that it is today. The improvements outlined above will serve to maintain and improve FreeCEN’s well regarded reputation.

  • Steering groups: help shape the Free UK Genealogy projects

    If you read our recent website post about the strategy weekend we held in June, you’ll know that each of our projects (FreeREG, FreeCEN and FreeBMD) will soon have a decision-making Steering Group made up of trustees, staff and volunteers. 

    Starting with FreeCEN and FreeREG, we’re inviting expressions of interest (via a short form, below) for volunteers to join the group. When we’ve set these up, we will turn our attention to the membership of the FreeBMD and Technical steering groups.

    The main areas of focus for the groups will be to 1) align the project with the new strategy of Quality, Value and Growth, and 2) to mitigate risks to the project (e.g. work on gaining access to more, better quality images to transcribe).

    The group will meet at least every two months (usually once per month by video call) with members progressing agenda items in between meetings. We estimate time requirements to be around one hour per week, but this is flexible and, of course, could be more if you have the time and would like to be more involved. Our aim is to have enough volunteers with the right types of experience of working in and with the projects to share the work and contribute to decisions that are made.

    If you’re interested, please do complete the form as soon as possible. If you’d like a chat with me about what’s likely to be involved first, please get in touch at coo@freeukgenealogy.org.uk

    Here is the link to the form: https://forms.gle/4ps8tMNPnSW2hEaz5

  • FreeUKGEN Strategy Weekend 2023

    In the last weekend of June 2023, we held a strategy meeting in the ibis Styles near Birmingham NEC. The main outcome of this meeting was the decision for our focus to the end of the decade to be Quality, Value, and Growth; I’ll go into this in a bit more detail along with other decisions and issues raised, below. But firstly, why did we need this meeting in the first place?

    It’s a bit of an understatement to say there’s been a lot going on in Free UK Genealogy recently; from personnel changes to turning our finances around and lots more besides. It’s very much been a time of reinforcing our foundations so that we have a stable base to build on for the future. But what do we want for the future of FreeUKGEN? I’m sure everyone reading this will have an opinion on where our focus should be, but how do we unify these in a way that can help drive our work forward? We decided to hold an in-person meeting for trustees, staff and volunteers to discuss the issues, share ideas and suggest solutions.

    Free UK Genealogy has ALWAYS been a remote organisation, so why spend valuable resources on meeting up in person rather than online?

    There’s been a lot of research since the COVID pandemic on remote working, and it’s widely accepted as a Good Thing. Certainly, our approach (with the caveat of one physical meeting/conference per year pre-COVID) has saved the charity a lot of money on overheads over the years! However, recent research has suggested that a fully-remote mode of working actually decreases average productivity by 10% to 20%, with “challenges in communicating and innovating in an entirely remote environment” being one of the suggested causes. The last opportunity for us to get together was in 2019 at our conference in York. Some of our staff and trustees have never met each other, never mind being able to meet with our volunteers! We felt it was important to have this meeting in person, as not only could it be a boost to productivity, but also help bring us closer as a community. Indeed, the feedback we received from attendees confirmed this, as these quotes show:

    “I think it was much more productive, allowing us to all feel like a real team, working together on a common goal.”

    “The meeting gave me an opportunity to learn more about the overall parts of the organisation, its strengths and challenges, meet people in different areas and roles, share experiences and insights.”


    There were four sessions across the two days.

    From Roots to Fruits: Achieving Our Objectives

    To set the scene for the meeting, Andrew Turvey, chair of trustees, opened the discussions with a session on our overall purpose: what are we aiming to achieve together and how? What should the main focus be? It started with the idea of "Target 1 billion" - a proposed goal of reaching 1 billion records in our databases by the end of this decade. Although a catchy soundbite, it was met with some apprehension and concern that the quality of transcriptions could suffer and we could miss opportunities to maximise the value that users can get from the data we already have. Therefore the consensus was that a more holistic approach was needed - hence the adoption of "Quality, Value, Growth" as the overall focus.

    Information Handling

    Richard Light (trustee and technical specialist) followed this with an overview of the way we handle data across the whole of its life cycle in FreeUKGEN. The TWYS (type what you see) approach was discussed, as well as the potential for using machine-aided transcriptions, e.g. OCR. He noted that the FreeComETT online transcription framework offers us the potential to have a consistent data capture approach across all three projects.

