Sunday, June 12, 2011

Genealogy Software Devs: It's MY Data!

I've been following Randy Seaver's experiments with source citations and data sharing with some interest.  If you haven't been reading, I suggest you go over to Genea-Musings and check out his Source Citation Saga, an ongoing process of trying to determine the best way to be able to share his genealogy data with others, without losing or mangling the data in any way.  The gist of the results so far is that there is no major genealogy software that properly exports a database to at least a few other major genealogy softwares without either losing or mangling some of the data.  Even the venerable GEDCOM "standard" doesn't help, as it's not kept pace with developments, and genealogy software vendors invariably extend the data such that there are no GEDCOM equivalents to export, necessitating non-standard fields which are not guaranteed to import into any other software properly.

That said, here's an open letter to the genealogy software vendors. 

Dear Genealogy Software Vendors:

Thank you for creating such wonderful tools to help me find and record my family history!  I really find the computer to be of great value when trying to record and organize my information, and your software makes it so much easier than if I had to dump it into text or spreadsheet files to work with it.

But there's a problem: I can't reliably share my data with my cousins!  They use someone else's software, and every time I try to give them my data, they either can't import it, or some of the data gets corrupted so that they need to spend endless hours cleaning up citations and so forth.  And when they try to send data to me, I have the same problem.  I've already spent so many hours collecting this data that I don't have the additional time it would take to clean up every time someone sends me a family addition.

It's my understanding that data transfers are "simply" a matter of making sure the databases "line up", so to speak, that is, the data exported gets imported into the same field on the other end.  This shouldn't be all that difficult, but it would require cooperation between vendors to make sure the format was standardized and worked correctly.  I realize that "simply" is relative, and it will take some effort, but surely you have developers talented enough to make this happen? 

So what's the problem?  Yes, I see the issue of wanting to retain your customers on your product, and making it difficult to move away is a sort of lock-in.  You know what?  YOUR CUSTOMERS DO NOT LIKE THIS.  For one thing, if you change versions, and my obsolete computer cannot handle the new one, what do I do?  What if the new version does things, or works in a way I cannot deal with, or do not like?  What if I simply find a software I like better?  I can switch to some other software, yes, but now my data is held hostage in a software that will not allow me to export it without spending many hours repairing the damage.  Computers are supposed to make data sharing easy!  This is unacceptable.

If you wish to keep me as a customer, please understand that this issue is becoming important enough that it is one of the main things I am looking for in my genealogy software going forward.  I will not be purchasing software without this being addressed!  I realize it is unreasonable of me to expect to transfer data to dozens of different, closed, data formats.  But if you all insist on retaining your custom formats, then I'd better be able to transfer WITHOUT losing or mangling data, to at least half a dozen of the major players' packages.  GEDCOM is no longer a viable option! 

Okay, so maybe you're willing to work on an open standard, to which all of the vendors can standardize, and contribute.  There are at least a couple of projects out there trying to do just that.  One of them is the Build A Better GEDCOM Project.  I don't insist it be this particular project, although I would encourage it.

If you want to keep me as a customer, don't imprison me.  The old saw about catching more flies with honey than with vinegar is true.  Provide better features.  Provide nicer charting.  Let me share my data with my family.  Give me a better customer experience, I'll stay with you.  Don't fence me in!

Thanks for listening,
Daniel Dillman

If you feel the same way, maybe you can write your own open letter to the software vendors.  Put it in the comments below, or on your own blog.  This issue really is important enough that we need to make it known in no uncertain terms that this needs to be addressed now.

This and all other articles on this blog are © copyright 2011 by Daniel G. Dillman

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