Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Democratization of Sources

There were many presentations at the SoCal Genealogy Jamboree that announced new web sites, or new developments in existing web sites, that would feature the Web 2.0 concept. I may use computers all the time, but sometimes Web 2.0 technospeak confounds my understanding, so I definitely wanted to hear at least one of these talks. The one I attended seemed a little premature, as the site does not seem to be in beta state, yet; but the speaker presented some very thought-provoking ideas. I'm not sure I'm ready to jump on the bandwagon.

The goal, the speaker said, was to provide access to all the world's records - admirable, of course - and to allow users to interact with these records: the "democratization of sources." This interaction, he said, might lead to "chaos," but it might lead to the "harnessing of the wisdom of the crowds." I had never heard the term, democratization of sources. We all know that all sources are not equal! When I got home, I Googled the term. There were a few entries, most of them referring to the ability we now have to obtain information from many sources, not just those approved by authority. It's a given that genealogists should look for all sources in our research. Just because we have a death certificate doesn't mean we don't need to look for an obituary or a tombstone. Just because we have a pension record doesn't mean we no longer need to look at a muster roll or a day book. Several undocumented million-name family trees, however, really don't add anything to our knowledge of an ancestor. Something told me I didn't understand the speaker's use of this term.

When I Googled the term democratization of information, I found this post, Web UI Platforms through Javascript sandboxes. If you avoid the technospeak, it's an interesting article, and I'm sure it's what the speaker meant when he referred to democratization of sources. "The users of these data make the data better." This isn't a new concept in genealogy web sites. Footnote has been doing this for some time. Original records can be annotated; links identifying an individual in multiple records can be created; original documents and pictures can be uploaded and linked to original records; and personal pages can be created. The Footnote user adding data is always identified - and there is a clear separation between the original record and the added material. The farther a genealogist strays from the original record, the more likely it is that errors creep into the family history. We all need reminders that our conclusions should be based on what a document really said, not on what someone else thought it said. And of course, what a document meant in the 18th century might not be what our 21st century mind inferred.

Find A Grave was one of my favorite sites when searching for tombstones. This web site is based on user contributions. When those contributions were tombstone photos and inscriptions, this site was wonderful. Some users, however, began competing to improve their statistics. When this happens, the quality of the contributions can diminish. Material was plagiarized, duplication was rampant, and copyright laws were violated. In fairness to the people at Find A Grave, they state that submissions must be the original property of the submitter, and they always remove material in violation of this policy. That must be a constant effort on their part! The site has always had problems clearly differentiating between what a tombstone said and what the submitter inferred, and the recent addition of family links and maiden names to the material has considerably increased the error to information rate. Sometimes, the "wisdom of the crowds" isn't so wise.

These two examples illustrate the possibilities and the limitations in the concept of democratization of information. Although Footnote's user contributions have added value to the site's data, access to the added material is still haphazard. Without user contributions, Find A Grave would not really exist, but the quality of material is often questionable. How does a site facilitate access to all data, maintain quality, yet encourage quantity?

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