Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Collaboration With Tears

Is it possible to collaborate with others on a unified online family tree? This is one of those regular emotive topics but it has recently flared-up in discussions around the Family Tree. I want to highlight some basic issues with the concept, and eventually follow-up with a detailed Collaboration Without Tears post.

In his blog-post entitled Is a unified online family tree program possible?, James Tanner states unequivocally that a unified online family tree is possible, based on an analogy with collaborative wiki programs. A problem I have with this analogy is that wiki programs mainly handle text, and text is considerably less structured than family-history data. A consequence is that a wiki can more easily represent conflicting opinions without having to adopt one at the expense of others. This is not to say that an online model couldn’t implement a scheme for representing conflicting opinions but that would be quite complex compared to the existing collaborative models out there.

Although Wikipedia is a valuable resource, I am on the fence regarding the ease of collaboration – even with primarily text – and the rules placed upon reliable sources.  No personal opinions, no original research, no private documents, no rumours, etc., are rules obviously intended to increase the accuracy and verifiability of the contribution, but there are cases where they hinder a valid presentation. Not everything is known for sure. Not everything is in the public domain. Some contributions are necessarily personal recollection because accessible sources may no longer exist. The issue of accessible sources in the public domain has a direct parallel in genealogy and I will give an example below.

In his follow-up post, Genealogical Ownership and Isolationism, James correctly points out that ‘You can't copyright ideas and you can't copyright facts’. However, a work of academic research, which I would say includes a treatise on your family history, can be copyrighted. In fact, it would be automatically copyright by virtue of the Berne Convention, unless you’ve agreed to some waiver or Creative Commons licence. This may be a topic more applicable to collaborative family history than to some type of online lineage but I want to present a number of issues that suggest Isolationism is actually an inherent part of genealogy, and so cuts across the grain with collaboration.

With any type of collaboration, the question of who is most qualified to make a change will always break the utopian ideal. In the case of a wiki, someone may consider themselves to be a learned expert, or a qualified researcher, but if they’re writing about your work/creation, or your family, or you as a person, then who is more qualified? Although, I have no personal experience of this, I have heard horror stories about such conflicts. The same happens with collaborative genealogy too. You may have put a considerable amount of effort into establishing the truth of some aspect of a family’s lineage, so how then would you react if some less qualified person ignores your work and changes things? With systems like Family Tree, the change may not even be a direct one – you may be unfortunate enough to be downstream from someone’s change elsewhere. Looking from the other side, though, if you’re closer to the family in question then how do you react when someone with letters after their name changes your contributions? These are fundamental problems with any type of collaboration. 

The issue of restricted sharing of certain items, such as photographs, personal documents, and family stories, is one that we can all appreciate – at least if there’s any depth to our family history data. There will always be a point at which we decide something is so personal, or so private, or so sensitive, that you don’t want to share it with the whole world. Again, you might argue that this is only applicable to family history rather than biological lineage but the boundaries are vague. This particular issue was recently discussed at No, You Can't Have My Photos and Stories One World Tree.

Where there is still live research – which is pretty much an eternal endeavour with family history – then collaboration means you’re trying to hit a moving target. It is frustrating to find that when you want to update something that it’s all changed, or even disappeared. Do you really want to spend a considerable amount of your research time verifying or debating what others have added to your shared data, as opposed to looking at their separate research when time permits? These are two distinct approaches. Irrespective of the approach, when you’re in the throes of some deep research, you really want to flag your data as tentative until you’re sufficiently confident with it. I am not aware of any site that supports this, though, which means you’re left with the options of full visibility or no visibility. One of the reasons that online trees contain so many errors in that people have copied data from someone else before it was ready, and they’ve never bothered to verify it themselves.

The fact that people blatantly copy data from other trees, and with no citations or attribution, is also a reason contributing to the poor quality of online trees generally. One of the justifications for a shared online tree is that such copying is no longer necessary. This is true but it’s not the only alternative. It is possible to devise schemes that accommodate different depictions the past, and yet don’t require people to copy-and-paste to build their own tree. However, with alternative viewpoints comes the requirement to rate one against another. A simple mechanism such as ‘Like’ would work although it lends itself to abuse. A mechanism based on the number of separate trees that agree-with or join-with (see below) some viewpoint would also work. Of course, these both rely on users assessing each conflicting viewpoint based on the case they make and the supporting evidence they cite.

I’m currently helping a friend with her recent (20th century) family history. This turns out to be one of the most convoluted cat’s cradles that I can recall working on. Although we’re making great progress, that success is primarily due to the cooperation of existing family members, and their recollections or personal documents. A consequence is that some qualified researcher who may be diligently looking at so-called reliable sources would end up with an incorrect picture of the past. This would put those family members in a quandary if that researcher published a tree based on reliable sources. Do they challenge it or ignore it? Some of the evidence is not in the public domain, and may never be, so on what grounds could a public tree be challenged? Does this not imply that a publicly shared tree can never be totally accurate, or agreed upon? The thought-provoking subject of privacy and the right to dig into our ancestor’s lives was recently raised by Thomas MacEntee at Is There A “Right” To Do Genealogy? following a lecture of his entitled Privacy and Our Ancestors.

So if Isolationism is inherent in genealogical research then what criteria would make collaboration practical? Here’s my tentative list:

  • Supporting alternative viewpoints.
  • Controlled sharing (import) and visibility (export).
  • Alternative to copy-and-paste genealogy.
  • Citation and Attribution where necessary.
  • Automated rating of different viewpoints.

Collaborative models could be defined where the trees from different researchers are essentially held separately, although I’m not aware of any. Existing online trees are either individual ones with controlled access, or a single shared one with collaboration. Having separate contributions is obviously good from the point of view of concurrent research, and for controlled visibility, but the missing element is to be able to create a single “tree view” from those contributions. Now I’m not talking about any physical data merge here since those separate contributions should be immutable. I’m thinking of schemes where you voluntarily connect or overlay others’ contributions with your own. There’s a whole range of possibilities dependent upon the unit of sharing. It could be a sub-tree from someone else’s tree, or the site could allow collaboration on public named tree segments that people can voluntarily connect with. These approaches all support alternative viewpoints and implicit rating of those viewpoints. They also substitute the act of joining-to or overlaying-with in place of any copy-and-paste. However, underpinning it all is the goal of a traditional family lineage chart, and that alone is deeply flawed.

I intend to follow-up with a novel approach to collaboration which is both simple and practical, but also fundamentally different to the approaches discussed here.