• Who really owns population and census data: and should commercial use be allowed?

    Over the last ten years, the power and use of data for transparency, accountability and research has become a central feature of the way that government and academia are doing their work. Both have come to recognise that data and publications - including research - have the most benefit when it is shared with everyone, and that they have no moral case for restricting what other people do with factual information.
    The central idea is that since government pays for this information through our taxes, people should be able to do whatever they like with it without having to ask permission first. As Dave Mayall explains, this approach results in people doing interesting, clever, and unexpected things.

    FreeUKGen is dealing with data that was collected and created at great expense, through the will of the Crown and Parliament. Going back to Henry VIII, laws have demanded the creation of population records by the Church. From 1801, the state collected additional information through the census, and in 1837 started collating birth, marriage and death records through the GRO.
    If there were simple justice in the world and we were not going through economically hard times, the government would have a duty to digitise and release historic data such as this for free and without restriction. Birth, marriage and death data which they currently hold digitally will, if the UK government acts consistently, be released freely once it ceases to relate to living individuals.

    As a project we have a simple dilemma. We know this data should exist, and everyone should have free access to it. That is why the project started and it is our mission. Some of us are, however, uncomfortable with our efforts potentially being used by commercial outlets. To those who feel this way I would ask four questions:

    (1) The vast majority of the expense in creating this data was borne by the public purse, at the time that governments decreed that it be collected and preserved. Why should we claim that our efforts, valiant as they are, should then deny the public full and free access to the dataset when everybody’s ancestors paid for it in the first place?

    (2) If the government digitised and released this data today we would surely wish them to release it without restriction, so that everyone can benefit and use the data as they like. There would be no good reason for the state to choose who can use the data and who cannot. If we would expect the government to do this, why would we apply a different standard to ourselves?

    (3) As a charity, we must seek to ensure the best and fullest use of our charitable work for the public good. From this perspective, who are we to say whose use of data is valid or invalid? Why should we choose who can do what?

    (4) In the long run, from a national or global perspective, this data like any other publicly created dataset should be open and free to ensure all the benefits can be made of it. If we try to keep it closed, then someone else will feel the need to re-digitise it. The first full, free and open version will be what is used, in the long run. Is it really the best way forward to risk that our work in digitising the data, by being partially closed (to commercial use for instance), should be supplanted and discarded as the result of a second effort in the future?

    This change of perspective may well also change the way that commercial players work. Today, they compete by charging for access to closed datasets. They have no incentive to encourage sharing of transcriptions and data. If we start the sharing, they may (where our shared resources are best) find it is pragmatic to help us with these key resources. Of course, they won’t open up all their data, but where we do it best (as we do!) it will be pointless, expensive and bad for their business to try to duplicate what we do.

    This is not fantasy: this is what happens in the software world today. Free and open source software, like LinuxApache, -and a whole range of other software- is built by IBM, Apple, Google, Facebook and others, including many, many volunteers. They all work with open projects for a variety of reasons but the underlying point is that it makes business sense, for instance for reasons of quality and efficiency.
    The same applies in other fields, including Wikipedia, which dominates the world of public domain knowledge. Even freely licensed photography helps the world illustrate their blogs and websites. 
    There are other freely licensed historical records, too, such as historic weather, digitised by volunteers. As Open Data, it is making huge contributions to climate science. Perhaps we could use it for family histories in some way!

    As trustees, we know we are asking for some faith that opening our data is worth doing. We believe that we will become more relevant in the future by going down the road of Open Data. We can become the lodestone of accurate and rich genealogical data, and bring more people into our endeavours on more genealogical projects. But this only works if we see our mission as being that of public benefit for all, rather than restricting that mission to individual researchers or projects we pre-approve.

    Ben Laurie, one of our trustees, went through a similar process with the Apache Software Foundation some years ago. Apache is software that runs most websites you visit today. There were voices of opposition to ‘commercial’ repurposing of the software, with some people worried that the software would simply be taken away by companies, who would then seek to create their own web server monopolies.
    However, this hasn’t happened. Today, Apache is a huge success story. This could only happen because they released it as an open project, and made no judgement about who might use it. This isn’t to say that Open Data for our projects is without risk - but it does show that for public charitable endeavours in today’s digital world, being open and allowing any kind of use of your creations can be a winning strategy.

    Jim Killock

    Trustee, Free UK Genealogy

  • Vote (rumour correction)

    There is a rumour that Free UK Genealogy is taking a vote from volunteers and users of our websites (FreeBMD, FreeCEN and FreeREG) as to whether the sites should remain free, or should be behind a paywall.  This is simply not true.  

    There is no vote: the sites will remain free.

    Free UK Genealogy is a charity set up to achieve, and committed to 

    • the free provision of high quality transcriptions and (where possible) images of records of genealogical significance, 
    • the development of tools to support community transcription, and 
    • other activities that promote making family and wider history records available under open data formats.  

