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.