Friday, November 02, 2007

Mashups with FamilySearch

This is just a short post, I'll write more later. I just wanted to show the world the first step toward a new world where you can build mashups with data from the new FamilySearch. Click one of the links in the iframe below to load data about a person in the new FamilySearch. This particular sample is not really pretty but let your imagination start working on all of the powerful things you (at least the developers out there) could do with this type of access to the new FamilySearch.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

More on Source-Centricity: Conclusions, Artifacts, and Evidence

Conclusions, Artifacts, and Evidence
We've been prototyping a flow for the Life Browser which allows users to create a person, add conclusions about that person, add artifacts about that person, and identify the artifacts that are supporting evidence for these conclusion. In this approach there are three basic types of data 1) Conclusions 2) Artifacts 3) Evidence.

Conclusions: These are basically what people believe to be the vital information about a person (birth, marriage, death, relationships, etc.).

Artifacts: A digital representation of something relating to a person's life. It consists of metadata which describes the artifact and provides source citation information; and may contain images, video, audio, or text. Artifacts are also of a particular type: picture, record, story, video, audio, personal knowledge.

Evidence: Evidence is the linkage of an artifact to one or more conclusions. It contains the linkage between the conclusion(s) and the artifact and a note explaining the linkage (optional).

One of the current shortcomings is we haven't determined how to represent a conclusion which is a hypothesis and may or may not have evidence to support the hypothesis.

Evidence of Relationships
On a related note, for some time we've wanted to be more explicit in identifying evidence that supports relationships. I haven't seen any tools that do this. Have I missed something? For example, it is one thing to have evidence that 1 Jan 1900 is the birth date and quite another to have evidence that Jack and Jill are the parents of Bob. Most tools however only allow you to cite the source of the birth event but not the source of the relationship information (which may be the same or a separate source). We're starting to play with a prototype that lets you explicitly identify evidence of relationships.

Anyone have any thoughts or ideas to share that might help us out with our prototyping? Please share.

Friday, June 01, 2007


Ex Nihilo?
Years ago I worked on a project using ethnographic research methodologies to study the life cycle of the creative process of knowledge workers. One of the primary take aways from this research was that there is no ex nihilo creation (ex nihilo is Latin for out of nothing). I'm not sure why we got hung up on the Latin phraseology. The point is that every 'new' creation or discovery is always built from something, it never comes out of nothing.

Genealogy is the same way. There is always some piece of evidence or source material which leads us to draw a conclusion about an ancestor. Some of you may wish to argue the no ex nihilo creation principle based on the grounds that you've seen many conclusions that appear to have come out of nothing but technically even those have come from somewhere. For many reasons, keeping track of this evidence is a core requirement to successful genealogical reasearch.

Warning, I'm about to make a critical comment. Please don't take offense.

It would seem that the genealogy industry or rather, those that provide tools to the genealogical community have fallen short on this requirement. I have yet to see a system that accurately maps the relationship between genealogical evidence and conclusions based upon that evidence and does it in a way that assures integrity (you should not be able to add, edit, or heaven forbid share conclusions without accurately associating the evidence). Nor have I seen a system for tracking evidence that is sufficiently intuitive and usable that it does not require staunch discipline to use. There is of course a reason for this. It is complex and hard. I don't believe it is impossible. In fact, it seems like a medium-hard problem.

While I can't offer statistics on this, I can say that the overwhelming majority of lineage-linked pedigrees submitted to the Church do not have source citations. I doubt this is a surprise to you. Why is this the case? Sure people pass around GEDCOMs, download pedigrees, etc. but this is just a proliferation of the problem, not the root of the problem. I believe the root of the problem is that the tools used to organize our family history do not offer a usable tool set for tracking evidence. The user interfaces and data models do not accurately represent the reality of the relationship between the evidence and the conclusions. They have totally missed the boat on what the user needs to accomplish in this manner. They have built square pegs for round-holed problems and users have been forcing the pegs through the hole ever since. The process is so hard as to prevent anyone but the most diligent from doing it. I am acquainted with many skilled genealogists that have given up on this process and simply file their evidence and notes into their filing cabinet.

I want to throw down the gauntlet. The manufacturers of these tools need to step up to the plate and solve this problem. We hope to take our first stab at this as part of our continued efforts on the Life Browser prototype on the FamilySearch Labs site. I'm sure we'll experience many failures before we get it right.

