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.

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