Sunday, 15 February 2015

Bah! Temporary hold

The genealogy log is temporarily on hold for a week or so while I transcribe some documents for my father. We recently received a couple of wills and a book about our ancestral hometown and dad wants me to transcribe (and translate) the wills so he can read and understand them better. This is something I knew I would have to do, but was trying to put it off until later, but a grumpy dad is not something I want to deal with at the moment. ;^)

Friday, 6 February 2015

Initial progress report for the genealogy log tool

I will prolly copy over any previous development blog posts from my other blog, Tracing the Footsteps of Amos, just so I can keep everything in one place, but for now I'll give a brief run-down of my progress to date. (BTW, this domain name is only a couple of days old and I already have received several emails from spammers offering to "register" my site with "all the major search engines" for a modest fee. How thoughtful of them!)

I have decided that the first tool I'll create will be a web-based genealogy log tool. I have a few spreadsheet templates that I had been using for my own log, so the initial feature-set will be based off a mix of these. Users will be able to register with the site, once registered (and email is verified) the user can log in and will be presented with a list of previous research sessions and a fresh, blank session ready to fill in. Each session will record the location of the research session (i.e., local library, archives, or a website) along with the date, time and a session goal. Within each session the user can record what searches they have undertaken and the results of those searches. Sessions and search results will be searchable, so users can quickly check whether they have performed the same search previously and if so, what the results were.

One thing I am hoping to include in this tool is a bit of smarts for reverse-engineering search terms for the major genealogy websites. This will allow the user to simply copy and paste the search URL from for example, and the log will attempt to pull out the exact search criteria used. Of course the tool will also be capturing as much source citation information as possible, to help make relocating the results as easy as possible.

I am developing this tool using Ruby on Rails, mainly as an excuse to roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty on a Rails project. I have the initial sign up and login pages working and the session list is part-way complete. My aim for a usable beta version is sometime in early March, so I will be putting out a call for volunteers to test the app in about a month.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Welcome to the blog!

Welcome to the blog! On this blog I will be discussing the suite of genealogical research tools, how they are used, how they are being developed and any plans to extend or enhance the range of tools available.

I have had an interest in genealogy for over 10 years, but the bug really bit about four years ago. I started finding my way in the world of genealogy by searching the internet for interesting resources, before discovering, and a host of other great sites. Most of my early "research" was merely collecting names and dates, with very little (okay, no) rigour as I was excited at the prospects of filling in the boxes in my family tree software. As my tree grew I started to notice some irregularities in my data, for example my cousin had one date of death for an ancestor, but I found a completely different one - which of us was correct? I reached a point where my tree had diverged slightly from my cousin's tree and more significantly from other trees I had discovered on the internet.

Eventually I decided "enough is enough" and put my tree aside and started from scratch, this time trying to be a bit more diligent with my data. I kept using family tree software however. The second attempt at my family tree wen somewhat smoother, and I was able to collect some more data that helped me deal with the inconsistencies I found, but I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the software I was using. I felt constrained by the Person -> Event -> Source structure of the various family tree apps I tried and none of them seemed to be particularly useful when dealing with conflicting data.

One particular niggle was that traditional family tree software appeared to have no way of dealing with "working data". I found several source documents referring to the death of a potential ancestor, but I couldn't pinpoint exactly which ancestor they referred to - was it my gggg-grandfather, or his son, or his nephew? Using traditional family tree software, I would attach this event to multiple people, but it was messy and when I refined my data more and found more sources, it was a pain to delete the event from people and add new data, not to mention the history of my research was being lost - sure I could delete the "wrong" event from a person, but where was the traceback showing that I had considered this possibility?

Then there was the fact that I was amassing a large collection of source documents - parish register scans; census documents; birth, marriage, death certificates; newspaper articles; etc - but really had no way of managing these documents, nor any way of managing the data I could extract from these documents.

I was starting to get very fed up with the research tools provided by traditional family tree software vendors. Really, most of the research is done outside the software and all the family tree software expects is for you to enter names, dates and places. I thought there must be a better way.

So I started to embark on a self-education campaign - try to learn as much as I could about "real" genealogy. During this time I discovered about proper citation of sources (something I had been incredibly lax about doing), the genealogical proof standard and "evidence-based genealogy". I had been thinking "there must be a better way" and now I had discovered that there was! What I had been doing up until then was "conclusion-based genealogy" or "person-based genealogy" where the focus was on filling in the boxes in your family tree software, but what I wanted to do was "evidence-based genealogy" or "source-based genealogy" where the sources become the star and sources are analysed and interpreted to prove the conclusions you made about the people in your tree. Weighing up various pieces of evidence, determine the likely accuracy or veracity of the information in your sources, considering conflicting information and coming up with sound reasoning for your conclusions sounded like a better way of doing research.

Armed with a new way of thinking, I decided it was time to restart my restart of my tree, only this time with a lot more rigour. Being a software developer, I also decided to scratch an itch and create my own tools to help with my research efforts. Tools that will help, not hinder, rigorous genealogical research. I have in mind a whole suite of tools, ranging from research planners and logs to source analysis tools and source transcription and management tools. Over time I will reveal my plans for each of these tools, but for now I am starting with a simple research log tool.

My genealogy research log tool will be a web-based app that will help users track their research sessions. I m developing the tool using Ruby on Rails and hope to have a preview version available in a month or so (time willing) and it will be hosted on the website. When the log tool is finished I will then start on another tool in the suite and eventually I hope to have a fully featured toolset that other genealogists can use to aid their own research.