We received another great comment from one of our pre-release subscribers (if you’re interested in what we’re up to, you can sign up here: http://www.heirloomsoftware.com/pre-release/).  The comment came about as a result of a post we put on our blog mentioning how we were planning on making it easy to import from other software programs into Origins (see Why? for the post). 

The comment referenced a small, but significant problem in genealogy – collecting souls.  This boils down to people who are looking to get as many names into their tree as possible, as quickly as possible, without necessarily verifying that they are actually related to the people behind those names.  It is done for many reasons and in many ways; often while wrapped up in the excitement of a new find, and usually includes importing people from sources available on the Internet.  The intentions of the researcher are not nefarious, and often it’s not a result of laziness, either.  It’s a person who has found some information and wants to capture it before it is lost again.  They tell themselves that they will research the new information later to verify it, but never quite get around to it.  Unfortunately, the problem then snowballs.

As software developers and family historians, we’re conflicted.  We can see both sides of this situation.  Our thoughts come down to two major points:

  1. We create software to make genealogical research easier & better.  Research cannot happen in a vacuum so we will not restrict the sharing of information as a matter of course.  However, we cannot assume that all of our users know good information from bad or unverified information.  Therefore, we want to make sure that our software informs and guides them along the way.  We must notify them of issues they should address. 
  2. We do genealogy to find out more about ourselves and our ancestors, those who helped make us who we are, so we want our tree be  accurate and as complete as possible.  If it is not, then this undermines our purpose and gives us a false reflection of who we are.

We feel that the best way to support researchers is to allow and aggressively support the sharing of information and tree data.  BUT, and this is an important distinction, we also want to give people the tools to make informed decisions.  So, we will let you import data from just about anywhere, but will also let you know when an import might be problematic.  Ultimately, the decision of when to include data in your tree is a personal one and each researcher will have different criteria to meet before taking that step.

How do we plan on doing this?  We’ve got a few tricks up our sleeve:

  1. Our Fact Confidence and Vitals Gauge features will let you know when there are holes in your research (video overview of them here: http://www.heirloomsoftware.com/origins/research-tools/).  If your data is generally green and yellow across the board and then you do an import and suddenly a lot of your indicators go red, you know either that you have a lot of work to do to validate the information in that import or maybe that import wasn’t a good idea.
  2. Our What-If and Rollback capabilities will let you back out an import if you decide that the data isn’t valid and doesn’t really belong in your tree.
  3. Our Ghost Tree feature will let you import another user’s data into your database without adding it to your tree.  You can then research and validate that information before deciding whether to add it all or some portion of it into your tree.  This allows you to keep the information and research it, without polluting your tree with unverified data.
  4. All imported data will be automatically tagged with an Import tag and a unique name common to all data from a given import.  This allows users to manage that data distinctly – including removing it all if desired – even months or years after the import was done.  Combined with our What-If feature, you’ll be able to recover from errant imports easily.

We believe that this offers the best approach for our users.  We’re not going to stop you from doing something, but we’re going to give you the tools, information and guidance to make intelligent decisions, and undo actions that seemed good at the time, but later turn out to be problematic.  We are still leaving it up to you to be a wise and thoughtful participant in the genealogy community.  Sharing is a good thing, but one that comes with caveats.    Shared information is helpful.  When used in combination with good research methods and treated properly – as hints and paths to explore on your research journey – it can be invaluable.  However, like any other source, it is not a shortcut to the final destination.  It needs to be verified. 

What do you think?