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Dale Dougherty

Dale Dougherty

Genealogy Too

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, 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. People do spend a lot of time doing this activity (good or bad) and they are willing to spend money.
  4. 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.
  5. There are opportunities for visualization beyond the conventional family tree, which is a rather limited view of a network of relationships.
  6. 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 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 needing to incorporate a geographic toolset as a collaborative app rather than a personal one. I wished, for instance, that 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.

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Comments: 10

ldsWebguy   [12.21.06 11:46 AM]

Another great free site for researching your family history is

Crash Solo   [12.21.06 04:34 PM]

As far as historical maps go, our library subscribes to Sanborn Maps, which have historical maps of cities of various ages, some dating back to 1866. The home page of their database is

Another area of data mining that many of our local genealogists make use of are Polk City directories, which date back to early 20th century, and list existing addresses in the city, who lived there, what they did, etc.

Mickey   [12.22.06 10:14 AM]

I've found street names and addresses of some of my ancestors on Census Records. My Grandfather was
a Coal Miner in Glen Lyon Pa in ealy 1900's. Using
Google I found a Photo of the Mine he worked in. There was a history of the town.I emailed a thank you note to the author and asked for suggestion re finding info on my Polish Grand Father hoping to find his parents names & place of birth in Russia-Poland.There may have been a map.

Kenyatta   [12.23.06 12:34 PM]

As a genealogist and Web 2.0 enthusiast, I am often very frustrated by the lack of web based technology in genealogy. I am hoping to change that in 2007 with a few web 2.0 projects focused on genealogy and family health history. Rootsmagic recently released Family Atlas which allows users to trace family migrations and pinpoint the sites of family events. You can also create customized maps to share with your family. Although its a not a web based program, its a great start to mapping your ancestors.

deisnor   [12.25.06 10:20 PM]

sorry you had a hard time Dale. mapmaking improvements imminent but would love to talk to you about your experience on our site and aspirations with mapping and genealogy. maybe next week?

scharlau   [12.28.06 09:10 AM]

Another source of genealogical information that hasn't been made readily accessible is the data published over the past century-and-a-half in thousands of small-town newspapers. Libraries have done their best to preserve this information through microfilm and microfiche, but the process of searching is difficult. The information found in those newspaper items are usually brief, but can provide some fascinating genealogical detail. The accurate and efficient digitization of that gigantic volume of data will be a challenge.

ImNotQuiteJack   [01.10.07 10:43 AM]

I've been thinking about how to incorporate family history into a Timeline using Simile from MIT. Datapoints would include births, deaths, marriages, etc.

Bob Coret   [01.11.07 12:13 PM]

The Dutch genealogy publishing site Genealogie Online uses the Simile timeline, see for example

There's also some "web 2.0" (more Ajax) like features like "snel zoeken" (fast search) which provides suggestions for names to search while you type, see


Walter   [01.16.07 03:28 PM]

Currently I'm working on visualizations of genealogy data sets. I built an interface which enables you to explore family trees:

Genealogist   [03.28.07 09:21 AM]

Check out - its a brand new, very web 2.0 genealogy site - kinda like MySpace for dead people.

It also has a new "Place Page" feature that lets users create pages for their ancestors hometowns, filled with photos and information from people who have been there and letting those who haven't go on a sort of virtual tour.

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