Saturday 2 March 2013

Something for the Weekend 17

A 'food for thought' guest post by James McLaren of the Channel Island FHS...

Family History in the Age of Big Data

It was seeing this slideshow on the BBC website that prompted me to write this… but I guess that it’s only the seed crystal for something that has been waiting to crystallise for some time.

We live in an age where data is everywhere, and it’s being generated and collected all the time. Even something as simple as buying a ticket for a ride on the bus into town generates data for the bus company – how many get people on at a given stop, is the bus running to time, is the driver swiping the occasional few pounds out of the farebox. It is reckoned that we are exposed to more information in one day than our 15th century ancestors were exposed to in a lifetime.

We are conditioned not to notice this happening, and of those who do, most believe that it’s simply a fact of life – the big companies and government can do this to us, we are powerless in the face of what is now being called Big Data.

Rick Smolan – not a technologist, but a veteran photo-journalist – got interested in this, and set out to investigate. What he found was that there is far more to the big data picture than people think, and that – with a little thought and imagination – ordinary people can use data to make a lot of lives better. But to do that we have to become aware of the data around us, and one of the best ways of doing that is (to quote Peter Gabriel) to talk in pictures not in words.

Smolan made a further interesting point in an interview last December. He quotes a guy called Jonathan Harris, who asserts that there is a relatively small group of people who are living in cities like San Francisco and New York, are mainly between the ages of 22 and 35, who are having an outsized effect on the rest of the human species. These are the Mark Zuckerbergs, Sergey Brins and Jack Dorseys – the people who understand what data is worth and what can be done with it.

Family historians are a conservative bunch. I’m a member of my local Family History Society and I do a little transcription on the side for the Jersey Archive. Both businesses are founded on data, and in one limited way we are far ahead of the game, because what is a family tree if it’s not data presented as a picture?

But that apart we do incredibly little with our data. I’m in my mid-forties, so set next to Zuckerberg I’m a dinosaur – but even I can manage to generate charts from Excel spreadsheets, or sort, colour and filter data, or (on a good day) create overlays on Google Earth. All of these would help visualise the data better, and it might well highlight things that we have never noticed in the past.

Family historians often bemoan the fact that we can’t get younger members involved. Maybe the answer isn’t to expect people to do family history as we know it. Maybe there are people out there who could make a hobby – perhaps even a business - out of analysing the genealogy records, visualising them in new ways, looking at small out-of-the-way questions that someone somewhere would like to know about. Maybe this is the next generation of record-maker... Are Family History Societies ready to see what Big Data has to offer?

James McLaren
Channel Island Family History Society (but writing in a personal capacity)

If anyone else would like to pen a short article on any aspect of genealogy (and maybe even give their company, product or publication a little plug) then email me at .

No comments:

Post a Comment