Collaborative Genealogy
© 9 Jan 2013 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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Three criteria for a good collaborative genealogical tool.


My ideal collaborative genealogy tool has three criteria. First, it needs to store my reasoning process in fine-grained atomic pieces. Second, it needs to let me disagree with arbitrary subsets of a collaborator’s reasoning and still share everything else. Third, it needs to be trivial to discover what others are doing.

Fine-grained atomics are something that no genealogical tool of which I know supports. Most handle things on the level of “‍these two records refer to the same person‍” or “‍this person’s birthdate is X‍” or even “‍here’s some text someone wrote about this person.‍” I’d rather see things like “‍5 and 8 are likely to be confused in handwriting‍” or “‍John is the same name as Jonathan‍” or “‍I didn’t find him in the 1910 Catawba county census so he must have lived somewhere else that year.‍” That last I’d even like to see in smaller pieces: “‍I didn’t find him in the 1910 Catawba county census,‍” “‍he isn’t in the 1910 Catawba county census,‍” and “‍he didn’t live in Catawba in 1910‍” are three different pieces in my mind, connected by two additional “‍implies‍” pieces.

I also don’t see tools that allow me to choose to share most, but not all, of another researcher’s work. The tools I know about don’t even have the idea of branching versions: there is simply the current “‍truth‍” and possibly a history of previous “‍truths.‍” Rather than having multiple editors of a single view of the past I’d rather have a shared grab-bag of atomic portions of reasoning and individual sets of the reasoning particular researchers like. We get close to that with source repositories: when a new record shows up in FamilySearch, for example, I can choose to use it or not use it as I wish. I’d like to see all parts of genealogical reasoning in similar kinds of public databases.

There should be a single unambiguous representation of each concept within the atomic elements of any collaboration tool. Without this criterion, duplicate work proliferates, users get annoyed at the stylistic choices of other users, and collaboration flounders. At the same time, genealogy is very broad and the tool designer cannot identify all possible use cases a priori. This implies there needs to be an intuitive model that will hold together even atomic elements that have not yet been considered.

In summary: we need a tool that

  1. Models the atomic elements of genealogical research.

  2. Lets researchers pick-and-choose which elements they accept.

  3. Has a single unambiguous representation for each concept based on a strong intuitive model.

As far as I can tell, such a tool does not currently exist, nor am I aware of any development effort (other than my own) trying to create such a tool.

As an aside, we also clearly need a good user interface for such a tool, one that is accessible to novices without too much training but still suitable for advanced genealogists. This is by no means a trivial requirement to achieve, but it is secondary to the main goals outlined above. Good user interfaces can almost always be wrapped around a good data model; the converse is not generally true.

I am actively engaged in trying to design something approaching my ideal collaborative genealogical tool. Finding the right set of atomic elements is a surprisingly nuanced task. I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

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