• Opening Death Data for Genealogists and Other Historians

    Open Data image with logos

    Open Data Day is an annual celebration of open data all over the world. On Saturday 3rd March groups from around the world will create local events on the day where they will use open data in their communities. It is an opportunity to show the benefits of open data and encourage the adoption of open data policies in government, business and civil society.

    All outputs are open for everyone to use and re-use.  Research Data is one of four themes for this year's Open Data Day.

    All three of our current projects contain information which is invaluable to family historians and other researchers. The indices to the registrations of death in England and Wales are, of course, freely available on www.freebmd.org.uk. Civil registration only started in 1837, so to find deaths which occurred earlier, you can look on www.freereg.org.uk, to see Church of England and other burials.  Later burials are there too, from the Church of England Registers and a growing range of religious organisations and secular bodies.  Most recently, we have received images of burial registers from Lancashire that are awaiting transcription - sign up here to help get them on line sooner!

    Image of a desk with genealogy paraphernalia

    Surprisingly, perhaps, the census records we transcribe and share on www.freecen.org.uk also have information about death. On https://freecen1.freecen.org.uk you can search by occupation, and this includes those who worked in various aspects of the businesses surrounding death.  Restricting the search to Cornwall, in 1841 there was just one (funeral) "undertaker" recorded (in St Austell) In 1851, four undertakers are recorded:

    Image showing details of four undertakers

    In 1861, just one again is recorded, and in 1871 five including Jabez Parkyn.  A decade later, the Parkyn name becomes even more visible, as the children of the family (shown below in the 1871 census) continued the family trade, all three describing themselves as "Builder & Undertaker":

    1871 Census, Parkyn Family

    But in 1891, although the number had grown to 11, none of them was a Parkyn.  Jabez senior and Jabez junior (now spelled Parkin) are recorded purely as Builders, Jabez William A had become a painter.

    Parkin 1881 census

    This brief look raises many questions - many undertakers had more than one occupation (carpenter or mason being common).  Were others who were recorded only as masons or carpenters also arranging funerals? We have not yet enabled a search-by-occupation feature on FreeCEN2 - we'd love to know if you would use this feature, and how you would like the search of occupations to work there.

    I restricted the data to Cornwall, as we now have permission to share this dataset as Open Data - please contact us to request access to this dataset. Sharing this data as Open means that the history of undertaking in Victorian Cornwall can be undertaken (excuse the pun!) much more easily than for other counties.

    Please join us in exploring our records on 3rd March, commenting here or on our Facebook event.  We'd love to know anything you are doing with the data of death - for example if you are researching the Undertaking Parkyns of Cornwall, exploring longevity, or if you would like us to transcribe the records of your church or share the transcriptions from a graveyard survey.

  • Trust : Enrichment : Openness

    Archives Unlocked, the vision for Archives in England 

    Archives Unlocked was launched by the National Archives yesterday, 29th March. This is a compact, but important document: “IN SHORT: ARCHIVES MATTER. Our collections need to be used to be useful.”  This is not a new philosophy, but it has new implications, driven by three changes in the context of archives which have become more apparent over the last decade or so, and the last months. The technological and social context is characterised by the concern for digital and accessibility in the UK Digital Strategy section on heritage. This is joined by a concern for confidence in information in an era of false news, and the removal of old obfuscations and lies through examination of archival material.

    “TECHNOLOGICAL CHANGE Digital technology has fundamentally changed what it means to be an archive. Archivists can help the IT and knowledge management communities by bringing professional archival practice to this digital world”,

    “USER EXPECTATIONS Society is changing, opening up new uses for data and records, and posing new questions about what is collected now and in the future, in both paper-based documents and digital formats”. 

    The third change is “CONFIDENCE IN DATA AND INFORMATION People need to have confidence in the integrity of institutions. Organisations need to be open and transparent, and high profile enquiries into the history and culture of public, corporate and charitable bodies have highlighted the evedential value of records.” 

    The Vision document changed significantly in response to the changes we experienced particularly through the second half of 2016: the importance of access, particularly digital access and access to born-digital information highlighted when the importance of this data for confidence in institutions became clearer: it is not enough for the data to be preserved, or for it to be reliably transmitted, but also for it to be open and transparent.

    This context leads to three high-level visions, for Trust, Enrichment and Openness, with case studies and think pieces for those who would like to delve further, and action plans for those who are involved with delivering the vision, in whatever capacity.

    How Free UK Genealogy helps to achieve that vision (using the language of Archives Unlocked).


    People and institutions trust in the quality of our type-what-you-see transcriptions as an authentic representation of archived records, supported by our openness about the limitations of a transcription, and the need for researchers to verify information. 

    • Democracy and society are strengthened by enabling free, comprehensive, remote scrutiny of the archival record, holding institutions and individuals to account.
    • Users have confidence in the integrity and authenticity of our transcriptions, and in the charity and its volunteers who support their research.
    • We embrace the opportunities of technological change, ensuring confidence in both born-digital and transcribed records.


    Our work enhances and enriches our society intellectually, economically and culturally.

    • Our culture of knowledge and learning and our commitment to open data expands through new ways to discover and use archive material.
    • Open data means value in businesses(1) can grow through the use of archive material to support change, innovation and efficiency.
    • People’s lives are enhanced through their engagement with archive collections.


    Free UK Genealogy cultivate an open approach to knowledge, makes archive records accessible to all.

    • We aim to deliver an excellent user experience, enabling people to find, access and interpret archive records
    • The rich diversity of society is increasingly reflected in our archives’ collections, users and workers (including volunteers).
    • We are networked globally to maintain excellent practice and open new possibilities for institutions and users.

    In some of these areas, we have almost 20 years’ experience as an institution, and huge experience as individuals.  In others, we have just started on our paths towards truth, enrichment and openness. The work plan will help us in that, and we in turn can help others in the wider archive world.

    The plan focuses on three themes:

    DIGITAL CAPACITY. Develop the digital capacity of the archives sector, to preserve digital records, and increase discoverability of the paper and digital archive. 

    RESILIENCE. Build the sectors resilience to ensure more archives can meet and sustain the Archive Service Accreditation standard, open the sector to new skills and a more diverse workforce, increase income generation capacities, and support innovative service models. 

    IMPACT. Demonstrate the impact of archives by developing and expanding audiences, piloting approaches to using data and evidence, and influencing thinking in the IT, commercial and knowledge sectors.


    The plan will be delivered over the next three years, each a separate phase:

    PHASE 1 - BUILDING THE PLATFORM. Scope and design the infrastructure that will give archives the capacity, knowledge and development tools for delivering the three themes of the action plan. 

    PHASE 2 - DEVELOPING CAPACITY. Design and test new models of delivering world-class archive services, working with partners on research and guidance in order to enable the development of new archive practice. 

    PHASE 3 - SHAPING THE FUTURE. Enable services to influence new delivery streams in emerging technologies, policies and strategies, within and beyond the archives sector.

    (1) One change between the consultation version of Archives Unlocked and the published version which we argued for was a fundamental shift from seeing ‘commercial’ relationships in terms of behind-paywall datasets: a wider vision of the contribution of archives to economic sustainability (as opposed to the contribution of business to the budgets of archives) is both more representative of the wider archive community, and fit much better with a vision for archives that has truth, enrichment and openness as its aims.  This is not to say that there is no role in this world for commercial partners who limit access: if they are providing enrichment that cannot be made by the archive or not-for-profit partners, they still have an important role, and will still be contributing to economic sustainability.

    Quotations and adaptations from Archives Unlocked are © Crown copyright 2017.

    This publication is licensed under the terms of the Open Government

  • 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

  • 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