Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Of ornithology and birdshit

Our regular readers will be familiar with SQA’s interest in natural history and in particular our specialisations in extinct species and animal droppings. Previous blogs on these subjects have included Extinct and Flightless, Nellie Does Another Whoopsie and
Bollocks, Bullshit and Balderdash.

Our interest in this fascinating subject now extends to the dove.

Hands on: the droppings of the Peruvian booby.

We advert of course to the project of that name recently announced by the General Register Office (GRO), part of the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The DoVE project (standing for Digitisation of Vital Events) aims to scan or digitise the Registrar General’s paper based registers of births, marriages and deaths maintained since 1 July 1837 and simultaneously create a new digital index to the records. You can read more on the official GRO DoVE pages.

The project stems from the Government’s White Paper Civil Registration: Vital Change 2002 subsequent Consultation Document 2003 and legislative reforms.

The digital images will be created from microfilm by the Siemens Document Scanning Centre at Beeston in Nottinghamshire and the index created by Siemens’ Business Process Operation Centre in India and thereafter quality checked by ONS in Britain before acceptance.

Budding transcribers?

Hardly controversial, you might think. However, putting aside the introduction of same sex civil partnerships and the ending of bachelor status in favour of single person status, which has caused protest in certain quarters, SQA has particular concerns about the democratic deficit and quality of this project. We recall all too well the controversy generated by the National Archives who in undertaking their 1901 Census Online project used UK prisoners and sweatshops in India and Ceylon with the result the index or metadata is believed to be at least 10% inaccurate.

Genealogist Jeanne Bunting points out: If anyone is researching the name DITTO, there are 39 of them in the index to the 1901 census..... one of them was even born in Ditto Ditto. The Federation of Family History Societies reported initially 85% of the transcribed data failed to meet the (unspecified) accuracy rate required. The accuracy issue followed on from the scandalous suspension of the service once launched and the delay in reinstating it.

The GRO web site and their periodic email circulars make clear the project is intended to directly benefit GRO staff only for the foreseeable future. The GRO states baldly that the project: will not change the current processes for ordering certificates from GRO both during and following the digitisation project. Thus not only will the public not directly benefit from the laying out of public funds in the form of a searchable online imagebase and index but there is likely to be a deficiency in the index searches performed by GRO staff resulting in entries not being found. Much is made of quality checks but the same was said of the 1901 Census Online. The reasoning behind the largely internal benefits of digitisation may therefore be associated with passport processing and national identity cards, in other words shared access by Government departments and intelligence services.

Mark Serwotka

SQA is not the only organisation concerned. Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) is concerned about the potential for identity theft and accountability and has stated: These are important records charting the births, deaths and marriages of this country's population which should be maintained securely in the UK public sector by people accountable to us all...ministers need to intervene, stopping ONS playing fast and loose with such valuable and sensitive information and ensure that the population’s personal information remains in the hands of the public sector.

Missed by many commentators on DoVE is the issue of Indian sectarianism. The Hindu business community has perceived it will uniquely benefit from Siemens’ work in Chennai [cf. Madras], India (see The Hindu Business Line.)

AEL Data Conversion Services

Further reading: Ancestry.com

Further reading: Ancestry.com

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