You Don’t Own My Family History – I Do

I think I’ve rebuilt my Family Tree about 20 or 30 different times throughout my lifetime.  The process usually starts with me entering in the names I know on sites like Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.org or OneGreatFamily.com.  I usually hit a stopping point where I can’t remember any more, then I start doing searches.  I’ll usually start on FamilySearch.org and get everything I can.  Then I’ll move over to Ancestry.com, getting a 7 day free trial so I can get the data I need (do I really need to pay to get my family’s information?), then I’ll try other sources, like the auto-matched data on OneGreatFamily.com.  Then I’ll ask family members for the family trees they have, import that as much as I can (merging many duplicates in the process), and then hopefully have as complete a family tree as possible.  I’ll feel proud of myself for completing it, move on to other things, then several years later, start over again because I forgot my accounts from before.  Maybe I’m unique in this, but this is the story of my life.  I just did it again tonight, in fact – this shouldn’t be the case for someone who has most of his genealogy already done for generations.

The internet is too silo’d when it comes to Genealogy and Family History!  It is comprised of numerous, private databases of people all linked together as one, but each in its own separate database.  The problem is one database will have some information while another will have other information, and they all want your money to get at the information you are missing, which, in reality, belongs to you and your family in the first place!  Sure, they often provide an option to export your family history and import it into another service, but then you have just one more database, this one lying on your own computer, and any updates to the other databases never update the one that lies on your computer.  Let’s face it – GEDCOM just creates more databases – it does not unify.

With my background in Social Networking I feel I have a place to say in this.  Many Social Networks have had the same problems to get through.  Facebook, for instance, stores your social graph (in this case your friends) in one database – sure, they provide an API to share those friends and let you store them in your own database and retrieve updates via a real-time interface, but the central repository is still on Facebook’s servers.  They did just create the ability to export your data, but that presents the same problem as GEDCOM – it creates more databases.  It does not solve the problem, but I know they have desires to get around this, hopefully eventually (and I truly believe they will).

Google seems to be doing this right, although it’s proving difficult to compete by doing so.  They’ve established a set of standards, FOAF, XFN, and Google Profiles to link relationships on the web together via open means.  Then any service that wants to (right now the company with the biggest capability to do this is, to no surprise, Google) can index these relationships by following the FOAF data and XFN links back to each individual, bringing in all kinds of meta data along the way.  In this way the web is the database, not any single company.  The problem is Google is the only one capable of indexing all this effectively at the moment, but at least they make it available to the public via their Social Graph API.  It’s no surprise Facebook wants to remain private as they try to build their own index through people.

Family History needs to emulate the Google way.  Currently there is no “Google” of the Family History world.  Everyone’s private!  It’s time Family History makes the web its database and not any one single source.  In fact, there are already standards, such as XFN and FOAF that could make this possible.  We just need to be attaching these to our data.  This can very much be a reality if we work for it and make it priority.

I should be able to upload my records to Ancestry.com and any other service that wants to index that data should be able to pull that data from Ancestry and render it for me based on the relationships around the web they have indexed.  The records should be stored on the web.  The relationships should be stored on the web.  The entire family tree should come from the web, not any single database or repository.

I understand there are hurdles to jump – it’s not an easy problem to tackle.  There are privacy concerns to get around.  There is competition to get over.  There is technology that needs to be built.

I’m calling for a change in outlook though.  It’s time we stop thinking about single organizations owning and storing our data for us.  It’s time we start, instead, thinking about the user owning their data.  Anything we store should belong to that user, and that user should be able to access that information on any service they visit on the web, and there should be absolutely no limits preventing that user from getting at that data.  We need standards.  We need organization.  We need to unify.  New players need to step up and make this a reality. (I’m talking to you Google and Facebook, or any entrepreneur that thinks they can do it)

How can we make this happen?

