Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Report from the FamilySearch Developers conference. Some good, Some bad

My opinion. For what it is worth.

I asked Ransom Love today about how the LDS church sees the growing FamilySearch PR problem that we are continually seeing at the conferences we go to. In our experience, people who are not members of the LDS church are growing tired of hearing about this new database without any word about when they will be able to gain access to it. I think to some, it seems to be an elusive, secretive thing from which the church is purposely trying to exclude people.

While I didn't get any solid answers from Ransom on why (we got sidetracked on to other things), I can tell you from my experience in working with the church that it isn't a matter of being exclusionary, it is just that the church is putting their resources first into their own agenda, that of helping their own members collect their family history. Once that is accomplished, they will be happy to share the results. I think anyone would agree that an organization has the right to use their resources to further their own agenda first.

The bad news is: what that timeline is and what issues have to be fixed before people outside the members of the church can access to the database. He referred my question about the timeline to Craig Miller. According to Craig, after the database is scaled to be able to handle the traffic and information for the last part of North America (Utah, Idaho, LasVegas etc.), then the next step for them is going to be to include members of the church in Asia. I can understand that they want to take care of their agenda first, and that includes family history work in Asia, but according to Craig there are HUGE obstacles, namely standardization and searching in Asian characters. You can't just anglicize different character sets and expect to be able to search it. (For example how many ways can you spell Kadaffi, Quadafhi, Gadaffi, etc--you know, the leader of Lybia--and Arabic only has 28 basic letters.) Craig said that in the past Japanese citations in LDS databases have actually been standardized to all be Tokyo (horrors!) Dealing with Asian character sets is going to be a big obstacle to get over before they move on to opening the database to people outside the church.

Ransom agreed that there needed to be some marketing work done in the general genealogy community as to why the church is keeping access only for its members. I wholeheartedly agree. I don't think they are trying to be secretive or subversive, I just think they aren't communicating their objectives very well. I would also suggest that making the database read only for everyone would be a simple step and should be done as soon as possible.

The good news is that Robert Raymond's presentation today was very hopeful in talking about adding sources to the database. He is working on standards for source citations in the database--a major issue that I have talked about here. As you look around, most genealogy programs have a list of sources--and then let you add citation information as to the particular part of the source you are referencing. In the real world though, all of the source information is important detail. The line between sources and citation detail is a false one--created by the software companies to allow users easier creation of citations and querying the usage of a certain source. New FamilySearch is working on standards to help guide that usage in the database.

The major issue to the church is not just standardization, but also the question of migration of sources. If they open the database to www links, or even notes on repository locations, we will have a useless database in only a few years. That is not to mention the fact that many sources cite another source as an original that can then cite another ad infinitum. Sources citing other sources creates circular sources the way we see many circular trees in files that are submitted to Generation Maps which have been generated from databases. Tom Underhill raised his hand at the end of the presentation and talked about the importance of migration and how the only way to secure data is to make sure it migrates on to the next system like I've talked about here. Otherwise you end up having documents in WordStar and Word Perfect 2.0 that are useless.

Talking to Robert after the presentation, he said that we would see some real progress in the next year for adding sources to the database. It looked like they are on their way. Wonderful news. In my opinion, only then will this database really become valuable.

So, frankly people who aren't members of the LDS church don't need to be worried about gaining access to the database until the source issues are solved anyway. Until then it is all conjecture. Only when sources are added will the database become more useful. Real genealogists have plenty to be patient about.

P.S. You don't have to be a member of the LDS church to become a developer and gain access to the database that way. I think that would be the hard way to do it though. Might be easier to convert to the church :-)

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