Friday, December 18, 2009

My vision for genealogy data entry

If I had written a Genea-Santa letter, I would have asked for perfect genealogy software. One of the features of my utopian software (and there's a long list) is source-based data entry.

Here's my thinking... 
Sources are important. I don't enter information into my genealogy software unless I have a source. That source may be something as simple as a note I write to myself (eg noting a conversation with a relative) but it will be something I can use to identify where a particular piece of information came from, and how reliable that information is likely to be.

A lot of the source documentation we use come in forms of one sort or another. Births, deaths, marriages, census information - all entered into forms.

When it comes time to do data entry, there I am sitting in front of my computer with a source document in my hand or on my screen. It's quite likely that the information will be recorded in a form that I have seen before, and I will see again. Typically, I will set up a source record and lock it on while I am entering the data. Then it's a matter of going through the source document in a systematic way, navigating to the appropriate person in my database, and adding or editing events in the person's life.

The way I described it, it sounds pretty efficient. It's not really. There's an awful lot of moving from person to person, editing a bit, moving around again, finding your place on the form, not to mention re-entering the same information over and again (eg an address on a census form). Every time you move around you are distracted from where you are on the form. Every time you have to enter a piece of information again, you may enter it differently. If you want to check over your data entry you have to navigate around all over again.

What if you enter the information only to realise you had the wrong person? Who would have thought there could be more than one John Smith?! Then you have to track down and undo all those little changes you made.


It's slow. It's prone to error. It's hard to check. It's hard to undo.

A feature of my imaginary ideal genealogy software is the ability to enter data, where possible, in the template of the source document. The act of entering the data should generate all the citation details (maybe add a field or two for anything relevant not on the form itself, eg repository) and should handle the data entry. You would enter the data once.  Perhaps I'm fundamentally lazy, but if I have typed something in once, I don't want to have to type it in again.

Data entry would be quick and easy because you would not have to constantly find your place in the database and in the source document again. It would be very clear if any fact had been missed, because you would see an empty field in your template. It would be easy to check the data for errors because it's all there in one place looking much like the source document.

My ideal software would have an easy way to identify individuals in the document as individuals who are already in the database, or as new people to add. You wouldn't have to come up with some elaborate identification scheme. If you later decided that the source didn't refer to that person, you should just be able to unlink that identification without having to change anything else.

The software should make some sensible assumptions about how the information in the source document fits together and build the lineage links for you on that basis - but you should be able to review and override those assumptions if you wish. It should also be easy to add in any information from the source that is not standard for the template. You should also be able to add information from other sources that don't come neatly presented in a form.

It seems like a big ask, which makes this post seem like a rant... but guess what? Just under two weeks ago I stumbled across a genealogy package I hadn't heard of before. It promised source-based data entry along the lines I describe. I've been having a ball playing with the trial version for nearly two weeks now. While it's not perfect, I think it's interesting enough to write about in my next post...

That's one element of my ideal for genealogy software. Is there a genealogy software feature that seems so obvious and sensible to you that you just can't understand why anyone hasn't done it (to your satisfaction) before?!

10 comments:

  1. Shelley

    Great post and I believe that over the next few years the issue of source citations will continue to be a hot button for intermediate and advanced genealogists.

    Have you seen Mark Tucker's posts on a proposal of a new method? It is a bit technical but he does a good job of explaining it.

    http://www.thinkgenealogy.com/2009/06/24/introduction-to-mets/

    ReplyDelete
  2. What we need is an accounting programmer who does genealogy. In Excel spreadsheets and Access Databases, there are ways to lock cells so they require 'validation" ie you always have to enter that cell's data in a specific form. For accounting purpose it works great and you can even provide drop down lists. Now all Ineed is another 4 years of school and I could do it. LOL (I'm 61 so it's not highly likely it would be me)
    Great Blog post BTW!

    ReplyDelete
  3. I'm looking for a genealogy program that allows me to enter the notes in a rich format, specifically one that can include graphics (including source links). Probably the best would be a program that allows the notes to be entered in html format. Anyone know of a software package that supports this?

    thanks,
    gary

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thomas - Thanks, and thanks for the web link. I hadn't seen it before. As the number of electronic resources skyrockets a consistent way of describing and maintaining them is a pressing need!

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  5. Beth - funny you should mention that... No, I'm not an accounting programmer but my day job does involve enough data analysis and interpretation (and avoidance of unnecessary data entry at all costs!) that it has obviously influenced my way of thinking when it comes to genealogy!!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hi Gary, thanks for stopping by. Sorry, I can't help you there but I am sure there are plenty of packages that would do what you want. Maybe try asking at the soc.genealogy.computing newsgroup/mailing list?

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hi Shelly,

    I was going through your article. It is interesting to read. I think the way you described about the data entry is way too old. I have been working on UK and Italy, Genealogy based projects for several years and find the entry part quiet easy.

    We can use the standard documentation tools like an excel or access to record the data. A database would serve the purpose of recording it.

    Entry can be simplified using search masters and entry helper software. We have been studying the problems faced in the process and have developed several software that ease the process.

    We also come across several BMD records(Birth Marriage and Death) records that are too hard to read being old, but technology and process optimizations have enabled to capture them with ease.

    You need to know the specifics you need to record for any genealogy project, then shape the database to reflect the fields. Common names and verification entries can be entered separately validating search software.

    I hope it was of some help. If you have any doubts or need help in your process don't hesitate to contact me. You can post a reply to the comment in your blog and I will respond.

    Thanks,
    Sajith

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hi Shelly,

    I was going through your article. It is interesting to read. I think the way you described about the data entry is way too old. I have been working on UK and Italy, Genealogy based projects for several years and find the entry part quiet easy.

    We can use the standard documentation tools like an excel or access to record the data. A database would serve the purpose of recording it.

    Entry can be simplified using search masters and entry helper software. We have been studying the problems faced in the process and have developed several software that ease the process.

    We also come across several BMD records(Birth Marriage and Death) records that are too hard to read being old, but technology and process optimizations have enabled to capture them with ease.

    You need to know the specifics you need to record for any genealogy project, then shape the database to reflect the fields. Common names and verification entries can be entered separately validating search software.

    I hope it was of some help. If you have any doubts or need help in your process don't hesitate to contact me. You can post a reply to the comment in your blog and I will respond.

    Thanks,
    Sajith

    ReplyDelete
  9. I'm looking for a genealogy program that allows me to enter the notes in a rich format, specifically one that can include graphics (including source links). Probably the best would be a program that allows the notes to be entered in html format. Anyone know of a software package that supports this?

    thanks,
    gary

    ReplyDelete
  10. Shelley

    Great post and I believe that over the next few years the issue of source citations will continue to be a hot button for intermediate and advanced genealogists.

    Have you seen Mark Tucker's posts on a proposal of a new method? It is a bit technical but he does a good job of explaining it.

    http://www.thinkgenealogy.com/2009/06/24/introduction-to-mets/

    ReplyDelete