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Genealogy and Internet technologies
23 September 2004 23:19

In my spare time I like to do genealogical research about my ancestors. It's fascinating to me to get to know the people from whom I descend. Where did they live? What was their trade? How did they eventually come to America? Finding the answers to questions like these give me a glimpse of what these people were like, and what life may have been like for them.

Since around 1997, I've been interested in using the Internet to further my genealogical research. It started with browsing index sites like Cyndi's List, and the USGenWeb Project, and subscribing to surname mailing lists at RootsWeb.

With time I learned how to make web pages, and put together my own little genealogy website (link courtesy of the Wayback machine)featuring my own ancestors. I found tools that would take a GEDCOM file and turn it into a set of linked html pages that a website visitor could use to trace the lines in the GEDCOM. I learned about CGI, and was delighted to find a set of cgis that would let me just upload a single GEDCOM, and they would dynamically generate web pages based on the contents of the GEDCOM. Such tools have become very good as dynamic web technologies have flourished. One prime example of this is phpGedView.

But as my research skills have become better, I have found these utilities to be somewhat inadequate, and for that matter, GEDCOM itself. And so recently, as my web development skills have grown, I have moved down the path of designing my own utility which stores the genealogical data in a Postgresql database. Other such projects are underway as well.

In pondering the various design questions I'm facing in my own project, I've thought about various ways in which I can make my genealogy website much more interactive. An email address of the site maintainer is about as interactive as most genealogy websites (mine included at this point) get. Mailing lists such as those at RootsWeb take things a step further in terms of community and interactivity, but there's still something missing there.

As of the last few months I've been seeing more and more the power of blogging, news feeds, and wiki-style sites. I've been reading Dan Gilmore's We The Media in which he discusses at length the rise of grassroots journalism via the tools of blogging, rss, wikis, and SMS. As I read this and other sites about these emerging technologies, my mind is at work evaluating various combinations of technologies for anything that produces a "Wow, that would be cool if..." type of idea.

And so as web-based genealogy has been on my mind a lot lately, I have been crossing that concept with the ideas of RSS news feeds and wikis, and I think I have come up with some "Wow, that would be cool if" sort of ideas. And that,ultimately, is the main point of this post, to toss into the Meme Pool a few ideas, that I hope will catch some attention, and hopefully, with a little time, some implementation.

First is the idea of combining RSS and web-based genealogy. Think if, say, RootsWeb added an RSS feed to each of its WorldConnect databases. I could then be alerted via my newsreader of whenever any databases of interest were updated. Take that idea one step further, and think of the potential value if I could be alerted via customizable RSS feeds of when info on any individual of interest was updated in any of those databases of interest. Are you listening, Speaking of MyFamily, and more specifically,, one thing I kind of like about is these occasional emails I get from them telling me that they have some new database or document collection in which they have information on the names I am interested in. Now suppose they allowed me to customize an RSS feed that provided the same information. I think I'd like that.

For my own project I plan to eventually allow customizable RSS feeds for any given individual in my database. Thus when I post a new image, or a new source document, or anything about great-grandpa Ephraim Hanks, anybody who has subscribed to the corresponding feed will find out about that addition in their news-reader. This is where I think (at least the near-term) future of online genealogy ought to be headed. Sadly, googling for 'genealogy rss' yields practically nothing in this arena. I think this is perhaps a symptom of many people's dependence on GEDCOM-based tools. GEDCOM served its purpose well, back in the days of 3 1/2-inch floppy disks, but times have changed. Web-based genealogy tools to date are mostly clumsy as far as allowing dynamic updates to online data. Usually, it's a matter of updating your local GEDCOM with PAF, or Family Tree Maker or whatever other piece of software you use, and then uploading a new GEDCOM and re-indexing. Web-based genealogy software needs to be much more dynamic than that, and much more interactive.

How interactive? Lets consider the idea of combining web-based genealogy with Wikis. The success of a mega-wiki like the WikiPedia shows the power of online communities. And ultimately isn't genealogy all about communities and families of individuals?

One feature I'd like to be able to add to my web-based genealogy database system is a wiki area associated with each individual in the database. This way any visitor to my site who has further information about the individual in question can simply add it right there. Add the ability to upload related images and documents and have them immediately (or at least after editorial review) available as part of the page about that individual, and you have something remarkable. Of course since RSS feeds for each individual, or for the entire database itself would be available, myself, and anybody else who is interested can be quickly notified of any changes that have been made. The old way of people sending me material via email, and then having to wait until I have time to add it to the site becomes a thing of the past.

I can only begin to imagine the power of such online genealogical communities. I can see groups of interested people, indeed, families, in every sense of the word, congregating around online trees of shared ancestral data, collaborating, and ultimately creating something more than any one of them could have done with the existing tools of today. Googling for 'genealogy wiki' provides a few promising results, but there's a lot more that needs to be done, yet.


On 28 March 2005 20:46 Gene Hall wrote:
Read your ideas with a great deal of interest. We are developing FamilyTrackers along the lines that you suggest. Perhaps we can collaborate together. Gene

On 11 May 2005 00:22 David Staub wrote:
I just came across your comment on using the internet better in genealogy. I have been doing genealogy for close to 40 years and have been posting on RootsWeb for many years and, more recently, on GenCircles. (I have also been an occasional contributor to Wikipedia and the Encylcopedia of Genealogy.) I agree that there should be some way to use wikis and rss or other feeds in genealogy. I have looked at a lot of genealogy wikis and while I have to applaud people for taking the first step, there is a long way to go to make the concept usable in a large database. I recently posted my thoughts on my genealogy website, so I won't repeat myself but will just add my voice here to second what you have said.

On 10 August 2005 13:05 Jordan Gunderson wrote:
Cool site, Daniel. I thought you and your readers might be interested that Paul Allen (founder of,, and many other companies [1]) will probably be speaking at the Utah Valley Linux Users Group [2] sometime this semester. We had him scheduled for last semester, but regretfully it fell through. We will also have Adam Augustine (who does IT for the church) come talk to us about some of the open source projects that the LDS church is involved with. Dates are TBA, but we have an RSS feed if you want to add it to your site. [1] [2]

True love begins when the needs of others become more important than your own.
The practice of true love begets true happiness


Daniel Hanks

I'm a system administrator working for Omniture

Interested in

digital archival
digital libraries
web applications
web infrastructure
distributed storage

among other things . . .


Pamela Hanks

is an excellent storyteller.

(She also happens to be my wife :-)

A storyteller makes a wonderful and unique addition to family, school, church or other group events. Schedule her for your next gathering.
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