CONNECTIONS – Project Analysis

PROJECT SUMMARY

CONNECTIONS is a system for building online semantic relationships between people, places and things. It all begins with a person. Who were/are they? What did/do they do? Where did/do they live? What evidence can we discover about the life of this person?

Many existing genealogy applications require fees, or are stand-alone programs that work offline. Users are not encouraged to share, or think holistically about their data. Rather they create fragments of a wider network of people. Instead of building upon existing trees of information, users tend to repeat data by creating their own familial clusters.

CONNECTIONS aims to provide a free system to enable visitors to the website to quickly discover and navigate information that is relevant, reliable and engaging – something greater than a genealogy site. Users can visualise and generate connections between people, places and things. These people, places and things can then be further linked to other people, places and things in an ever expanding web of stories. In this way users can create multiple clusters of disparate hubs of information that can eventually be connected via user defined, associated relationships.

CONNECTIONS is a tool to allow today’s historians to leave breadcrumbs for future generations to discover their own history.

PROJECT ANALYSIS

CONNECTIONS meets the primary objectives of the project, to create:

  • a cost effective solution for online archiving of personal information
  • easy to share collections of familial information
  • solutions to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of genealogy research

CONNECTIONS is provided free for use. There are absolutely no fees for guests or registered users. Anyone can create a free account to gain access to the data. In future plans, development of the site will require a small budget to maintain hosting and offer new features. These costs may be offset by voluntary contributions from users – however the guiding principle of the site will be to provide a cost effective solution for online archiving of personal information.

Users can create multiple hubs of data that can be linked by relationships and locations. Users can link to material from collections held in external online repositories, such as The National Library of Australia’s digitised newspapers. Anyone can add and edit data, upload high resolution images and documents (up to a file size of 50MB) and connect these to personal records. All objects are stored in a central repository providing easy to share collections of familial information.

CONNECTIONS is a new tool for historians and genealogical enthusiasts to explore multiple avenues of associated data. With unrestricted search functionality, and the ability to connect data through many points of interest, this site provides solutions to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of genealogy research.

LESSONS LEARNED

Throughout Exploring Digital Heritage, we’ve manipulated a variety of datasets – utilising a number of existing applications in an effort to determine how digital tools can be used to enhance our understanding of cultural heritage.

During my research, I used various genealogy websites, such as www.ancestry.com, to collect information about my own family; however, I found that I couldn’t easily extract these digital assets. I had many paper based records along with the information I found online, which led me to believe that I would need to create my own digital dataset, in order to test and demonstrate my ideas.

To build a truly extensible repository, you need to work with a standardised set of data. In the case of genealogy, the recognised standard is GEDCOM – a specification for sharing data between genealogical programs. This format was developed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1996, and though there have been a few recommended updates, it’s still the industry standard.

I explored a few options to find an existing tool that had the features I required to meet the objectives of this project, such as:

  • import/export of GEDCOM files
  • the ability to attach images and documents to personal records
  • privacy filters to restrict the display of sensitive material to casual visitors
  • access control groups for administrators, users and family groups
  • Google maps display of geolocated data
  • A discussion forum to build an online community

In the end, I chose HuMo-Gen (www.humo-gen.com/humo-gen/cms_pages/11/). This program had most of the features I needed. Additionally, I implemented phpBB (www.phpbb.com/) as the community forum.
HuMo-Gen allows for storing a number of attributes for each member of the family tree, from the basic names and dates to locations, witnesses, and sources. You can also attach files to any family member. The program can generate a number of reports, including ancestors, descendants, timelines, and an outline view. Also featured in HuMo-gen are access control groups, allowing you to decide which information is public, and what additional information is revealed to any number of tiers of access.

HuMo-Gen is designed for individuals to add small family groups as users to edit their personal histories. Which is not exactly what I wanted, so there were a lot of changes that needed to be made to the display (PHP/HTML) and database (mySQL) code. Reverse engineering someone else’s code takes a long time – learning what the code means is all voodoo and black magic to me, so I had to have some help in understanding and modifying the code in order to get what I wanted from HuMo-Gen.

There were extensive modifications to the layout and display of both the front-facing site and the administration interface, as well as some reworking of the database tables. The Google Maps integration had to be completely pulled apart, as it didn’t work properly, in fact not at all with Chrome – and still doesn’t work properly due to several coding issues from the original source.

