My vision of the perfect genealogy software program

All of the recent discussion of genealogy software has caused me to think about the weaknesses of modern genealogy software, my genealogy workflow, and what features a software program would have to meet my needs.

The funny thing is that many of the features are available in one software program or another–some genealogy, some not. However, putting them all together in one package, even if it were a monster package, would meet my needs.

So here is my vision of the perfect genealogy program:

The software would have two separate, but interconnected, modes: Evidence and Conclusion. Switching between the modes for data entry would have to be seamless, and there would have to be the ability to view both modes simultaneously.

The Evidence mode would have the following features:

  • This mode would focus on individual records. A full citation would be entered, free-form, prior to any other information. Citation templates are not used, but example citations for various record types can be referenced. (In an ideal world, there would be a “citation help” menu linking directly to an embedded or online version of Evidence Explained.)
  • Digital images of records can be imported. Names in the records can be directly linked to individuals in the Conclusion mode. (This technology can already be used in The Next Generation of Genealogy Sitebuilding.)
  • Use of split-screen for transcription of record, similar to Transcribe. The transcription would be linked directly to the image or the citation of the record.
  • Extraction templates, such as those used by Clooz, could be utilized, and linked directly to images or citations of records. Free-form word processor could also be used for extraction. Each extract also has fields for recording the Informant (which would be linked to the individual in Conclusion mode) and their knowledge of the event (primary or secondary).
  • “Creation” field for each record would allow for the recording of citations to and/or transcriptions of relevant laws.
  • Related records could be directly linked to each other. For example, a military pension record could be linked to the compiled service record and the draft registration record.
  • A land record tools would provide ability to plat land based on federal or “metes and bounds” land descriptions. (Such as what is done in Deedmapper and other surveying software.) Neighboring lands can be linked together through their shared borders. Lands would have independent timelines through which ownership history could be entered, with independent citations. Both Google maps and historic/USGS topographic maps can be imported. Federal land descriptions may have built-in geocodes, allowing plats to appear in correct location on Google maps. All lands can be manually placed on any imported maps. Geographic features could be linked to USGS Geographic Names Information System for assistance in locating land.
  • All records or analysis entries can be “tagged” with relevant events and individuals, but would not be exclusive to single events or individuals.

What other features would be useful in the Evidence mode?

The Conclusion mode would have the following features:

  • This mode would focus on individual people, using a “life timeline.”
  • Individuals would have a “profile,” in addition to the timeline, allowing the recording of status tags: gender, race, occupation, free/slave status, etc. Changes in status would also appear in the timeline.
  • Events or facts would be entered into an individual’s timeline. The events/facts entry would allow creation and use of common verbs in addition to the “genealogical” actions commonly contained in software.
  • Only a single instance of each vital event can be entered. Rather than cluttering the timeline with multiple entries based on conflicting evidence (which would be able to be recorded in the Evidence mode), the individual timeline would contain only the conclusions.
  • Events would be able to be recorded as specific (or approximate) dates, or ranges of dates.
  • Events or facts would cite either individual records or proof arguments. Citations link directly to records contained in the Evidence mode. Proof arguments would be composed with a full-featured word processor (not some plain-text “Notes” field) that would allow formatting, table-creation, and internal reference notes (which could also be linked directly to records in Evidence mode).
  • One would have the ability to view timelines for separate individuals side-by-side.
  • Timeline events could be linked between multiple individuals. For example, a land transaction would appear as a linked event in both the grantor’s and grantee’s timelines.
  • In addition to Individual Timeline, Family Group Sheet, and Pedigree Chart Views, one could also access information through Kinship Network and Associate Network Views. These two “network” views would have a graphic interface similar to that used by GenoPro. They would allow connections to be made directly between people regardless of biological relationship.
  • Associate Network View would automatically import connections based on shared events. Manual connections could also be made. Descriptions would be entered for different kinds of connections. Connections would be cited and linked to records in Evidence mode. Association connections can be tied to timelines, to represent the development or destruction of specific connections. Connections could also be weighted by strength (for differentiation between “strong ties” and “weak ties”).

What other features could be useful in the Conclusion mode?

20 thoughts on “My vision of the perfect genealogy software program

  1. Hi

    I am the editor for the VicGUM newsletter. Victiorian GUM Inc is a self-help group based in Melbourne, Australia that assists its members and others on how to better use their genealogy programs

    I would like your permission to run this article in our May newsletter (with attribution of course)

    Could you please advise if this is acceptable and if yes what attribution you would like?


