Saturday, June 18, 2011

Mundia -- yet another flawed family history site

With the recent addition of another 8 generations to our Ellwood family tree, all sorts of possibilities opened up. People we had been in touch with before, but had sadly concluded were not related, might prove to be related after all. So we set about looking on the Web for other family history researchers who could possibly be related. One of the sites that came up was

This is a site where people can have their family tree online, either uploading a GEDCOM file or by adding people one by one. One advantage is that it seems to give access to all the trees for those who can't afford to subscribe to

There we found lots of people with Ellwoods in their tree.

That was exciting, but the excitement didn't last long.

The site is clunky and awkward to navigate, and when you look for a family (Ellwood, in our case) it shows a list of trees, and then another list, but with nothing to distinguish one from another. You can't look at the first one on the list, then go back and look at the second, and so on. No, you have to repeat the search over, and perhaps end up looking at the same tree you looked at previously, without realising it. On most of the screens there is no identifying information to show who created the tree. But it does encourage you to copy and paste people from that tree to your own, without any indication of the source. We quickly discovered that a lot of people had done just that, sometimes, apparently with entire trees -- when you are shown three trees with 10247 members, one beginsd to get just a little bit suspicious. There were lots of inaccuracies. People had joined one family to another with improbable or wrong connections, and others had copied the errors wholesale, and the site seems to encourage this.

It does warn you that it is a beta site, and so they do ask for feedback from users. Here is the feedback I sent them

The whole experience of Mundia is a bit like feeling one's way in the dark, and very frustrating.

You are directed (in the dark) to a group of objects. You can feel them, and chose one and turn on the light to look at it, but when you put it back on the shelf the light goes off again, and there is no way you can know whether you have picked up the same object, or one of the others. There is no way of comparing two objects to know which is the original or which is the copy.

The objects are "trees". You enter a person to search for, and are shown a list of "trees" with that person. About five of them have exactly 10542 people in them. So which is the original and which are the copies? There's no point in contacting the owner if they have just copied everything from somewhere else. There is no identifying information in the list to show which is which, so once you put a "tree" back on the shelf the light goes off, and you might pick up the same one five times.

The "home" page for each user is singularly uninformative. There's nothing to say which families you are interested in and how you connect to them. There isn't even a list of links to web pages where the person can give more details. The whole thing seems to be designed to encourage bad "copy and paste" genealogy.

As a bare minimum of improvements I suggest the following:

  1. On the user profile, allow an explanation of the main familties being researched, or that the person links to, and a space for a link to the person's web page or blog.
  2. When a list of "trees" is shown, provide enough identifying information so that you can know whether you have already looked at it -- even the owner's user name.
  3. Provide an easy way of GEDCOM import and export, with the export clearly showing which "tree" the information came from in the source tag.

Even more concerning, however, is the terms of service, which include the following:

For each item of content that you post, you grant to us and our affiliates a world-wide, royalty free, fully paid-up, non-exclusive, perpetual, irrevocable, transferable, and fully sublicensable (including to other Website users) license, without additional consideration to you or any third party, to: (i) reproduce, distribute, make available, transmit, communicate to the public, perform and display (publicly or otherwise), edit, modify, adapt, create derivative works from and otherwise use such content, in any format or media now known or later developed; (ii) exercise all trademark, publicity and other proprietary rights with regard to such content; (iii) use your name, photograph, portrait, picture, voice, likeness and biographical information as provided by you in connection with your content for the Service, in each case, in connection with your content. For example, after your registration or subscription has ended, we may continue to use and display any content that you previously posted, and other users may continue may access, change, edit, add to, subtract from or otherwise amend such content. If you do not want to grant us the rights set out in these Terms of Use, please do not post any content on the Website.

and then this

Once you upload content to the Website, it may become accessible by all persons accessing the Website or any websites in the Website Group. Other Website users may be able to copy, download, store, edit, change or delete certain content that you post. You agree that other users may access your family tree and may add to, subtract from or otherwise amend your family tree (including information and other content you include in your family tree).

And certain aspects of their privacy policy are also cause for concern:

We may use the personal information you provide:
  • to an Affiliate or other third party in the event of any reorganization, merger, sale, joint venture, assignment, transfer or other disposition of all or any portion of our business, assets or stock (including, without limitation, in connection with any bankruptcy or similar proceedings); or
  • as we believe to be appropriate: (a) under applicable law or regulations (including laws outside your country of residence);

I do not believe it to be in the interests of genealogical and family history reasearch to encourage "cut and paste" genealogy, without reference to the source of the information. The site appears to be designed in such a way as to "lock people in", and make it difficult to communicate with fellow researchers other than through the site itself. Their privacy policy makes your personal information freely available to their affiliates for marketing and promotional purposes, but not to your fellow researchers to facilitate collaborative research.