Many of the challenges in modifying the program came from the fact that the original author is Dutch, and while his English is excellent, his use of ‘interesting’ descriptions in his comments led to some confusion in interpreting functions within his code. This confusion can also be seen in some of the data entry interfaces – for example, the use of ‘Add’ and ‘Save’ are used interchangeably in some cases.

At this point in time, I have documented almost 200 individuals, and I’ve learnt that manual data entry is tedious at best. But now that I’ve done all this work, I know my efforts could be exported and used in multiple ways, by future historians. Equally, to expand this human network, I can easily import a GEDCOM file provided by another genealogist.

FUTURE PLANS

With this project, my aim was to bring information about people, places and things into one free for use research website – a single, ever expanding human tree, as opposed to a single family tree. But my ambition exceeded talent and time. My initial vision of this project attempted to solve too many problems at once. I didn’t understand the true time and effort required to bring the whole of this project to fruition.

CONNECTIONS is still a grandiose plan. There are many features that set it apart from other genealogy applications; however, some of the proposed key functions didn’t quite make it into this phase of development.
Some functionality that will be incorporated into future development will be:

A more user friendly data entry interface – The data entry screens are complicated to understand. A revised layout, with a more modern approach to data organisation would greatly benefit users. Also, there needs to be more help information, perhaps as hover actions when a user selects a field.

Liberate users from the search box – Provide entry points for users to browse the website, without knowing what data is available, such as enhancing the home page with a gallery of random images that link through to individual records.

Prevent users from creating duplicate records – Currently duplicate records can be identified via a manually run admin report. It would be more appropriate for the system to automatically notify a user that a similar or same record exists before the data is saved.

Simple download options for attachments – Images and documents need a ‘download’ button. One of the benefits of this site is to create a repository to allow users to share high resolution images. The ability to share information is key to the CONNECTIONS ethos.

Privacy filter for living persons – Currently, a privacy filter is applied to living persons so casual visitors to the site (guests) can’t view images and sensitive information. This filter is not in place for registered users. In future releases, this privacy filter will be in place for everyone; however, users will be able to lift restrictions to a group of ‘Friends’.

Separate events and places data – Events and places should have their own data entry interface to maintain information distinct from personal records.

Attach people, images and documents to events, places and addresses – For example, if I create the HMS Charlotte as a place or address, I should be able to add all the passengers. Or, if I create a church, I should be able to list the people married there.

Extra ‘relationship’ types – Need to define additional options for ‘relationships’. For example, ‘Friend’, ‘Business Partner’, ‘Group association’ (e.g. Freemasons).

Filter individuals by new categories – For example, ‘Relationship type’, ‘Lived at this address’, ‘Buried in this cemetery’, etc.

Geolocations of places and address – This functionality is integrated into HuMo-Gen, however I couldn’t get it to work properly.

Global user access – Currently users need to login separately for the website, the admin interface and the forum. There should be a single sign-on to access the entire site.

Fix Search functions – Some of the search functionality is a bit inconsistent. This probably needs a complete overhaul to ensure records are found consistently.

TESTING

  1. Go to: www.connections-hub.com
  2. Login with:
    Username = Test
    Password = test123

  3. Select Family tree
    Click on Photobook
    …Browse the images

  4. Select Family tree
    Click on Family tree index

  5. In the Search box on the right of the screen, type in: Povey
    Click Search

  6. Click on Capper, Grace Povey
    …My Great-aunt, Grace Povey Seccombe was a famous ceramist (trove.nla.gov.au/people/1486986?c=people)

  7. In the Search box on the top right corner of the screen, type in: Mehetabel
    Click Search

  8. Click on Crago, Mehetabel
  9. Hover over the report icon to the left of Mehetabel Crago
    Select Descendant chart from the popup menu

  10. Change Generations to 5
    …Ta-da! There I am at the bottom right of the screen: Lisa Beth Spencer

  11. Select Tools
    Click on Relationship calculator

  12. Individual 1 – First name, type in: Lisa
    Click Search
    Select Spencer, Lisa Beth (1969) from the search results

  13. Individual 2 – First name, type in: Jane
    Click search
    Select Poole, Jane (1768) from the search results

  14. Click Calculate relationships
    …Ta-da! I’m related to a first fleet convict. I knew there was a reason I had a tendency for larceny…

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