    John Donaldson

  2. You’ve done a great job of putting my long-time dream into a rational outline. My hope is that someone will actually design such a program (preferably for Mac) before I am too old and senile to move all my data -what bliss to carry out future research with such a program! I’ve long dreamed of a genealogy software program that would include an actual management system for locations, and the potential for accurate placement of land parcels on maps within the program would greatly enhance good research. True word-processor capability is another long-time dream. I’ve used various software programs through the years (currently FTM, Legacy, and RootsMagic; none of the Mac programs come close), but have always had to rely on external word processors, mapping software, and a relational database to consolidate data and form conclusions as I would like. As a result, I have files all over the place and can never find the exact pieces of data, along with the conclusion I had reasoned out at some point in the past. Until recently, you could not even link any of these external files to a person in the genealogy software, and it is still impossible to effectively use them in a report generated by such a program. The only thing better than acquiring such an integrated, and modern, program that would serve the true researcher would be to have the programming skills that would enable me to create it -then I’d have the money to spend the rest of my life in courthouse basements and other archives looking for all those original records I just know are out there!

  3. Michael,

    You certainly have a way of making me think!

    With the exception of three major pieces of your vision (extraction templates, land record tools and the kinship and associate network views), the two genealogy databases with which I’m most familiar (RootsMagic and Legacy) may be getting closer to your vision than you might imagine.

    For example, both programs allow for creating any “fact” or “event,” labeling it and using it in any way I want. I don’t always use them as events in a person’s life; I have one to explain Iowa Poor House laws in the late 19th century, for example.

    Both programs provide for geocoding of locations (and will do it automatically in some cases) and are linked to Bing mapping so that a user can immediately see where the location is on a modern map. While they won’t plat land, I could certainly link an image of a plat I created in Deedmapper or any other tool to a source, an event/fact, or a person. I can link images of historical maps or most any other type of file I want to link, where ever I want to link it (to a person, a couple, a source). I realize your vision goes far beyond these basics, but they do have tools that begin to address this concern.

    Both programs include timelines of one form or another although I must admit to not using them much, except to display my facts/events for a person in chronological order. Although both programs have preferred ways of entering dates, I routinely ignore them and enter dates however I need to enter dates (e.g. 2 Jan or 30 Jan 1812, abt 1812, 30 Jan 1812, or abt 1810 – 1813).

    Because I can attach an image or any other type of file to a source citation, I have attached both individual records (e.g. a census image) and proof arguments (written in Word; I can open them directly from RM by clicking on the media link).

    I think RootsMagic is closer to Legacy in what you are describing as the Evidence mode because of their Research Notes Report that Elizabeth Shown Mills has discussed in comments both on your blog and the TGF list. I’ve written about a way one can emulate that report in Legacy. It’s rather clunky, but it can be done, although after more than a year of begging and hoping Legacy would add this report (which it could rather easily do without redesigning how the program works), I’ve switched mostly to RootsMagic.

    Personally, I *like* having the option of free-form sources or templates; both programs allow for this choice. I also like having the option of entering only one date for an event, or entering multiple alternate birth, alternate marriage, etc. dates. I choose to enter only one event/date, with an attached discussion of how I resolved the conflicts, but others may have different preferences – and usually do!

    I’m not convinced that one program can (or should) be developed to do everything you are requesting, but if I could have one dream met, it would be the ability to add (1) tables and (2) footnotes within notes. Both programs already have limited notes formatting ability; they are not entirely plain text.

    Otherwise, I find my genealogy database quite functional for storing both my evidence and my conclusions, either directly within the program, or by linking to images (of people and sources) and documents (e.g. research reports, proof arguments/summaries, etc. in doc or pdf format).

    • The problem with most of the software programs currently on the market is that they started from a basic program (say, PAF), and developed/expanded from there. These programs have begun to incorporate ways to accomplish some of the tasks that we might need to perform.

      Unfortunately, these programs do not truly follow the workflow of a serious genealogist. Instead, users contort their own natural research processes to match how the programs work, rather than the program naturally replicating the research process of the user.

      For example, genealogists start by examining records, through which we identify persons of interest. Software programs, on the other hand, start with people, and allow (but do not require) sources to be entered.

      In envisioning the above “ideal software,” I stripped the research process down to its basics, and asked myself, “How do I naturally work?” not “How can I force existing software to do what I want it to?”

      • Michael,

        I understand and don’t necessarily disagree with your premise, but I’m not sure all serious genealogists would have the same answer to “How do I naturally work?”

        Yes, there are some basic processes that we all use (analyze current evidence, identify a research goal, develop a research plan, implement the plan document the search results, etc.) but the exact way we organize and pursue that process will vary from person to person. Unless we each become programmers (or technology is at the point that we can select modules we individually link together to develop both “Connie’s Ideal Program” and “Michael’s Ideal Program”), I’m not sure one “perfect” or “ideal” program is possible.

