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.