Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A genealogical detective story

How do you search for a name?  Turns out that my friend Daniel Tunkelang has an interesting name.  How often how you met anyone with his surname?  Not often I'll bet. 

On his blog, The Noisy Channel, he posted a really interesting search challenge of his own.  His primary goal was to see if Twitter or Aardvark would produce better social-search results.  But one of his hard problems was "what is the origin of my name, Tunkelang?"  You can read his original post here: 

What's especially fun about Tunkelang's post is that another friend of mine, Gene Golovchinsky took up the challenge and did a fantastic job of answering it.  You can read Gene's reply and his description of his search efforts here:  http://palblog.fxpal.com/?p=389

I draw a couple of insights from this little back-and-forth.  First, social search really can help, particularly with problems that are broad and require insights from multiple people with different backgrounds and perspectives.  It helps to put such questions to a wide audience where individuals can recognize parts of the problem they can handle and then feedback their answers (or partial answers) to the collective.  

Secondly, Gene comments that Google helped him find various resources to do the research, but one of the guiding principles for him was that he often recognized specific sites (e.g., JewishGen.org) as having particular properties (both in terms of coverage and utility for this problem).  Given the wealth of links that Google returns, having a little bit of background knowledge to help negotiate the links is really valuable.  While search engines are great, domain knowledge still counts for something.  

Thanks to both Daniel Tunkelang and Gene Golovchinsky for their marvelous posts.  

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Quick note:  I'll be out-of-the-office for the rest of this week at Burning Man, so I won't be able to do my regular Wednesday Challenge.  NEXT week we'll have a good one, so stay tuned! 

Search on! 

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