Intro: In this post, current OHMA student Rebecca McGilveray explores the future of OHMS in the context of Scotland after Doug Boyd’s recent workshop, “Accelerating Change, Oral History, Innovation and Impact.”
So you’ve come here to learn about OHMS and GDPR? Well done! I know it might not seem exciting, glamourous, or even interesting - but I promise you, it’s something we as oral historians should all start to think about more. So take a deep breath - it’s about to get a little technical up in here.
When Doug Boyd joined our Workshop class recently to give a talk on “Accelerating Change, Oral History, Innovation and Impact,” we had the opportunity to ask him a few questions beforehand. My initial question was true to form, very untechnical – I asked him how I could explain OHMS to my Granny! But as the conversation progressed through my classmates’ questions - touching on a broad range of issues from the similarities and differences between OHMS and Facebook and the potential partnerships that could exist one day between OHMS and other “niche technologies” – I’ll admit, I was struggling at points to follow along, despite how easy Boyd made it sound. But when my home country of Scotland was mentioned, I had a window into the conversation that I could understand. Boyd brought up Scotland for how it presents an interesting case study when looking at the future of OHMS.
Earlier this year, the EU brought a policy called the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) into force. What this means in a nutshell is the personal data (name, social media posts, IP addresses, etc.) of European Union citizens will be protected by law. The general purpose is to give citizens greater control over who has access to their data. For example if you were an EU citizen, any company that you were on an email mailing list for had to re-email asking for renewed permission to keep you on that list and continue contacting you.
Many of us oral historians joined the field because of all the wonderful stories we hear and memories we get to be part of - I would say that I fall into that category too. But being collections of words, the oral history interviews we help create are basically big piles of personal data. Whether you are based in the EU, the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History in Kentucky or Concordia University in Montreal - the implications of GDPR matter. Here’s why.
More and more oral history work is starting to integrate OHMS, the Oral History Metadata Synchroniser. It’s a handy dandy tool that makes it easier for oral historians to make their interviews accessible. (and yes, that, Fair Reader, is word for word what I told my Granny over the phone the day after Boyd’s talk.) Think of yourself as a painter – OHMS is the studio where you do all your work (in this case indexing, metadata and everyone’s favourite – transcription) before you hang it up for everyone to see in a gallery (or in this case an archive or online repository.) Now this may make OHMS sound really lovely and humanistic, but in reality it is a computer and a metaDATA synchroniser that is fundamentally about information and facilitating access to it.
Enter Scotland - nation of shortbread, Sean Connery and - its greatest export to date - me. Scotland’s relationship with OHMS is complex, especially because of Article 3 of GDPR which means if a company collects “personal or behavioural” data from an EU citizen in an EU country. And yes this does mean important data like your health records, but can also be what websites you order clothes from, your mother’s maiden name or your father’s favourite football team. So for example if Old Navy had data about my clothing preferences and when I get paid they could target advertising towards me to make me more likely to buy their stuff. But here's the kicker: it doesn't matter whether the company is based in the EU, USA or somewhere else – if it collects data from EU citizens while those citizens are in the EU, it is subject to the requirements of GDPR.
Because of “Brexit,” a process that will see Britain divorce the EU by 2019 (although considering the current angst over the proposed exit deal, this could be pushed back), Scotland’s ruling party - the Scottish National Party - now have the mandate for a second independence referendum* which could see Scotland doing a hokey-pokey of sorts with the GDPR regulations. Will we be subject to these new regulations or not? “What does this mean for OHMS?” I hear you cry! Well in short, if Scotland stays in the EU, it means that Scottish researchers wishing to use OHMS (or even conduct oral history interviews generally) will have to be very careful about how they operate because of Article 3 dictating what kind of data can be stored about people. For example, consent forms will have to be updated so narrators are fully aware of what “data” means and how that will impact their interview. One of the biggest sticking points with this issue is that EU citizens under GDPR have to be fully aware of what data of theirs is stored and can delete data that concerns them. Which is a hell of a headache for oral historians, especially in Scotland where it’s unknown whether or not this rule will continue to apply to us in the event of a second referendum.
Doug Boyd talked about this dance during his workshop, highlighting the increase in phone calls the Nunn Center gets from former narrators asking for their interviews to be taken off the internet because their interview was the first thing that came up after a Google search of their name. Currently in the US, TECHNICALLY speaking there’s no legal mandate for that interview to come down – the person signed a consent form and knew the interview was going to go online. But in the EU under GDPR, regretful narrators now have recourse, and businesses can be fined 4% of their revenue for not complying with GDPR regulations.
For example, the Scottish Oral History Centre currently don’t have any of their interviews available online and I argue that uncertainty over GDPR regulations has played a role in that.
Fundamentally, oral history is data. That data is something we should all try and consider both as interviewers and narrators, really making sure that informed consent is ongoing throughout the interview and afterwards. OHMS isn’t going anywhere and neither is GDPR, and while Scotland may currently be caught somewhere in the middle of all of this,one thing is certain: ignorance of the facts can be expensive, irritating, and confusing for everyone involved. But trust me, as someone who breaks out in a cold sweat whenever technology comes up in conversation, writing a blog post about data protection law felt a bit daunting. If I can get clued up on this, anyone can.
Rebecca comes to Columbia from Glasgow, Scotland and is the first Scottish student to join the OHMA programme. Her capstone project will be an exploration of the intersectionality between the loss of a place and the loss of a person. Her approach to oral history is driven by her working-class upbringing and her eternal love of hearing life stories.