29 March 2014

Taking Whatever and Being Happy

[Soapbox Alert]

Several of us on Facebook have had a discussion of Ancestry.com's unusual search results for a "leaf hint." A few of my comments have been buried there and I've decided to bring them out into the open with a blog post of their own and expand sightly upon a few key points. These comments are in response to the "leaf hints" that suggested 1953-era immigration records for a man who died in 1833. I will note that communication from Ancestry.com indicates that they are now aware of the problem and are working to fix it.

1) I'm tired of being told I should be "glad" to get whatever  hits I get--which quite a few companies, websites, and even some of my fellow genealogists tell me. Just because "in the old days" finding things was infinitely more difficult doesn't mean I should be rejoicing today for "whatever" the search algorithm gives me. "Whatever hits" are aren't good enough. This is algorithmic programming, which at the very heart is the result of a complex set of "yes" and "no" questions. Database entries either match the query or they do not. Computerized querying of databases is not the same as the manual searching by a human of thousands of handwritten records where many times finds are simply the result of tedious hard work and a little luck.  I won't even comment on the fact that being told I should be "glad for whatever" I get sounds extremely paternalistic and condescending. Oh wait, I guess I just did.

2) No search algorithm should be set to not return results of this type. Period.  Users should NOT have to manually or otherwise sift through results that include events requiring them to be alive 150 years after someone died. That's what algorithms are for--finding reasonable matches. This match is not reasonable and should have easily been eliminated by the search algorithm (unless Chicago voter records are being searched).

3) And my REAL concern. This is a problem that I can see and that is apparent. When there are issues I can see, it makes me wonder what is going on that I cannot see. If I should be "happy" for the "whatever" hits that come may way, how am I supposed to feel about the "whatever" hits that don't? If a search can include bogus matches, it could also be ignoring good matches as well.

Off soapbox.

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