Disclaimer: These comments are my own opinions and do not represent the organization I work for in any way. I have worked for or with most of the organizations mentioned in this article, so I feel I have a say in this matter, but these are simply my opinions, and hope that we can start a conversation.

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13 thoughts on “You Don’t Own My Family History – I Do

  1. For what it's worth, my personal perception is that your present employer could obviously have some influence in this area – perhaps not on the whole issue of companies charging people for their own genealogical data, but perhaps in the area of standards for genealogical data exchange. For all I know, they may already be active in the standards area, but if not, perhaps their voice should be heard.

    However, I don't see a solution to your concern about the fact that companies are charging you for data on your own family. Any company that gathers data (well, with the exception of some non-profit organizations) is going to want to make money off of that data, and I couldn't ask ancestry.com or whoever to provide me with lifetime free access to data; as the past few years have pointed out, many businesses can't be supported by advertisers alone.

    Like

  2. John, yes, my current employer could have influence (and they are perhaps

    one of the closest out there to this vision I think), but we need many more

    working towards this goal for it to become a reality. It should also be

    noted that I don't work on that team so I'm not fully aware of what they are

    working on at the moment. This shouldn't be construed as representing them

    in any way.

    Like

  3. There is serious effort to modernize genealogical technology tools and standards about to happen. In the next week if you're paying attention, I expect you will hear of serious efforts to modernize. While your employer did provide a great impetus to progress previously, it also retreated from being a leader in this field in about 2001. Since then no one steeped up, and the result has been unfortunate for genealogical technologists.

    There is independent effort about to move forward in a serious manner, so stay tuned and get ready to jump on board.

    Like

  4. Just to be clear, again, FamilySearch is not my employer. The LDS Church

    is. There's a big difference – I report to completely different bosses than

    they do, and for the most part, they remain pretty separate.

    Like

  5. How far would you carry the data ownership issue? Does it need to be an open-content license similar to what wikipedia has, so that if I store a note containing an analysis of why I drew the conclusions that I came to, others can copy that note into their trees so long as they give me attribution? Or (relating to the google-facebook reciprocity issue) does it just need to be google-like so that I can access my own data from anywhere, but others may have to ask my permission to copy it?

    Like

  6. I think it should be Google-like (or, more web like and the Ancestry.coms

    and FamilySearch.orgs would be Google-like, indexing the data across the

    web). You own your data and it can be hosted anywhere. Those who want

    access to that data have access to the data you make available. OpenID

    Connect (a hybrid of OAuth and OpenID) makes this fairly simple, and any

    service can determine how much data, according to the user's preferences,

    they want to make visible beyond what is already publicly visible to search

    engines.

    As for content and intellectual property, I don't think anything's different

    to IP anywhere else on the web. If you wrote it and did the creative work

    behind it, you get to set the terms for the licensing of that content. Let

    the creative owners set those terms however they like.

    Like

  7. I think it should be Google-like (or, more web like and the Ancestry.coms

    and FamilySearch.orgs would be Google-like, indexing the data across the

    web). You own your data and it can be hosted anywhere. Those who want

    access to that data have access to the data you make available. OpenID

    Connect (a hybrid of OAuth and OpenID) makes this fairly simple, and any

    service can determine how much data, according to the user's preferences,

    they want to make visible beyond what is already publicly visible to search

    engines.

    As for content and intellectual property, I don't think anything's different

    to IP anywhere else on the web. If you wrote it and did the creative work

    behind it, you get to set the terms for the licensing of that content. Let

    the creative owners set those terms however they like.

    Like

  8. There is serious effort to modernize genealogical technology tools and standards about to happen. In the next week if you're paying attention, I expect you will hear of serious efforts to modernize. While your employer did provide a great impetus to progress previously, it also retreated from being a leader in this field in about 2001. Since then no one steeped up, and the result has been unfortunate for genealogical technologists.

    There is independent effort about to move forward in a serious manner, so stay tuned and get ready to jump on board.

    Like

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