    Each of the projects is in a different situation in terms of sourcing images for transcription. Richard pointed out that we can only manage ‘supply and demand’ of images effectively if we have a good understanding of the sources which are available to us, the quantity of material that they hold, and the throughput of our volunteers. Changes in strategy, such as the use of OCR or the acquisition of machine-processed data, could have a dramatic impact both on the nature of the transcription workflow and on the rate at which material can be processed.

    TWYS has drawbacks when it comes to information retrieval, and we need to develop an information handling strategy that enables both transcribers and researchers to find variously-spelled versions of the same name (etc.). This might involve allowing variants to be recorded in the data, or could be supported by ‘alternative names’ in authority files, as is being pioneered by the FreeREG and FreeCEN place name gazetteers.

    A single unified search interface, allowing researchers to search across all three FUG projects, would offer considerable benefits to our user base. We should also consider how best to support researchers, for example by allowing them to save both searches and search results, and by offering them a range of export formats for this data. Exporting search results as GEDCOM [in the absence of anything better] would facilitate the transfer of their findings to other genealogy web sites.

    Together We Grow

    My session covered the people in FreeUKGEN, including the staff and volunteers with Andrew talking about Governance, specifically, in the latter part. 

    The group agreed that decisions should be made on an organisation-first basis i.e. to satisfy the needs of the organisation as a whole, rather than individuals within the organisation. In practice, this means that we decide on the charity’s priorities together, and develop clear policies and terms of reference so that all stakeholders are aware of individual and joint responsibilities and expectations.

    It was felt that we should spend some of our financial surplus on more staff as there are so few of them supporting so many volunteers, the priority areas of need being Fundraising (incl. Comms) (to further grow our income) and Technical (a junior developer to support the software needs of the websites). However, we also identified that we could strengthen our volunteer agreements in an effort to reduce volunteer turnover. [Clarification: We have a high number of Foundation and Tech Volunteers (those volunteers who support the staff, often in areas outside of their expertise) who leave shortly after they've been onboarded, which wastes a significant amount of our limited staff resource. It was suggested that we could strengthen our volunteer agreement to reduce this high turnover.]

    We know that there are a number of Coordinators with significant workloads; a situation that has persisted as volunteers have left projects and existing members have taken on portions of the work that needed to be done. More effective succession planning is needed, and looking after the well-being of Coordinators should be prioritised.

    Andrew discussed the structure of the trustees, who are established on a "Foundation" model. Whilst the logical choice when the founders were the trustees, there's an option to transition to a more membership model where there is a broader body of members - perhaps transcribers and other volunteers - who elect the trustees. There was no major demand to move to this model at present. Attendees also discussed trustee terms. These are currently set at nine years, with a gap of one year. Some attendees felt the term should be shorter and the gap should also be longer. However, there was also support for allowing the board flexibility to extend a term beyond nine years if there are exceptional reasons.

    Regarding decision making in the organisation, it was felt that we should bring the project volunteers, the staff and the board closer together. Andrew proposed we create a Steering Group for each project, which everyone supported. These groups would have a good mix of trustees, staff and volunteers, with clear terms of reference and meet once every month or two. This should enhance communication and improve the speed and efficacy of decisions that affect the projects, and the focus on key priorities and challenges.

    It addition, it was agreed to reestablish a cross-project technical committee.

    It was agreed that the Advisory Board should be disbanded, with members encouraged to get involved with the new committees.

    Feedback also identified a need to exploit untapped potential for publicity, promoting the projects among genealogists and increasing usage.

    Follow the Money and Fundraising Options

    Giorgio Abraini and Kate Streatfield, both trustees, ended the presentations with a look into the financial side of what we do. Giorgio spoke from a “where we are now” perspective, and Kate looked forward in terms of what we could be doing to further increase our income. The group suggested lots of ideas to explore for extra sources of income (including placing ads in more places, e.g. ComETT; creating instructional videos and placing ads within them; seeking small grants for new projects/roles) and those we would not want to seek at this time. The Fundraising Steering Group will take these suggestions forward in the planning of the next Fundraising Strategy.

    Looking forward

    What does the new strategy mean? We'll be fleshing that out over the coming weeks, but fundamentally:

    1. Quality - maintain/improve the quality of our transcriptions.
    2. Value - build user research into our development plans and allow users to get as much from our records as possible.
    3. Growth - grow the number of transcriptions, volunteers and users.

    This strategy weekend signalled a commitment: from now on, we will ensure that decisions reflect the whole Free UK Genealogy community. WE might be remote but decisions shouldn't be!

    We'll shortly be inviting expressions of interest for the new committees. If you have any queries about what's involved please get in touch with me (Denise) or Andrew.