Feb 132012

RootsTech 2012 was kicked off by keynoter, Jay Velkler, past president and CEO of FamilySearch. Verkler laid out a vision for the future of genealogy and family history as of 2060.  As part of that vision, the GEDCOM X project became publicly launched on 2 February 2012.

The Past:  
The GEDCOM standard was developed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) and released in 1984.  Its latest official update, GEDCOM 5.5, was released in 1996.  Much has changed since then, and GEDCOM is no longer adequate for the task.  This is no surprise, since GEDCOM’s original purpose was to facilitate communication between the users of Personal Ancestral File (PAF) software and FamilySearch.  GEDCOM was developed by and for LDS and its members.  Because GEDCOM was the only viable standard for communicating between genealogy software programs, it became the industry standard as vendors found ways to adapt and extend it capabilities.  Unfortunately, because the LDS was no longer interested in upgrading GEDCOM as a standard protocol for genealogical communication, GEDCOM is now broken as a standard.  Interestingly, most genealogy software programs cannot even read a GEDCOM file that they have created, without losing the integrity of some of their own data.

The Present:  
BetterGEDCOM was formed because of the fragmented ‘standard’ the GEDCOM had become since the LDS chose not to provide any further support or development for it.  Something has to be done.  BetterGEDCOM has been an effort by some significant spokespersons within the broader genealogical community to deal with their frustration, anger, and desire to develop a new, functional universal standard for communication between various genealogy networks and software programs.   The good news is that those involved in this effort are knowledgeable, passionate, and articulate about genealogy.  The bad news is that open discussion among people with diverse opinions (and strong egos) just takes time.  While there may be general agreements about basics, the development of a universal standard requires broad-based agreement.   That has not yet been reached.

Enter FamilySearch and GEDCOM X!  FamilySearch is the 800 pound gorilla in the room. Because the LDS, the Family History Library, and FamilySearch are the largest repository and provider of genealogical information, and because they have been at the task for such a long time, they have a inordinate influence in matters genealogical.  On the one hand, FamilySearch is one of the best friends of the genealogist and family historian.  The amount of data available for free online and at FHL is incredible.  For that we are all thankful to the LDS. On the other hand, FamilySearch has been able to develop its own standards (e.g., GEDCOM) and then present those standards to the genealogical community.  In the long run, that approach has not served us well.  Now we are in an era of open source programming and broad-based collaboration.  “Collaboration” was one of the buzz words at RootsTech 2012.  Broad-based collaboration must happen as standards are being developed, not after they have been announced.

I suspect that the issue here is not so much about who develops the standard, as it is about how standards for a particular community are ‘governed.’  To announce and implement a standard in relative isolation is not collaboration.  From the little that I have seen so far (http://gedcomx.net/;  http://www.gedcomx.org/; https://github.com/FamilySearch/gedcomx) FamilySearch is willing to have input to the standard that they expect to develop.

One of my concerns has been, as follows — Can we trust FamilySearch to develop and implement a standard (GEDCOM X) in relative isolation when, in the past, they developed both the GEDCOM standard and GEDCOM XML (GEDCOM 6.0), finally abandoning them when apparently they no longer fit their needs?  The truth is that FamilySearch is probably the only player in the field that is influential enough and big enough to develop quickly a new standard protocol for transferring our genealogy data between differing desktop and online programs.  My hope is that there is some broad-based initiative to oversee the new standard (GEDCOM X) for the future.  Jay Verkler talked about a community-owned standard.  That is indeed what we need.  For more information about GEDCOM X, check out Tamura Jones’ website, Modern Software Experience.

The Future: The Family History Information Standards Organization (FHISO) was recently formed for the purpose (my best guess) of moving the divergent conversations of BetterGEDCOM toward convegence into a standard.  I also wonder if a part of the intent is to ensure that GEDCOM X, while developed by FamilySearch, will have a broader community-base for its continuing development.   FHISO is too young to assess and evaluate.  It does, however, hold some promise.  It is now the sponsor of BetterGEDCOM .  FHISO intends to be a community owned organization “created to develop standards for the digital representation and sharing of family history and genealogical information.”  My hope is that FHISO, if it truly becomes what it intends to be, and GEDCOM X will forge a strong partnership.  GEDCOM X will develop the standard with broad-based input from FHISO, BetterGEDCOM, and others in the genealogy community. FHISO will represent the on-going oversight of the standard, with input from FamilySearch and the broader genealogy community.  However this develops, there needs to be much more communication than there seems to have been in the past.

