Monday, November 21, 2011

What's "Bad" About Genealogy Software?

Louis Kessler, on the Louis Kessler's Behold blog, posted 6 Bad Things About Today’s Genealogy Software yesterday.  Louis has been discussing source information in GEDCOM files and the different programs that create custom GEDCOM tags to transmit their source template information.  There has been a discussion about this post on Google Plus - see the thread here.  I have not used Louis Kessler's Behold software program yet, so I don't understand the format, navigation, etc. of that program.

N.P. Maling, on his Sea Genes blog, posted Monday Madness – Response to Louis Kessler’s 6 Bad Things which discusses the six "bad things," and noted how The Master Genealogist software shapes up against Louis's six points.

I want to chime in with my own views here, based on my experiences with Family Tree Maker 16, Family Tree Maker 2012, Legacy Family Tree 7, and RootsMagic 4:

1.  "They make you enter your data into forms and require you run reports to see (some of) your data."

Every relational database has fields in forms for data entry.  It has to.  Using the current software, I can see a family group, see a pedigree chart, see a person's Fact list, etc. see an Index of persons, either on screen or with one click.  There's only so much space on a screen for readable information, and I think that the current software does a pretty good job of navigation and providing summaries of persons and vital record facts.

The reports (and charts) I use are very useful to see more of the information than can be shown on one screen.  They are also standard genealogy reports and charts, for the most part, and many are very useful.

2.  "They are person-centric, rather than source-centric."

Which came first, the Person or the Source? 

Doesn't the software programs have to be person-centric?  If I start out with a Source, and no persons in my database, I need to create persons that have events that the Source refers to. 

With a set of related persons, I can create one source and link it to all of the Facts that apply to each of the persons involved.

3.  "They emphasize formatting your citations correctly, rather than documenting your sources correctly"

Documenting your sources is the goal of most researchers (at least it's my goal), but not everyone comes to genealogy research with a knowledge of the necessity of documenting them or the method of documenting them.  I think that using the source citation templates is helpful - they highlight the information required and puts the information into the proper format.  It's a lot easier to use the source templates to create a properly formatted source citation than it is to create a "free-form" source unless the user has Evidence! Explained next to their keyboard.

If it's too hard, people won't do it.  Ergo, the source templates.

I think that the software program creators want to encourage the use of source citation templates, and have programmed, generally, the Evidence! Explained templates.  There's a learning process to creating properly formatted source citations.  I think that the source templates are the biggest boon to source citation documentation.

4."They promote merging other people’s data with yours, rather than keeping them separate and virtually merging"

The genealogy software programs, and online family tree databases, have enabled transfer of data between different software programs and websites by adhering (for the most part) to the GEDCOM standards set back in the 1980s.

The capability does encourage merging information and persons, and this is especially true on shared family trees.

I don't understand "virtual merging" and I'm sure that Louis will explain it to me.

5. "They don’t adhere to GEDCOM standards, thereby not allowing you to correctly transfer your data between programs."

The genealogy software programs I use adhere to most GEDCOM standards - maybe 99% of them.  However, most of the programs have had to create additional GEDCOM tags in order to keep up with the Source Citation templates and links to Media items (which were not considered when the GEDCOM standard was defined). 

Unfortunately, each program has different source templates, and creates different custom GEDCOM tags, for their Source templates.  This is, to me, the biggest problem in getting to a Better GEDCOM standard. 

So, we have the situation where the GEDCOM standard for source citations is obsolete and the implementation of work-arounds by the different software programs is not standardized.  Ergo, one program can't read the GEDCOM from another program

6."They try to do everything, except the one thing you want them to do: Help you quickly and easily record your data, evidence and conclusions and let you make use of them"

The current genealogy software programs I use let me quickly record the names, dates and locations for events in persons' lives.  I can create text notes to describe a person's family history, can create source citations to reference the documents that support those facts, and I can create research notes (for the person or for an event) to discuss the evidence obtained and the conclusions drawn.  I can attach Media items to a Person or to a Fact/event.  I can create many types of reports and charts to convey my genealogy information in text and graphics.  All of these tasks are easy for a researcher to perform after progressing along a learning curve for the specific software.  All for a price of $20 to $40 (until there is a major upgrade).

However, I doubt that many researchers do the last two tasks listed - discuss evidence and draw conclusions - a "proof argument" - in a rigorous manner.  I admit that I don't, but I'm trying to do it with my "brick wall ancestors" as a start. 

The genealogy software programs are in a competitive field - there are enough with a significant market share that they have to keep improving their product and offer new and innovative features with each new release. 

Hopefully, Louis will add to his list with some explanations and examples of what he sees in the genealogy software world, and how Behold will be the best-ever genea-ware. 

I really look forward to seeing and perhaps using Louis Kessler's Behold genealogy software program. My understanding is that he is coming close to releasing Version 1.0.  

I admit to being not the sharpest fork in the drawer, and being hindered by a lack of imagination and programming experience.  So maybe I've missed something in Louis's comments.

What problems do you, my readers, see with genealogy software?  I keep a list of my own problems with each program and occasionally share them.

UPDATED 22 November 7:30 p.m.:  Louis Kessler has posted A Reply To Randy that claims that his Behold! program is significantly different from all the other genealogy management programs.   I look forward to trying it out and reporting on it!


Louis Kessler said...


You've known about Behold for years. How come you've not tried it yet?


Geolover said...

Thank you, Randy, for this exploration.

I do think that Louis Kessler's #2 and #6 are closely linked. What you say about putting your proof argument in research notes, under #6, is key to a weakness in the software. Computers do not have brains, but I think there should be a better way to correlate specific pieces of the picture with specific evidence. This also relates to the distinction (and relationship) between "source" and "evidence," which the mechanics of source-citation does not address.

When I first started seriously investigating one maternal line, I had one ancestral name. Going to the Courthouses, I found a birth record for him and his marriage record and death record plus his parents' 1846 marriage record. I thus had evidence of his parents' identities, with rough estimates about their dates of birth, which were prior to birth records' creation. Going back home, I searched in vain for the parental nuclear family in US Census enumerations. The father was not enumerated for 1850, and was enumerated "probably" (the only person by the same first name in the vicinity) with a host of siblings only for 1860 in his parents' household - his wife and children not listed (and they were not enumerated elsewhere for 1860).

Back in the Courthouse, I found an estate record for the parent's father which detailed the fatherless children's identities in partition of land, including my original known-ancestor. There was no death record for the landed grandfather or for his son. The grandfather's partitioned land was recorded as a conveyance by a possible father (known ancestor's GGF). The name of the GGF was a very common one in the area, as noted in land records. There was an 1864 death record for one, an 1841 will and estate record for another, an 1820-probated will and associated land record for a third.

These individuals were thus represented by ~records~, with terminal dates represented and some more or less family lists for those leaving wills.

Very detailed study of the land records, the land tax lists which correlated land and owners and the County personalty tax records allowed gradually assigning particular records to particular same-named individuals. After discovery of a Court record indicating that the earliest testator had a land interest in a different State I was able to find more records filling in distinctions: that this same man's son was the one who died in 1864 and the 1841 testator was his son-in-law.

Where we don't already have known biographies, this collation of evidence from records is needed. The genealogy programs don't help much with this process.

Oh, and my originally known ancestor's father? He died while in Civil War service, an item not mentioned in Courthouse records at all, except hinted at in fiduciary accounts of the Guardian for his children who received stipends until marriage or reaching age 16.

Louis Kessler said...

See my Reply to Randy: