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Friday, March 12, 2010

Should New FamilySearch be a wiki?

In my frequent visits to the New FamilySearch Website, I find that one or another of my many, many relatives has added yet another set of birth dates or death dates to one of my grandfathers, great-grandfathers or great-great-grandfathers (or grandmothers). These regular additions to the existing information in New FamilySearch would not be nearly so disturbing except that almost uniformly the new entries are inaccurate and incorrect. This constant flow of incorrect additions to the program, points out one of the most frustrating aspects of New FamilySearch; the lack of an efficient way to correct data submitted by others and to communicate the correct information. You can, of course, correct any mistakes in the data you entered yourself, but information submitted by other users is locked and can only be changed by convincing your relatives to do the correcting themselves. In my family, some of the individuals have nearly 300 separate submissions and dozens of variations in names, dates and places. Even thinking about correcting this mess is overwhelming.

Originally, the idea presented by New FamilySearch was to dispute the incorrect data. It turns out that disputing does not really accomplish what I originally was lead to believe. A dispute does notify the world that you disagree, but if the party submitting the information decides to make the change you suggest, the file is locked by the dispute and until I remove my dispute, no one, not even the original owner can make any changes. Quoting from New FamilySearch Document ID: 108899:

Adding a Dispute
Contact other contributors to see if they can correct or delete their information about the individual. If still needed, dispute the individual. When you dispute an individual, this automatically disputes every piece of information about the individual, including relationships to other family members. Use this option only if you are absolutely sure the individual never existed. In some cases, having a dispute on the individual prevents other new FamilySearch patrons from making needed corrections. [Emphasis in the original].

Presently, the only way to "correct" existing incorrect information in New FamilySearch is to add the correct information, thereby adding even more possible confusion. (See New FamilySearch Document No. 1012429). Because, for individuals with a lot of contributors, the new correct information can be lost in a cloud of inaccurate and incorrect information. Also, the amount of incorrect information does not seem to be a deterrent to people thinking they have to make yet another submission of the incorrect information. Other than the brief Summary fields, all of the other information about any individual is presented so that both correct and incorrect information have the same level of presentation. There is no way to indicate that some of the information is wrong.

By the way, if you are not that familiar with New FamilySearch, you may not recognize the references to the Help Center Documents. The Help Center for New FamilySearch is an exhaustive source of information about the program. The document numbers refer to individual responses to user's questions that are all completely searchable. When you go to the Help Center, you can search by the document number if you wish, instead of by key words. Just enter the Document Number in the search box.

Another factor, the program is presently only accessible to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). In essence, the members are a huge pool of Beta testers for the program, since the present release is not yet to 1.0. There are plans to open the program to the public in general, likely in stages with a few users at a time. Although it is hard to see how the data could get any more confused by simply adding more people. It is possible that the scale of confusion might grow but the degree of confusion will likely remain constant.

Given the present difficulties of New FamilySearch, would most, if not all, of these issues be largely resolved if the program had (or becomes in the future) been introduced as a wiki rather than a locked database? I would guess that issues of data integrity were some of the early concerns that pushed the program towards its present totally locked format. If the wiki format had been used, the same information contained in the present program would be preserved along with the history of any changes, just as in Wikipedia or the FamilySearch Wiki. The main difference would be in the presentation of the information, the only information showing would be the present consensus, not as is presently the case, every last piece of information no matter how invalid.

In any case, there should be a way to either rate the accuracy of any item of information or require a source so that the information can be independently evaluated. It is not enough to merely acknowledge the contributor. It seems that most of these limitations could be resolved more satisfactory by allowing the wiki-type editing or some other method to rate the reliability of the information presented.

New FamilySearch has great potential. It works very well for anyone who is entering the information about their family for the first time. For those with long histories of submitted records, it works less well.

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