I'd love to hear your feedback on this issue. Have I missed some great tool out there? Does someone have a solution already? Have I finally gone completely off the deep end? I know these aren't mutually exlusive questions but please, share your thoughts.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Family History Technology Workshop '07

Yesterday I attended the 2007 Family History Technology Workshop hosted at BYU. Joe Martel from our team gave a presentation about FamilySearch Labs and the Pedigree Viewer. Joe did a great job and the presentation was well received.

We also had a table where we gave demos of the Pedigree Viewer and the Life Browser (not yet linked to the labs site but coming very soon). I thought the responses to the demos and the FamilySearch Labs concept were interesting. People were very fond of the applications but were amazed (and pleased) at the level of openness on the labs site. One gentleman that stopped to talk commented how for years the Church would go dark and then just release something. He felt the labs concept a strong and refreshing break from this approach.

Several developers asked about the possibility of getting their hands on the code for the Pedigree Viewer. We're definitely open to that. We just need to work out the logistics.

There were a couple of really strong highlights for me this year. If you missed the workshop, you'll want to check these out when the presentations become available.
  • Gordon Clarke's presentation at lunch about the FamilySearch Affiliates program, APIs, and building a community of developers. If you're a developer the content of this presentation will be refreshing news.
  • The Millenium CD. A group of researchers at BYU have invented a CD that will store for a thousand years without the data turning to mush. They believe that within a few years these disks will be the same cost as regular CDs/DVDs. We may finally have a digital counterpart to paper for preservation.
  • John Finlay, Neumont U., and phpGEDView (PGV). This was a great presentation about their efforts to add a collaborative research assistant to PGV. Very good work. I really, really like their approach. Their UI leaves much to be desired but their approach is very solid.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Automatic Source Citations & Zotero

A colleague just pointed me to as an interesting approach to handling source citations. While they don't seem to have turned their attention toward genealogy, their approach looks promising for taking us closer to automatic source citations.

Zotero is an open source project sponsored by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. You install a plug-in to your browser and then when you're looking at something you want to cite you just click the icon in your address bar. It handles multiple citations on the same page, allows you to edit citations, add notes, attach files, take a snapshot of the content or just point to it. Check out their demo.

For this all to work the site needs to have the citation information available in a form that zotero understands. Rather than force you to use their specification their architecture allows you to create your own translator that maps your citation format to zotero and then it just works. I'd love to see some of the major online genealogical repositories invest the small amount of work required to support zotero. At the same time vendors of record managers and other family history applications could integrate with zotero and the automatic source citation problem is solved.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Geni and Tech Talks

If you're reading this blog, you're probably in the loop enough to have already seen the beta site. If you haven't seen it yet, it is definitely worth a look. It is basically a web 2.0 app for building a centralized pedigree for everyone. In that sense, it is similar in nature to what other players like the LDS Church,, and have been working on. It does seem to be fundamentally different however in that they have done a great job of incorporating social networking and viral marketing concepts into the site. The site is also focused on living people to start with. They've done a good job with the usability. It is definitely designed for ordinary people. I found it interesting that they chose to write their site in Flash. We made the same choice for the work we've been doing on Our decision was driven by our belief that the end user experience would need to be very rich including lots of multimedia, animation, etc. I would guess that the guys at chose Flash for this same reason.

On another note, the LDS Church CIO, Joel Dehlin, recently sponsored the first LDS Tech Talks. The basic idea is to provide a forum where those that are technically minded can interact with the Church on technology issues. They are trying to leverage the large community of people out there that are anxious to contribute their talents to improve the Church's technology. Read more about it at the LDS Tech website or on Joel Dehlin's blog. I wasn't able to go to the tech talks but my inbox has been flooded with all of the buzz and positive feedback it caused.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

SnapGenie Meets Genealogy

I've been playing with the beta of the new site. One of the interesting tools there is a feature that let's you narrate your way through a stack of images. It does a pretty good job of making it easy to recreate the experience of thumbing through a stack of pictures with your friends and family. I wondered how it would work to thumb through a stack of artifacts about an ancestor. Here's a really quick example.

I think if the application had a way for me to zoom in on my ancestors name or something else of interest in the records (like Microsoft PhotoStory) it might not be a bad way to share the information.

Check out the beta. It is free and has some interesting elements.