Ben Laurie blathering

1 Oct 2011

Open Source Transcription Software Developer

Filed under: Open Data,Open Source,Programming — Ben @ 18:06

Since we set up FreeBMD, FreeREG and FreeCEN things have come a long way, and so we’re revisiting how we do transcription. Those great guys at Zooniverse have released their Scribe transcription software, which they developed to use with Old Weather and Ancient Lives (and more to come), as open source.

We are working with them to develop a new transcription platform for genealogical records, based on Scribe, and we want to hire a developer to help us with it. Scribe itself is written in Ruby, so some familiarity with that would help. We also use Python and EC2, so knowing about those would be good, too. And the front-end is sure to be using Javascript, so there’s another tickbox to tick.

Finally, we intend to open source everything, and so a developer used to working in an open source community would be helpful.

Everything is negotiable. FreeBMD does not have offices, so this would be “work from home” (or the beach, or whatever suits you).

If you’re interested, send email to Feel free to forward this post, of course.

6 Nov 2010

Radical Copyright Thinking … at the European Commission!

Filed under: Civil Liberties,Digital Rights,Open Data — Ben @ 12:27

I criticise policy makers a lot. So it’s really nice when they say something sensible – or even inspirational. The summary does not do this speech justice. It’s quite short, I suggest you read it.

“We must ensure that copyright serves as a building block, not a stumbling block – we need action to promote a legal digital Single Market in Europe” European Commission Vice President for the Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes said today at the prestigious Forum D’Avignon, on the subject of how digital technology represents an opportunity rather than a threat to culture. Kroes underlined the need to modernise the copyright system so that it helps rather than hinders artists within the EU’s Single Market. “My goal, in promoting cultural diversity and content adapted to the digital age, is for European creativity to be even stronger”, Kroes said. “Today our fragmented copyright system is ill-adapted to the real essence of art, which has no frontiers. Instead that system has ended up giving a more prominent role to intermediaries than to artists. It irritates the public, who often cannot access what artists want to offer and leaves a vacuum which is served by illegal content, depriving artists of their well-deserved remuneration. It may suit some vested interests to avoid a debate, or to frame the debate in moralistic terms that merely demonise millions of citizens. But that is not a sustainable approach. Time alone will not solve the problems that have emerged.

13 Sep 2010

Wasting Public Money: Birth, Marriage and Death Digitisation

Filed under: Open Data — Ben @ 14:10

In 1998 a group of us started FreeBMD, a project to transcribe and make freely available the Birth, Marriage and Death records for England and Wales. The project has been wildly successful and 12 years on we have 250 million records in our database.

In the meantime the government has twice decided to spend a vast amount of taxpayers’ money duplicating our work. The first project, DoVE, was started in 2005. Three years and £8.5 million later, the project had transcribed 130 million records and was closed down. At no point in the process was FreeBMD contacted – not even to inform us that there was a tender open to do what we clearly were highly qualified to do. Nor were the transcribed records made freely available to those who had paid for them. Oh no, that wouldn’t be the thing to do at all – they were instead given to the GRO to sell.

Fast forward a few years, Big Brother is upon us. And I don’t mean the TV program. In 2009 the Identity and Passport Service decide to try again. I’ll quote it here,

The D&I project is currently in a pause status as IPS awaits the outcome of the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR). It is possible that the outcome of the CSR will impact the overall scope of the project, as well as timescales and procurement activity.

since history shows that the government are not very good at preserving records[1]. Anyway, you’ll notice that it’s been suspended again, at what cost to the taxpayer I don’t know, perhaps someone out there does. Since the new government has decided to scrap identity cards, which were the driving force for this project (note: no public access to the transcription was planned) I am quietly confident that the outcome of the CSR will be to scrap the project. Again. Of course, they will call it “stalled” or “delayed” so when they next decide to waste our money on it they can revive it.

Anyway, let me go on record now and say this: FreeBMD will complete this transcription, without cost to the taxpayer, given access to the source records. There’s just one condition: we have to be able to publish the complete transcription, free of charge, on the Internet. Of course, it’ll go a bit faster if we do get some money, so I won’t say we wouldn’t accept if it were offered!

Of course, we’ve always been prepared to do this, but why would civil servants shaft their cronies by saving money in that way?

[1] All references to DoVE[2] seem to have been conveniently obliterated by a “move” of the GRO’s website, even though some of it is still hosted on the same website!

[2] Well, at least all references on this rather nice timeline I discovered while researching this post.

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