In the summer of 2016, Free UK Genealogy began a journey to make all of our websites accessible to a minimum AA standard of W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1. People may struggle to access our services due to advancing age, long-term health issues, and/or disability, which can often make access difficult or impossible. We're committed to removing all barriers to access of family history information and so we arranged for our most newly-developed website at the time, FreeREG, to undergo accessibility testing at The Shaw Trust (you can read about that here, in our News article)
A few weeks later, we received the report which told us what we already knew: users with accessibility issues found it difficult or impossible to use our websites, even with assistive technologies. So we set to work to make the improvements required, with the vast majority of it being done by our volunteers.
One of the biggest jobs to come out of the audit was the insufficient colour contrast. The report stated:
The combination of text and background colour should be set to create an easy to read website. Using colours that are similar for the background and foreground can cause blocks of text to become difficult to read.
If the text size is at least 18 point if not bold and 14 point if bold, the minimum colour contrast ratio should be at least 3:1, if the text is less than 18 point if not bold and less than 14 point if bold, the minimum colour contrast ratio should be at least 4.5:1.
Throughout the site there are combinations of colours that fall below the minimum contrast levels that make the text difficult to read.
“There are instances where the text is made harder to read because of the colour combination used on the website when reading and hovering the mouse over certain links.” (Colour contrast tester)
The new Free UK Genealogy logos
It’s taken us longer than we would have liked, but we recently released the new colours on FreeREG and FreeCEN, and the new FreeBMD website (FreeBMD2) will also be part of this new suite. Alongside the design colours changing we’ve also made the font heavier, as the text being to light and difficult to read was a complaint we frequently heard from our users. We hope that these advances provide genealogists using our websites with a more enjoyable research experience!
Visit FreeCEN and FreeREG now, to see these improvements and let us know what you think via the Contact Us link in the footer.
The new FreeCEN website went live in July 2017 and has recently undergone an accessibility-driven aesthetic revamp. The release of the new colour suite across FreeCEN (pictured below), FreeREG, and the new FreeBMD website (FreeBMD2) currently in development represents many months of hard work and dedication applied by the Free UK Genealogy Volunteer Development Team. However, since we unveiled what was initially known as FreeCEN2, we've been making improvements and adding new features to enhance researchers' experience.
FreeCEN's new colours and darker, more visible text
What's been improved so far?
We knew what we needed to improve because users of the new website were invited to give us feedback via a survey. Hundreds of responses came in, with many of you asking for certain features that you find useful in the original FreeCEN website as well as helping us identify bugs that we were then able to fix, including table layout issues and ads obscuring page text.
Other work (including changes required for GDPR and development of the new FreeBMD website - FreeBMD2) has affected our capacity to be able to develop many of the the search features you asked for on FreeCEN2. We're now able to turn our attention to these improvements, and in the last few weeks we've addressed another major accessibility issue you told us about: the formerly light, spindly text on our 2nd generation search websites is now a heavier weight. This website (www.freeukgenealogy.org.uk) is yet to undergo this font change, and you can see the contrast below.
Comparison of new darker text and former 'light' text.
Users often request that we make it possible for them to be able to easily differentiate between the rows in the list of search results, and see which records they've viewed out of the list. This has been recently achieved, by numbering each record/row and the word 'Seen' being displayed below records viewed when the 'Back to Results' button is used in that session (this disappears when the search is performed again or a new search is done).
Example of numbered rows and 'Seen' on viewed records
What features are in the pipeline?
We're now making the search features a priority on FreeCEN, and plan to add the ability to:
search by address
search all of a country
search without inputting county
search by area/'place'
search by folio, page etc
search by occupation
search multiple census years
free text place name search
...amongst other features.
We know many of you will be disappointed that improvements to the searches related to place are quite limited. This has turned out to be a set of very complex problems - caused by the changing names and boundaries of the Registration Districts, the fact that Registration Districts sometimes cross county boundaries, the changing definition of places such as "London" over the last 250 years, and the variants of the way places were spelled. While we work out solutions, you will be able to use a free text place name search which will help.
Free UK Genealogy is proud to announce two new features to assist our users.