There is one huge issue that stands in the way of developing a new standard for sharing the digital sharing of genealogy and family history information.  In a word, the issue is “Metadata.”  Functionally, the primary concern revolves around sources and citations. At RootsTech 2012, D. Joshua Taylor present a coherent, systemic outline of the issues needing to be resolved for the development of a metadata standard for genealogy.  A copy of Taylor’s presentation (“A User’s Perspective: Developing a Universal Metadata Structure for Genealogical Content Providers”) is available for download from the RootsTech website.  I highly recommend it for those of us who want to learn more about the broader conversation about metadata from the perspective of one who is (in RootsTech terminology) a user, not a developer.

The most positive thing that I heard during my week at RootsTech, was Bruce Buzbee’s answer to the question:  “How long will it take you, once a new standard is developed (e.g., GEDCOM X), to incorporate that standard in your software?”  Without any hesitation, the RootsMagician said, “30 days!”  To which John Ohana (Ohana Software) piped in, “I can name that tune in 29 days!”  Louis Kessler (Behold) nodded in agreement. So, contrary to what some of us were led to believe, the bottleneck for change is not necessarily the software vendors.  As long as they are kept in the conversation, they can (and likely will) implement the changes necessitated by new standards in a very short time.

What We Can Do:  

I have seen a lot of messages suggesting that, if we want change, we need to talk with the vendors of our favorite genealogy programs.  That might have been the case in the past as we have wanted our desktop software to provide a better interface for citing sources in accord with Evidence Explained or Cite Your Sources.  Of course, many have done that and done it well; and went the further step to provide their templates for the BetterGEDCOM conversation.  Now we need a different strategy.  I consider myself an avid genealogy hobbyist.  (See my blog, “A Hobbyist’s Genealogy Manifesto.“)  I think we all — hobbyists and professionals, users and developers, old-timers and new-comers — need to stay informed about the continuing development of new standards for genealogy and family history…  Who is in the conversation? Who is not?  What is being said and developed?  and  all this with a question ever-present in our minds:  “How can we interact with those in the conversation and ‘hold their collective feet to the fire?'”  I don’t have an answer to this last question, but I do believe that the responsibility lies with us.  After all, whatever standards are developed, we will be their primary consumers.  I am reminded of a saying from a couple of centuries ago which, paraphrased, would be “Family historians and genealogists were not made for GEDCOM and Metadata standards; GEDCOM and Metadata standards were made for family historians and genealogists.”   So, let your voice be heard in the coming months and years.  And how to do that?  

Perhaps you have some suggestions…

  3 Responses to “RootsTech Learning #3 – GEDCOM X and/or BetterGEDCOM and/or FHISO”

  1. Excellent Article! It should be required reading for end users, developers, bloggers, Professional Genealogists, Family Historians, and Content Providers alike.

    Well Done!

  2. Great post Bart, I worry about FamilySearch owning GEDCOM. How did they get from v5.5 or was it v6.0 to vX Whatever happened to versions VII, VIII and IX. Joking apart genealogy is now too big for one organisation to have a stranglehold over others, perhaps the new Genealogy Interchange Language should be controlled by an ISO. Quote from their web site "ISO enables a consensus to be reached on solutions that meet both the requirements of business and the broader needs of society".

  3. Tony, I agree about 'ownership' of any genealogy standard. My expectation is that FHISO will become the organization that oversees genealogical standards. One of the anomalies is that there has been no organization to recognize and manage standards in the field… leaving "standards" to either a) those with the most "weight" (as in the case of GEDCOM) or b) the slow adoption by the majority of professional (and serious hobbyist) genealogists (e.g., acceptance of ES Mills as the authority on citations). There is something positive to report. It was recently shared with me that "The good news is that GedcomX is also talking with a few of us, so we are working in tandem rather than completely separate." Also, Josh Taylor (link to his paper in the above post) announced a website to encourage discussion of metadata standards. You might want to check it out. The URL is http://gencontent.wikispaces.com. (I didn't have that link when I wrote the post.)

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