Saturday, August 3, 2013

Everyone Benefits from Data Portability

James Tanner doesn't believe genealogy companies have any incentive to make it easy for their customers to exchange data with competing products.
There is absolutely no incentive in the software industry to make your programs work well with others.
Why is it in's interest to easily share all of the data fields in Family Tree Maker with's Family Tree Builder? Doesn't that whole concept ignore the marketing factor of unique features?
He believes that would lose customers if it were easy to export all of your data and import into a competing product. I disagree.

Data Portability Leads to More Value

Genealogy products don't make money by charging to host your tree. Sure, some may charge you to import your tree, but what you're really buying is an experience. You're buying access to records, record matching algorithms, collaboration platforms, DNA, unique visuals, or any other feature that helps you research.

Imagine a world where all genealogy products allowed you to export your data in an industry standard format. You can accurately exchange people, relationships, sources, media, notes, research logs, and other common features. You receive an email notification from MyHeritage saying there is a new record match for one of your brick-wall ancestors. The record reveals the names of this ancestor's parents. After celebrating, you see that MyHeritage doesn't have any more information so you quickly migrate the parent's names over to Ancestry and FamilySearch. You discover more data on Ancestry, and share it again (perhaps even automatically) with FamilySearch and MyHeritage.

I have never paid for a genealogy product precisely because the world I just described doesn't exist. The pain of keeping multiple trees in sync is greater than the benefit of features which products offer (at least for me). If it were trivial to keep all desktop products and online trees in sync, I would start buying. I expect my first genealogy purchase to be DNA testing for this exact reason: I can easily move my data between the competing products and benefit from all of them.

Traditional genealogy products should want these same benefits, especially Ancestry and MyHeritage which sell collaboration and matching features. The more tree data they have from users, the more their features are worth. Making data exchange trivial will lead to more data in their systems and thus more value.

Will products lose customers of data migration is easy? Perhaps. But I think they'll gain more than they lose.

Imagine how difficult it would be if you couldn't call or email somebody who uses a different carrier. "Oh, you have Sprint? I use Verizon. Sorry. I guess we'll have to stick email. !!! You don't use Gmail? How are we going to keep in touch?"

Sadly, that's the current state of affairs in genealogy.

No Trade Secretes Revealed

I need to dispel the myth that enabling data exchange would remove the competitive edge by sharing the innovative features which products use to differentiate themselves.

Let's return to our ideal and imaginary world where genealogy data is easily exchanged. One day, BrightSolid creates a revolutionary way to visualize your family tree. The new visualization has no effect on the data that is exported, so data exchange does not limit the competitive edge that they just gained. Collaboration features fall into this category too. Enabling data exchange does not share the feature with their competitors.

Imagine that Ancestry releases a new feature which makes it trivial to keep and use a research log. Research logs are notorious for being tedious, and Ancestry finally solves that problem. The research log data begins to appear in export files in an industry standard format. Two things would happen when the data is imported into competing products: either it gets thrown away because the product doesn't have a research log, or it gets displayed in the same old tedious manner as before. Using the new feature would reveal more to their competitors than the exported data.

Everyone Benefits from Data Portability

We all want for our genealogical data to be portable. All companies in the industry should want that too.

Genealogy products differentiate themselves with features. Making data portable doesn't change that.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Finding Grandpa York's Family

Over Christmas break, my brother and I took a road trip to Amsterdam, New York. Both sides of my paternal grandfather's family settled there after coming to the states from Ukraine and Poland around 1900. When my grandfather died four years ago, I realized that we knew very little about him and his family. After three years of searching, I successfully contacted cousins of his that were still living in New York. I was determined to visit them.

The last day of our trip was December 21, 2012. The plan was to visit Long Island National Cemetery where my grandfather's father is buried. The hype about the world ending was hard to ignore while traveling into New York City to visit a cemetery, and the obscene amount of tolls and traffic made our nerves worse. But we couldn't have been happier to find our great-grandfather Theodore York buried next to his wife Helen Gertrude Zierak.

The trip to New York was the culmination of a few miraculous events, including finding my great-grandfather's baptismal record from Ukraine, finding my grandfather's cousins, and discovering that my great-great-grandfather went by both Elias and Alexander. After years of research I could fill this blog with stories -- and I'm just getting started.