Friday, 5 June 2015

Light-Bulb Moments

Listening to the continuing discussions within FHISO, I have to wonder whether something is missing; something that's fundamentally necessary for the production of a data standard for genealogy. Let me start with a question: how many programmers does it take to change a light bulb?

There are many instances of this, and similar, jokes on the Internet. The most common answer is:

"None. That's a hardware problem."

A less common one, aimed specifically at Windows programmers, is:

"472. One to write WinGetLightBulbHandle, one to write WinQueryStatusLightBulb, one to write WinGetLightSwitchHandle, ... etc ..."


"None. Darkness is a software 'feature'."

What these jokes demonstrate is the popular notion of the programmer as someone who lives in a virtual reality, and who is not fully connected to the real world. Coming from this background myself, I have to admit that there are rather too many real instances of the stereotype for me to be entirely comfortable with the jokes. But is this a fair criticism of programmers, software developers, and other software people, working in the genealogy field?

If I extrapolated that notion to a real bulb-changing scenario then I might imagine the programmer taking careful note of the bulb fitting. Is it a bayonet or screw fitting? If it’s a screw fitting then what size is it? What shape bulb is required: standard, golf-ball, pygmy, or other? Does the replacement conform to national standards? Should they use a low-energy one as they’re the way to go — allegedly?

The problem is that a consideration of the change as an isolated exercise — no matter how deep the attention to detail — will miss the fact that the result has to perform a particular function. Without an examination of the functional requirements then the appropriate power rating (wattage) and bulb colour may be wrongly selected.

OK, enough of the analogies before I get lynched. My point is that the FHISO mailing lists are currently dominated by programmers and other people with a background in software development. There are some particularly brave non-programmers on those lists, and their astuteness and functional focus are both very noticeable. Dialogue between the two groups has helped to rescue the concept of genealogy from the mire of BMD data and family trees, but software thinking continues to retreat back into that safe world; a place where the computer needs to understand everything, and anything written in a national language — including research notes, proof arguments, and conclusions, if not general biographical narrative — is too flexible and ill-defined.

There’s a subtle issue here, concerning the programmer’s attitude to genealogy, that isn’t seen in most other industry sectors. Software may be applied to a huge range of activities, including: banking and financial services, business, healthcare, manufacturing, accounting, aerospace and defence, government, engineering, and education — to name but a few. It would be extremely rare to find programmers who knew these subjects to a level  that required no functional requirements from anyone else, and yet that is frequently what happens in the genealogical sector, so why is that?

Interestingly, international and cultural differences are topics that both groups can make gross assumptions over. Unless they have specifically studied such differences, or researched in alternative locales, then they can both be guilty of retreating into their own native norms and cultural traditions; they both need functional inputs from authoritative sources.

Part of the genealogical difference may arise from a chicken-and-egg case of “what you see is what you get”. Early software products were quite na├»ve in their understanding of genealogy, and that image has been perpetuated by the advertising and online tools of the major genealogical companies. It’s hard to break ranks when everything you see appears to follow the same paradigm.

Another part of the difference will certainly be due to the fact that those programmers supposedly indulge in some form of genealogy, and so as consumers they’re effectively writing their own specifications. This is a very important factor since it’s hard to assess the type of genealogy they indulge in, or to what depth of knowledge they aspire.

This should not be taken as a suggestion that they’re bad genealogists, or that they do not indulge at all, but simply that their work is rarely evident. This is actually a fault of many genealogists, from the amateur through to the professional; very few of us publish our genealogical works beyond mere trees, and some don’t even do that. Is that for reasons of confidence, capabilities, copyright, or something else beginning with ‘c’? Unfortunately, in the absence of such public material, how can we possibly know that we’re trying to solve the same problems, or aim for the same goal?

There is a core group of genealogists who publish written works on their Web site or their blog, and I take my hat off to them. They capture much more than a mere tree would, and offer readable material for friends, family, and colleagues to access. Professionals and academics may publish articles in genealogical journals, where they would be read by their peers, but far less so online. It was suggested to me recently that their drive to produce reliable and well-documented works may be construed as elitism, and so they would rather avoid that level of criticism. I made a conscious decision to publish written genealogical works on my own blog — with some initial trepidation as I was neither writer nor historian — primarily to show the type of genealogy that I do, and to put some context around my software views and requirements. Although I include citations in those works, I do admit to some embarrassment over them. There are definitely folks who see citations as some sort of elitist competition, rather than a matter of research integrity, and so I find myself trying to “nibble off the edges”, and so reduce their volume — probably as a journal editor might.

This general situation is sad for a couple of reasons. Firstly, genealogy needs more online works to guide and inspire others. There is so much value that can be added through writing, not just in capturing recollections but also in explaining your journey through time and sources to capture the lives of your antecedents. Secondly, in the context of FHISO, working on a standard for representing our data will be an impossible task if we cannot determine the range of our collective goals. We all have different notions of what constitutes genealogy, and although many will have similar notions, some will have quite dissimilar ones. Writing a specification for your own personal style, approach, and goals is a dangerous pitfall.

Maybe we’ll be in the darkness for some time to come, unless someone manages to change that broken bulb.