Sunday, November 22, 2020

Jiu-Jitsu for Genealogy


Perhaps everyone knows, in the world of family history, that local genealogical societies are small organizations with limited resources—but then again, maybe they don't. Genealogical societies of the local sort are gatherings of people who share the same enthusiasm for researching their roots. Sometimes, that enthusiasm reaches altruistically beyond that, to thoughts of preserving records so others can find their family, too. Or maybe even to helping others learn how to find their family's history.

No matter what, exactly, a local genealogical group claims as the specifics of their mission, it's safe to say those county or city groups are small. Sometimes, very small. Definitely not adequately equipped to take on the giants of adversarial systems. These volunteer-operated organizations are sometimes run by unproven "Davids" in the face of system Goliaths.

At least, that's the way it seems for us when we are unequipped for the next crisis that comes our way. And for this one local society I'm involved with, that armored opponent made its appearance in the last month in the guise of a seemingly invincible—or at least impersonal—system through the anonymity of the Internet.

We got labeled as spam.

It appeared our handy-dandy website-based email system—now a lifeline to our membership during this Zooming year of social isolation—had been flagged as impresarios of junk mail, our correspondence summarily dismissed to recipients' trash bins. Unbeknownst to our members, our regular dispatches—the monthly newsletter, or key announcements of the link to attend the next online meeting—were now rerouted to members' spam boxes. How to tell members to look for our communication there? Another email certainly wouldn't do the job. And the task of having to make nearly one hundred phone calls when our volunteer board was already stretched too thin was hardly achievable.

And yet, perhaps there was an easier way. In martial arts, when faced with an overwhelmingly powerful opponent, such as the samurai in Japan's feudal history, the weaker side learned that the most effective way to take on such a powerful opponent was to use the attacker's energy against him, rather than to directly oppose it—the origin of, and concept behind jiu-jitsu.

How does a tiny organization like a genealogical society take on a nameless, faceless "enemy" like electronic mail systems? Of course, we are working through channels to resolve the issue on many fronts, but in the meantime, one way to marshal assistance is to "crowdsource" the answer. 

Finding the momentum which works in our favor leads easily to seeing that our own members have a vested interest in hearing in advance about activities we are offering on their part. Why not have those who already receive emails, despite the current difficulty other members are experiencing (sometimes without their own knowledge), take the email they do receive from us and hit "reply" to send us a quick response? From that, for instance, with one click on their part, we automatically let our members do the heavy lifting of building a mirror mailing list—those who do still get our emails—and then by process of elimination, determine who among that smaller group needs to be contacted.

In the online genealogy world, we already see examples of companies which are using crowdsourcing to have others provide the muscle to get the work done for their organization. For example, any time you see a poorly indexed newspaper article, due to the failures of optical character recognition, and you submit a correction to that service provider, you are participating in crowdsourcing efforts to improve that company's labeling of news articles. 

Shared actions like this make the resource even more helpful for the next customer if the organization learns from our input and passes it on to benefit the next person—a win-win situation for both company and customer. Rather than turn customers into opponents, irate over details which don't seem to work correctly, these companies have learned how to make their customers their allies in improving their services. That's the beauty of crowdsourcing: using the energy of positive momentum to face what otherwise might have been the difficult, overwhelming problem of an OCR system which is less than impressive.

In our tiny organizational worlds, we can use that same mindset to overcome our system obstacles, as well. Adopting the mindset of jiu-jitsu—going with the flow of the problem's energy in a way that changes it to our benefit—and combining it with a win-win philosophy, small organizations like genealogical societies can leverage the power of forces beyond us to work in our favor.


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