I have spent the past few days diving into genealogy on the Web, counting just how many generations of coal miners there are in my family. (Three is the current answer.) I have discovered as well that genealogy is a perfect area for Web 2.0 applications. I was using Ancestry.com, a fee-based service, which has a few elements of Web 2.0 but could have a lot more, especially having to do with visualizing geographic data. Here are some of the things that stand out:
- In genealogy, you have large data sets, many of which don’t change but new ones become available. The web is perfect for these applications, a much better approach than CD-based applications and data sets such as Family Tree Maker.
- The user supplies some data and is hoping to get back a lot more data. You enter a person’s name and the system suggests records that might refer to that person. It doesn’t work as well as you’d like but the idea is compelling. If you create a record for a person, the system is on the lookout for more information about them. The task is to validate connections between data sets, which becomes user-generated content along with data added from physical records or memory. Theoretically, you can benefit from the fact that other people are creating family trees, but I didn’t find any user-generated family trees to be useful.
- People do spend a lot of time doing this activity (good or bad) and they are willing to spend money.
- It’s amazing the amount of information you can find, even from a hundred year old census record. The first generation of applications seem to have focused on extracting information from digitized records into databases that can be searched. There is geographic data in census forms but this doesn’t seem to be extracted. The area is still rich for data mining.
- There are opportunities for visualization beyond the conventional family tree, which is a rather limited view of a network of relationships.
- I wanted to know more about the places (cities, towns, streets) where people lived. What’s there today? What kind of place is it or was it? Was it a company town? A boarding house? Genealogy has a large geographic component that’s largely ignored. Wikipedia is as useful as Google Maps in answering some of these questions. (It would be nice to have this linked up but it’s not.)
I wanted to locate on a map the various known addresses of where people had lived. I really wanted the overlay of time to see who lived during which period of time in a particular place. I’d love to be able to step through time by decade and see where people lived. In another case, I wanted to see how far one branch of the family lived from another. I tried using Platial.com for placing links on a map but got frustrated with it. I also wanted to explore the relationships between people and the connection to place over time. I couldn’t do it in Platial but that’s what I was looking for.
I could see a site like Ancestry.com needing to incorporate a geographic toolset as a collaborative app rather than a personal one. I wished, for instance, that Ancestry.com would allow you to export your family tree or allow you to embed it in your own web pages (a la Blogger, you use the site to create content but the site doesn’t have to be where the content lives.) I’d like to imagine that there are individual applications that might create content that you’d like to share with with your family, applications that are drawing on the same underlying data, but producing dynamic components of a website that other users could interact with.
I realized that the genealogy space has lots of examples of geographically rich data sets, which are organized by time.