In many such sites the commercial interests of making a profit appear to override the need to make them useful to researchers. This will tend to drive away serious genealogy researchers. I, for one, will not put any content there, nor will I invite any members of my family to join it until they have made the minimum improvements I have sugested above. But I get the impression that they won't make those improvements, and they don't care. The target market is people who think that they can find their "family tree" on line and so just about any tree will do. Quantity takes precedence over quality, because quantity makes more money.

I thought and MyHeritage were bad, but this one takes the cake!

And other genealogical bloggers, who discovered the site earlier than I did, also seem to have doubts about it:
For a more positive evaluation of these sites see:

One of the positive points some people mention is that on these sites you can "create your family tree for free". But a far better way to do it, and equally "free" is to download a free genealogy program like Legacy and do it on your own computer, and get it right before making your own boo-boos public and spreading them like genealogiy viruses on line.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Strays databases and indexes

Some family history societies have collected indexes of "strays" - people whose records are found in unexpected places, without any local links. So, for example, someone who died or was buried far from home, or a family that stayed in a place for only a short time and then moved on, would be listed as a stray, and the index might help people in other places with "missing" family members. These societies often have a "strays coordinator" to maintain the index, do lookups and so on. See, for example, here, here and here.

I am involved in a number of genealogy mailing lists hosted by Yahoogroups, and one of the facilities they offer is the creation of databases by members.

I am thinking of creating a database for people to record strays on these sites, and thought I would ask for advice on what to include in such a database, especially from those who may have had some experience of strays indexes.

The Yahoogroups databases are limited to 10 fields, so one needs to give some thought to what should go in them. I am thinking of the following:

  1. Name of the principal person (Surname, Firstnames)
  2. Date (of record or event, in YYYY-MM-DD format)
  3. Place (of record or event)
  4. Place of origin of the person (if mentioned)
  5. Relations of the person (if mentioned)
  6. Source (newspaper, tombstone, church record etc.)
  7. Notes (any other information about the person or record)
  8. Informant (name of person who entered record, and contact info)
  9. Date record entered.

But people who have more experience of strays indexes might have better ideas, and that is what I am soliciting now.

The data from Yahoogroups databases can be downloaded in comma-delimited format, for importing into other databases, spreadsheets etc. It can also be filtered, so that only records meeting certain criteria can be downloaded. This would make it possible to combine data from strays lists in different Yahoo groups into a central database, or to be sent to strays coordinators in various places.

I wonder if there is a coordinator of strays coordinators -- a kind of super coordinator, or if there has been any discussion of standards for strays databases? I have no desire to reinvent the wheel, so if there is such a standard, I'd like the proposed strays databases to adhere to it as closely as possible.

Comments and suggestions welcome.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Keeping in touch: social media and genealogy

One of the problems of family history research is keeping in touch with other family members and researchers. It's a lot easier now that it was a generation ago. Computer networking and internetworking have given us a lot more tools for keeping in touch than were available 30 years ago. The question is, which tool is the best for the job?

Social Networks

Nowadays most people think first of Facebook, and possibly other social networks, like Orkut and MySpace, but Facebook has become the best-known one.

I look through some of the families in my database, people I entered years ago, and see that the children who were 9 or 10 years old then are now in their 20s and 30s. They may have married and have children of their own. I make a new discovery about earlier generations of the family, and want to being the latest generation up to date. How do I find them if they've moved from the snail mail address I wrote to in 1989, or the e-mail address I used in 1993 bounces?

I look in Facebook, enter the names of the children, and chances are that at least one of them is on Facebook. I look at their friends, and chances are I find cousins.

A case in point is my mother's first cousins in Scotland. She met them for the first and only time when her mother took her there in 1913. After that it was exchanges of Christmas cards and family photos, and when her mother died in 1946 even that stopped. Twenty years later, in 1966, I went to the UK to study, and made contact with one of my mother's cousins and when she came on her first overseas trip since she was three years old, we had a sort of family reunion in Glasgow, and visited the family graves in Girvan in Ayrshire.