    We generate sufficient funds for our day-to-day expenses from banner advertising and the kind donations - often in small amounts - from users of our websites.  Of course, we would always like more money - to improve our existing projects and develop new ones, to support community transcription and to more widely make historical records available to all, for free. Please get in touch if you have ideas for projects or partnerships that you would like us to consider.

    There are a number of ways you can support us, and help the future development of Free UK Genealogy. 

    • You can donate (if you don't already do so).
    • You can spread the news about our projects, bringing them to the attention of those who would love to know we may have the information they are looking for.
    • If you buy online (e.g. groceries, books, electronics) please consider signing up for our Easy Fundraising page.  You will only pay what you normally do on your online shopping, but we will be given a small amount, at no extra cost to you.  Easy Fundraising will prompt you, when you visit a website which is part of the scheme (or when you do a search, that a result is part of the scheme).
    • You can volunteer in one of a number of roles - from transcribing to programming in Ruby, to working on social media campaigns.  This includes the opportunity to be a Trustee, or provide your professional knowledge through our new advisory board.
  • Keeping Our History Free

    As a trustee of Free UK Genealogy, I can say with absolute certainty that the central plank of Dr Seakin’s message on Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter (that we intend to make any of the sites pay per view) is completely untrue, and the text that is set out there has NOT come from the trustees. (Please note: The relevant page on Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter is no longer available)

    What we ARE proposing is to make our data available as “open data”, which will mean that anybody can re-use that data. That could include people who re-use it commercially, but we will still have it online, free of charge.

    Should you be worried about this? Well, rest assured that I and the other trustees have worried about it for several years. Of course, we are concerned that we should do the right thing, and that we shouldn’t leave people thinking we are doing the wrong thing.

    So, why open data?

    Well, whilst we have achieved much, in bringing all that data to people free of charge, we have come to realise that something was happening that we never really considered back in 1999 (yes, that is how long FreeBMD has been with us). Basically, the data set that we have transcribed is so huge that it seems very unlikely that anybody else would do it again, but WE own that data, and that means that it is only as useful as WE let it be.
    If somebody else has a good idea about using that data to make it even more useful to genealogists, then they can’t do it, and unless we negotiate an agreement with them (or we develop the idea ourselves) that good idea will never happen.

    Now that isn’t what we are about!

    So, we want to say to all those people out there who think they can do something clever with that data “Go, do something clever”.
    Some of them will do something clever and make some money from it. Others will do clever things for free, and still others will see people making money from the data and decide to do something similar for free.
    Basically, unless what somebody wants to do with the data is HUGELY clever, somebody else will do the same thing for free, so there will be little incentive for the pay sites to do simple stuff here, because if they do, somebody else will pull the rug from under them.

    So, there you have it.

    People will be able to use our data. They can even charge people for their end product, but we are sure that there will be plenty of new FREE content created, and that anybody who created a paid-for version of FreeBMD, FreeCEN or FreeREG would make no money!

    Above all, the existing FREE sites (or rather new, revamped, FREE sites in some cases) will still be there.

    Dave Mayall

    Trustee, Free UK Genealogy

  • Conference Report (updated)

    Thank you to all those who came to the Open Data Conference on Saturday 30th January and especially to John Sheridan (Digital Director, the National Archives), Simon Tanner (Pro Vice Dean Research Impact & Innovation, King's College London) and our own Trustee Richard Light, for giving such enjoyable and illuminating talks.

    Welcome slides with notes and the new Free UK Genealogy Open Data video can be seen here. A (poor quality) video of this section can be viewed here.

    John Sheridan's talk can be seen here (we apologize for the poor quality of the recording). Simon's slides can be seen here and Richard slides can be viewed here.

    The formal presentations were followed by a presentation of a new Free UK Genealogy video explaining why we believe Open Data is so crucial to the future of the organisation and projects, and hence the need for a new transcribers agreement.

    Whilst the 'in person' attendees were able to join in the lively debate, online attendees became increasingly frustrated with streaming issues that were caused by the WiFi provision at the Linnean Society, not within our control unfortunately.

    We understand how disappointing this must have been and are now working hard on editing the conference video, which will be published with a transcript as soon as we can.

    Thank you for your patience if you tried to join us via one of these methods, and as one of the Trustees commented we need to ensure that technical issues do not undermine the messages of the day. It is important to ensure that all transcribers get an opportunity to hear the case for Open Data and get easy access to the proposed transcriber agreement and consultation process.

    • The proposed Transcriber Agreement Consultation can be found here.
    • Please use the consultation process to let us know your views on the proposed transcriber agreement and
    • please check FAQs if you have any questions. We will be adding the questions raised at the conference to this page shortly. If you still have questions please email us at info@freeukgen.org.uk

    Press coverage:
    Digital adventurers - Family Tree Editor Helen Tovey gets to grips with 'Open Data' and what it means for family history http://family-tree.co.uk/2016/02/digital-adventurers/