Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Monday, April 1, 2013

Family History Standards -- What are we talking about?

During RootsTech 2013 I attended a panel discussion centered on the Family History Information Standards Organisation (FHISO). It appears that the goals of the organization overlap, to some extent, with those of BetterGEDCOM. It is strange, but the topic of standards for genealogy information seemed to generate a measurable amount of tension between the panel and the attendees, although I am sure that there are a lot of people who would rate this topic as one of the least interesting and least controversial they could think of.

Most discussions of genealogical standards start and sometimes stop with a discussion about the suitability and workability of the now old GEDCOM standard. In the course of the panel discussion, GEDCOM X was mentioned several times as a potential competitor to FHISO and even
BetterGEDCOM. GEDCOM X is mainly a FamilySearch program described as:
The GEDCOM X project is FamilySearch's offering to the community of a set of free and open specifications, libraries, and tools defining how genealogical data can be stored, shared, searched, and secured across all phases of the genealogical research process.
For more information on GEDCOM X see their website. Neither BetterGEDCOM nor GEDCOM X were visibly present at the RootsTech 2013 FHISO panel discussion.

What is certain is that standards are a huge concern. Presently, the old GEDCOM is extremely limited in the context of present genealogical data usage and needs. Last updated in around 1996, the so-called standard for data transfer presently fails to support multi-person events (such as a family reunion?). Although GEDCOM is commonly cited as a way to exchange data between various programs, many of the current genealogical database programs have features and store data in a way that involves individual differences that are not easily transferred to another program by GEDCOM.

There is a fundamental question, despite some indication of interest, if the different software developers have a goal of data exchange? Why should competing software programs make it easier for people to switch to a competitor's program? There was some logic in the past when FamilySearch or its predecessors, developed a de facto standard in GEDCOM but remained outside of the commercial genealogical database market. Since that time, FamilySearch has abandoned the model of providing a "free" desktop software program (such as Personal Ancestral File) and moved entirely to Web-based programs. This is true although Personal Ancestral File continues to be freely downloadable, operational and continues to be used by a huge segment of the genealogical community.

I certainly applaud the efforts of FHISO and others to create a genealogical standard, but I see some degree of fragmentation and lack of interest on the part of the greater genealogical community.


  1. Nice comments James. As a FHISO organising Member, I have struggled to understand the reluctance in some parts of the community to supporting standards development - something that I personally feel is long overdue, and a natural progression for a fragmented industry like genealogy.

    I am beginning to think that some people may view "standardisation" simply as an edict being imposed on them, and so automatically turn-off and ignore it. FHISO is quite different to other similar initiatives I'm aware of since the standards are to be developed "by the community" themselves, as opposed to being developed in a closed room and handed to the community on a plate.

    Another risk is that traditional genealogists - those who may use technology to accomplish their research but who are not technologists themselves - disrespect the skills of the technologists who are trying to support them, and vice versa. I hope I'm mistaken here as the future requires input from both disciplines. FHISO is deliberately a "multi-stakeholder" initiative because we passionately believe in that requirement.

  2. James
    I also was at the FHISO meeting at RootsTech. Let me say first that I support the goal of standards in the Genealogy space.

    One of my issue with FHISO is the lack of openness even though they state openness as one of their major goals. For example:

    To the best of my knowledge the meeting at RootsTech was the first public meeting the organization has ever had in over a year of existence.

    I still don't know what they mean by community. Just the large companies and groups that have already signed up?

    Who made the decision that now was the time to call for papers and not 6 months ago or 6 months from now?

    Who will decide which papers are acceptable and which will be ignored?