Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Local BMD registers


A couple of years ago, Myra asked me to subscribe to the mailing list of the Open Genealogical Alliance.  This is a bunch of people interested in public access to public data.  They are operating a bit above our pay grade but they are interested in the same data as we are.  This is a quote from the mailing list.

The index for the civil register of life events - births, deaths and marriages (BMD) - is a collection of books populated with tables, where each row is a reference to a certificate for a corresponding life event. Every time someone is born, dies or gets married, the local council register issues a full page certificate, then it makes an entry of the event in the local index, and they also make a copy of the local index to be sent to a central location: the General Registry Office (GRO), part of the Identity and Passport Service (IPS). This institution has the collection of all these copied index books dating back to the mid nineteenth century. Older life event records were maintained by the church instead of the government, and are kept separately This index is meant to be digitised and made available online for free, but the delivery of this service has been delayed for many years due to problems with commercial subcontracting. In the meantime, other forms of access to the index - such as CDs - have been restricted or suppressed, ostensibly due to the imminent availability of the online version. This long impasse has created a situation where a number of commercial companies - such as Findmypast.co.uk --are stepping in and providing paid for access to this public information that the government has committed to deliver for free. The Crown claims copyright on the design of the index, expiring 50 years after creation as they are not published works, but the actual content is factual information not encumbered by intellectual property restrictions. Thus anyone is free to copy the index data. Our partner organisation FreeBMD.org.uk has been providing free online access to a partial copy of the index transcribed by volunteers, as until recently the registers were handwritten, and thus requiring manual typing into a computer. The official advice form direct.gov.uk for citizens requiring free access to the index is to go via FreeBMD. This volunteer group has offered to help providing to the full index in collaboration with GRO, and we have been trying to help communicate and advance this great idea. Unfortunately, these requests have been batted away, without even being allowed to meet to discuss the options. Emails have gone without reply for months. We have been told for 18 months now that a new plan is imminent and we should just wait. We have responded that under the coalition agreement and the compact for the voluntary sector, we should be consulted at an early stage in order to help shape the plans, not informed afterwards. This is particularly applicable when we are proposing a solution that could save taxpayers money. Unfortunately this has been ignored. We have also been told that the online index is entangled with a major ICT project that is suffering delays. However, new government policy is to break down large contracts, and this would seem an ideal candidate for outing this new policy into practice, given the costly delays already incurred and the apparent inability of moving this forward within a reasonable timeframe. We would like to request an urgent intervention from the Transparency Team to help us reach to the GRO and discuss a way to promptly ensure that the full BMD index is available online for free as open data.

Barriers in accessing this data: 

The index for the civil register of life events - births, deaths and marriages (BMD) is meant to be freely available online, but this has been delayed for many years. Volunteer groups have offered to provide this as open data for free, but this has been dismissed without due consideration.

Benefits overview:

The BMD index is very valuable, being the first point of call for anyone in need of tracing their ancestors, or obtaining a copy of the certificates. This could be for practical reasons, such as an inheritance, but in most cases it's people wanting to explore their family history. There is fundamental transparency principle in making the civil register freely available, and also an economic imperative. Family history is a very popular hobby and drives a lot of cash online, with people paying up to £150 per year for subscriptions to commercial sites. For the UK it could also become a major economic activity thanks to ancestral tourism marketed to the descendants of British people. There is a huge market for US travellers, and several county councils have already started local programmes to tap into that market. The development of this kind of services based on secondary reuse of data, where the business model is tourism instead of data paywalls -- is hampered by the lack of proper Open Data in the family history domain. County council tourism boards cannot reach local US prospective travellers and commercial ancestry websites do not provide those data services.

I have a personal interest in this because 9 months ago I started an exchange of emails with the Registration Officer in Truro.  I asked for permission to photograph the indices to the local BMD registers.  Why bother to do this, given that FreeBMD has transcribed the GRO indexes.  However, it is well documented that there are differences between these indexes and those of the local BMD registers.

In January they said NO, although I pointed out to them that there are 30 such projects in England under the umbrella group UKBMD.  These are usually joint projects between family history societies and local Registration Offices.  But not always, they also involve groups such as ours.  Their refusal was based on advice from the GRO, which I think was incorrect.  I therefore wrote to my MP and asked her to ask the GRO just what the official policy was.  I am still waiting for an answer.  If anyone who is a UK resident would like to ask their MP what the policy is – I’ll provide a copy of my email.  The more people who ask, the better it might be.

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