Ten years later I was married and had become interested in family history and so wrote to the cousins and asked for details of names and dates and places, and in the 1980s entered those into a computer program. In entering them, I saw that some were missing, or may have grown up, and I wrote again, and people sent photos of the teenagers who had been toddlers when I first met them. Then my mother's cousin whom I'd stayed in touch with died, and there was a family quarrel, and we lost touch again. But I enter the names of the ones who were toddlers in 1986, and find that some of them are on Facebook, and look at their friends, and find other cousins who are also on Facebook.

So Facebook is an excellent tool for getting back in touch. It's what it was created for, and what it does best.

But the creators of Facebook want you to use it all the time. The more you use it, the more advertising revenue they get. So they try to make Facebook do everything, or at least give the impression that it does. So they have "applications", including seversl genealogical ones, that encourage you to use Facebook as the base for all your Internet activity. The problem is that there are too many genealogical applocations, and most of them aren't very good. And if you enter your information in one of them, and your cousin is using another of them, you'll be duplicating work in a very wasteful way. Many people start entering stuff, and then lose interest and go and throw sheep, and when that palls, raise chickens in Farmville and so on. Much of it makes lots of money for Facebook, and for the third-party application providers (many of whom are simply getting your information and that of your friends to sell to advertisers, spammers etc).

Some have created family "groups". When they start, there is often a flurry of activity, and when it dies down, it's hard to even find the group again.

But there are other tools than social networks. Social networks are good for getting in touch, but not so good for keeping in touch. Facebook's algorithm for what it shows you of what your friends put on Facebook is a mystery known only to the owners. You may put some information on Facebook that some of your friends will see, and others will not. The chances are that the ones who are most interested will miss it, and the ones who are least interested will have it shoved in their faces.

Message Boards

One of the tools you can use for genealogical queries is message boards. These are usually divided either by surname or by geographical area, or sometimes by subject. Examples are Rootsweb, and Curious Fox.

There are some knowledgeable people out there, and very often they can help with queries. The queries show up in search engines, and so you might find that someone comes across your query years later, and has the answer. A problem is that there are too many message boards in too many places. You can't keep track of them all, though search engines do help.

If you post queries on message boards, though, don't just ask for help. Look at other people's queries to see if you can help them. You yourself are among the knowledgeable people out there, and might know things that no one else does.

Message boards can also be places for sharing information, like documents and family trees. Rootsweb allows you to put in the text of documents like wills and the like.

Mailing lists and Newsgroups

One of the older tools is mailing lists. Mailing lists have been around from the early days of the Internet, long before the World Wide Web, and are still useful.

Recently we discovered a couple of researchers into the Ellwood family who enabled us to link to other people's research. Bingo! Eight generations of Ellwoods in one fell swoop. Nine, if you count the Dobson branch, which goes back one generation further.

With eight more generations going back, the circle of people who might be related expands enormously. In the past we've been in contact with Ellwood researchers and have had to say that we see no connection between their family and ours. But now there is a much greater possibility of finding links. So suddenly there is a flurry of e-mails to different Ellwood researchers. But we write to one person who writes to another who replies to my wife, and my wife Val and I are forwarding e-mail messages to each other and forwarding the replies we receive, and it is very confusing. The answer is a mailing list. Send one message to the list, and all members see it, and they can all see all the replies too. If you're an Ellwood researcher, and are reading this, you can find out all about the Ellwood list here. There are also forums for Bagot, Cottam, Devantier and Growdon. Enter your surname(s) of interest in the search box on those sites, and see if there is one for your families of interest. If not, start one.

If you have your own Internet server, you can start your own mailing list right there, but if you don't, there are a number of public list servers: YahooGroups, Rootsweb and GoogleGroups, for example.

Rootsweb is specifically for genealogical mailing lists, so it is a good place to start looking to see if there is a list that covers your areas of interest.

Yahoogroups offers some additional services that are useful to genealogists, such as a home page for the group, with facilities for exchanging files, posting photos, creating databases and more. These facilities make it especially useful to genealogists -- members of the group can post GEDCOM files for others to download and comment on. You can create a database of stray and unlinked family members, and so on.

Googlegroups is the least useful of the three, but it does provide links to some genealogy newsgroups, which some may find useful. Many ISPs have stopped providing access to news services (though usually not reducing their fees for the reduction in service). But there are also free News servers, like Eternal September. It is better to access newsgroups like soc.genealogy.britain with a proper newsreader than through GoogleGroups. If you don't have a proper newsreader you could always try Free Agent, which, if you upgrade to the paid version, also doubles as an e-mail reader.

So, to summarise, then: use social networks, like Facebook, for getting in touch, but use mailing lists for keeping in touch with other researchers and serious research work.