FreeCEN (with free access to high quality transcriptions of nineteenth century British censuses) and FreeREG (with high quality transcriptions of registrations of baptism, marriage and burials) now have "friendly" permanent URLs to their records.
Records in FreeBMDwhich covers the civil registrations of birth, marriage and death in England and Wales has permanent URLs that you can copy and paste from the “info” page.
For FreeREG and FreeCEN, the URL displayed in the address bar of a detailed search results page will always take you back to that detailed search results page. There is a snippet of information in the "friendly" URL which will enable researchers to identify which URL belongs to which person's record.
The second new feature makes use of permanent URLs: if you want to cite a FreeCEN or FreeREG transcription in your family tree/academic work or take a note of a record of interest to return to it later, now you can do so using the Citation Generator button. This is located on the far right of the row of buttons after "Next Dwelling" and "New Search" on FreeCEN, and next to the "Export as JSON" button on FreeREG. Clicking there, you get a choice of which format of citation you want to use. As the generator uses the permanent URLs, it means you will always be able to go back to the record without having to search for it again.
These new features have been brought to you by our team of volunteer developers, and in the case of the citation generator, by Sudaraka Jayathilaka who developed this feature as an intern working with us as part of the Google Summer of Code programme. Google Summer of Code is a global programme that brings student developers into open source software development. Students work with an open source organisation on a 3 month programming project during their break from college or university. Sudaraka has written about his experience on his blog.
... and how this affects researchers and volunteers
The changes we're making at the moment will take FreeCEN into the future. We are no longer a lookup service, which is how we started. We are becoming a dynamic source of data for both the amateur and the professional.
In this post we will explain the issues driving the changes, and how they will affect you. It's broken down into the following sections:
A growing number of users are accessing the web through phones and tablets, rather than laptops and larger computers - they expect an interface that looks good and works well on a small screen. We think we are ‘almost there’ on this.
We also want to make the website more accessible. This work is just beginning.
We want to tackle some issues in searching, including:
Place: The boundaries used by the census are not easy to visualise, often cross historic boundaries (e.g. including parts of two counties) and change name and shape - so even if you know the village or part of a town your ancestor might have resided in, choosing which census district to filter by is not easy, particularly for those unfamiliar with the geography of the 19th century.
Names: The names used by people to record their place of birth are faithfully transcribed. But this also makes searching difficult, plus the person entering the data might know that their home village was in one county when they were born, and another at the time of the census, and chosen either. So we are looking into more choice of how you search, including a map-based search.
Too much choice: It can be difficult to know which of the many fields you should fill in, in order to be able to identify the person you are seeking, but not rule them out due to something not being recorded quite as you might have expected (we are looking into Artificial Intelligence to solve this one for you).
We also want to improve the quality of the data we transcribe - in the past, we have had to use abbreviations and compress two fields into one, in order to keep within the spreadsheet restrictions of 20 years ago. We're moving to a flexible spreadsheet (CSV) system which will mean transcribers can type what they see everywhere.
Volunteers may think "I am happy with what I am doing now." That's fine, you can keep doing what you are doing and we will continue to appreciate your work. It is very valuable. Alternatively, you can come along for the ride. You will find it is going to be a very exciting one!
You will have an option of either transcribing onto a spreadsheet as you have been doing, or transcribing online. The spreadsheet will look and feel very similar to the one you are using now, but there will be some changes.
Columns in the spreadsheet become fields in the FreeCEN database. As the fields in the database have become more flexible we can be more flexible in what you enter on your spreadsheet. For instance, transcribers put a lot of effort into making the Occupation fit the Occupation column. That will no longer be the case. You will be able to enter what you see without worrying about the length and some columns can be amended. Column H in the existing spreadsheet, for instance, contains details of unoccupied houses, people visiting away, buildings in progress etc. but it is also used for the query flag. We are looking at moving the query flag into its own column.
In the online version, you will be entering data directly into a database. You will, therefore, see field boxes on your screen instead of columns. Instead of your coordinator sending you images, via Dropbox, for instance, the image will be displayed on your screen. When you have transcribed all the rows on an image you then move on to the next image. Each field in the online database will exactly correspond to a column in the spreadsheet.
