Friday, March 24, 2006

Give Me Context

Last summer I spent some time conducting user testing of a software prototype designed to help ordinary people find their ancestors. There was an overview of this prototype and the results of our testing presented at the recent Family History Technology Workshop held at BYU a couple of weeks ago. Definitely worth checking out the slides and abstract information when it comes online. One of the things that really stood out in the testing was the amount of context a user required to be able to do genealogical research. Here is a quote from one of the users while looking at a census record which exemplifies the problem, "I need a map, a calculator and a really smart person at my side [to understand this census record]."

Here are a few pieces of context that users seem to always need in view in order to understand family history:

  • Maps (current and historical)

  • History (local, national, world)

  • Timeline

  • Pedigree


I've seen some interesting mashups trying to put one or more of these pieces of context together. For example, the following two sites have interesting mashups with google maps: www.linkr.org, www.linkr.org/temples. Of these important elements of context, history and historical maps are particularly hard to deliver dynamically in the context of family history. I believe it is due to the lack of an easily searchable and addressable collection of content. Wouldn't it be great if there was a public domain data set with a rich API for searching and distributing this type of content in context? Perhaps this is something that the guys at WeRelate.org can take on. Simply link the history and historical maps to their location authority, make the data elements addressable with sufficient granularity and provide an API. Oh yeah, and get a bunch of people to help populate the content.

5 comments:

Dallan Quass said...

It's a good idea. You can already download around 400,000 places (about half of them geocoded, and roughly 5-10% of them with some historical information) from www.WeRelate.org/downloads under an open-content GFDL license. But there's no API.

I think the content would get much more interesting if people could upload stories about their ancestors and pictures of where they lived. Then, even if I didn't have stories or pictures on my ancestors, I could read a story and see a picture of a homestead of one of his/her neighbors down the road that was uploaded by someone else. Allowing people to upload stories and pictures on their ancestors is critical I think, not just because it brings family history alive for that family, but because it can help bring it alive for others who had ancestors in the same time and place.

The whole experience would be much richer in Google Earth than in Google Maps. The question is whether enough people would take the time to download Earth to make developing an Earth interface worthwhile.

Dan Lawyer said...

If WeRelate.org had a simple search, read, write API for accessing these 400,000 and growing places I could easily imagine record managers and others integrating. This would provide a centralized authority for record managers. It could also allow them to expose the wiki page concept of the places within the record manager for people to add content about places and grow the total list of places.

Dallan Quass said...

There is a REST-based API for searching places, where you enter the place you're looking for as URL parameters and you get back the search results in XML format. This is the same API I use internally. There's also an easy way to read the place data (alt names, lat+long, contained places, etc. in XML format. The Write API is a little more complicated (in order to discourage spammers), but it's also possible (we use it internally). I just haven't published these APIs because I'd like to have a better idea of how it will be used before publishing it, so if people are interested in using them, just let me know (dallan@WeRelate.org).

Dallan Quass said...

There is a REST-based API for searching places, where you enter the place you're looking for as URL parameters and you get back the search results in XML format. This is the same API I use internally. There's also an easy way to read the place data (alt names, lat+long, contained places, etc. in XML format. The Write API is a little more complicated (in order to discourage spammers), but it's also possible (we use it internally). I just haven't published these APIs because I'd like to have a better idea of how it will be used before publishing it, so if people are interested in using them, just let me know (dallan@WeRelate.org).

Dan Lawyer said...

Dallan,

Thanks for offering the APIs. I can easily see the added challenges of the write API. I look forward to seeing some integration soon from some of the more responsive vendors.