The online version will also capture the number attached to the image. This will allow FreeCEN the ability to link the image to the transcription and display the images on-screen for the researcher, much the same as commercial sites do now. We still need to work out how we are going to add this information to the almost 36 million records already online (as of November 2018) so the displaying of images is something for the future. Nevertheless, we can start to collect that information with the online version.
One difference between the spreadsheet and the online database is that a transcriber can stop and start wherever they wish. The online version is displayed one page at a time so transcription has to stop at the end of each page, and not in the middle of a page. Another difference is that transcribers can share a census piece. The next available page is displayed to each transcriber (not the same page). Once a page is transcribed it will not be displayed to anybody else.
So, whether you choose to keep transcribing on a spreadsheet or to transcribe online, the changes should make transcription easier.
When will all this happen?
The first test piece was transcribed in August 2018 and has been proofread and validated. We are creating a detailed audit trail for this piece so that the developers can refine the system.
There is a test piece available online if you wish to have a go. This is an 1871 Somerset piece that has already been published online. It has been made available for multiple people to transcribe, a page at a time. Once it has been completed we will perform a quality check to compare the shared transcription with the published version. We would like to know whether our quality drops using this method. You do not need to be a Somerset volunteer to work on this; anybody can give it a go. If you do give it a go, please give us feedback. That way we can continue to improve.
You will be using new software for the proofreading process. (No, we no longer have checkers - the transcribers' work is being proofread. Transcribers are not being checked on!).
Some proofreaders will remember the old WinCC software, used before we moved to proofreading spreadsheets. WinCC became incompatible with modern operating systems as it is badly in need of an upgrade. It certainly is not compatible with the new database format.
This upgrade will happen in conjunction with the introduction of the online transcription system. Once the transcription trial is finalised we will know the design of the proofreading software. We will also be able to make the decision whether this will be an online or offline process, or whether the proofreader will have the choice.
The trial transcription has been converted to a spreadsheet and the Proofreader is using a spreadsheet to proofread.
You will definitely be using new software. Neither FCTools nor ValdRev is compatible with the new database format. The validation process will not vary a great deal. The biggest change is that a map reference will be automatically attached to every Place of Birth. This will affect the way that the Validator manages the Validator’s Choice Place of Birth where the original entry cannot be found. The development of the map location system is in progress (as of November 2018). Once again we are not sure whether Validation will be online or offline, or whether there will be a choice.
Coordinators have already seen changes in registration of new volunteers. This will continue but you will have two methods of issuing transcription work: by sending images as you do at the moment, and by giving access to online images. The Coordinator will upload the online images to be transcribed from their master copies. The online software will record who has worked on these images, so the Coordinator will only need to keep track of who is working on the spreadsheet images.
Coordinators will also be able to upload their own completed data to the database. You used to be able to do this but during the changeover to FreeCEN2 this function was centralised to give more control. Uploading will be devolved back to the Coordinators in the foreseeable future.
We're about to give each record (household) a permanent URL. To do this, we recently made the “FreeCEN2 website” available at www.freecen.og.uk, and the existing website freecen1.freecen.org.uk. The old FreeCEN will be phased out in the future. We intend to develop new ways to search the data.
The addition of map references is one way of doing this, for example. Instead of having to know the county border in the year being researched, (or in the birth year of the person being looked for) a place will be able to be chosen. This place has a map reference. The search can then be done around that map reference. This would be transparent to the end user.
An example would be a researcher in the future looking for me. I was born in Bristol, census county GLS. However, I was brought up 7 miles away in Somerset (Census county SOM). Whenever I fill in a form I show my Place of Birth as Bristol (that was where the hospital was!). A future researcher would be frustrated searching the Bristol 1951 Census. I am not there. I am in a different county. However, a search of 10 miles around the map reference would discover my entry. A much better result for the researcher and for FreeCEN.
We tend to think of a researcher as somebody building their family tree. However, there are other types of researchers out there. A university student doing a PhD may need to identify the demographics of a specific geographical area in a specific timeframe. Because FreeCEN is an Open Data platform we can provide a data dump of that geographic area for the student to use. Once again this is a win-win for both the student and FreeCEN.