        It would be interesting, however, to see what would result (and how it would differ from currently available products) if a programmer would come along who developed a product from the ground up based upon the research process as identified by “serious genealogists” (whoever that is). I suspect there are programmers who believe they’ve already done that.

      • I can’t imagine that there is a “serious” genealogist who starts with names before sources. That is the foundation of my software idea–we start with sources and then record those names and other information from those sources. That is what I meant by the question “How do I work?” It is this very basic process that is flawed in the foundation of current genealogy programs.

        At its most basic level, I’m sure you will agree, the research process is

        SOURCE –> INFORMATION –> ANALYSIS –> CONCLUSION (e.g. names, dates, etc.)

        What bells and whistles for analysis the “perfect program” might contain might vary from person to person, but if it does not operate with this basic research process in mind, then it would not satisfy any genealogist’s real needs.

        The reason that I included the two modes was specifically to satisfy the needs of those researchers who save conflicting evidence into their databases. In Evidence Mode, the data can be collected without being specifically attached to an event–effectively “muddying up the waters” various individual timelines with information that is either not relevant to the person in question or is relevant but inaccurate.

        As for whether or not there is a programmer who believes that they have developed a product based on the research process (noted above), I sure hope there is. I for one would be happy to find a software program that addresses all of these concerns. Currently, I skip genealogy software more or less altogether. Instead I use a combination of several programs, most of which are not genealogy-related at all (such as MS Office).

  4. As a genealogist, I wouldn’t be dealing with a source unless I was interested in a person who had a name. We can’t do much in genealogy unless we have at least a partial name, an approximate date, and a not-too-general location, i.e. some information about the identity of a person. Obviously, we get that information from somewhere [a source], but our goal is learning more about a person, is it not?

    I agree, however, that it would be nice to see a program that places more emphasis on starting point information, research planning, and transcriptions/abstracts/images of source documents – which usually do mention more than one person – without having to tie them to a particular person or event…that could (and in many cases should) come later. I also think attention to research jurisdictions needs to be somewhere up front in the mix.

    Current programs are far from perfect, but absent a program that takes the more natural approach, as you describe it, I think it is possible to use at least some of them in the manner you describe without having to “force” them too much.

    While I understand why some people use genealogy databases less and less the more skilled they become, I can’t imagine not using one (at least as an index to my source images and Word documents) unless I never worked on my own family, or was only interested in intensely researching a handful of ancestors.

    • And yet, as I demonstrated in a previous post, we deal with evidence that does not involve individual people. For example, laws in effect can contain evidence about facts in our ancestors lives–even if they do not mention any names.

      Knowing you as I do, I know that you understand that genealogy is much more than just looking for names. This is why the “name-focused” software falls short, in my opinion.

  5. Hi Michael
    I’m a software developer in a corporate IT department, a non professional genealogist, and many years ago earned a degree in History. What I would like to see in the perfect software in addition to an Evidence mode and a Conclusion mode would be an Analysis mode. As you demonstrated in your post about the GPS there are simple facts that pretty much go from evidence to conclusion with very little anaysis needed. On the other hand some facts need a GPS anaysis. I am interested in how you and others organize a medium to long term GPS projects in your curretn environments. It might then be possible to intergrate the Analysis mode into a genealogy package.

    • I took this into consideration, in a way. Some aspects of analysis are contained in the land-platting and other functions. But ultimately, most analysis is accomplished mentally by the researcher. The best way, in my opinion, to put this into software would be through the use of fully-functional word processing capabilities (including tables and reference notes). This is also why my software must include the ability to note only cite single documents but to also attach fully-cited proof arguments as “citations” for facts.

      I hope that you and other software developers are able to turn my dream into reality!

  6. I especially appreciate your attention to some lacks in evidentiary presentations. Would very much like the material in evidentiary-discussion notes to be viewable with every asserted or disproved relationship, and with each event.

    I would like to see abandonment of the original assumption that parent + parent + child = family involving marriage; where I am dealing with evidence that X was mother of Z, there should not automatically be a simultaneous display, regarding evidence of parentage, of a slot for another parent. I should, however, be able to choose such a page where there is a single piece of evidence regarding (say) two parents. Given the international intent and historical scope, it should also be possible readily to display situations of multiple simultaneous spouses in the marital sense.

    I am not sure I expect a genealogy program really help with the process of initial research, although the first point above would help. At one point I had a firstname and surname of a parent, but there was initially evidence of at least four candidates in one of the right places. It took careful evaluation of multiple sorts of records to attribute each to the correct person, and then to tie one of them to the identified child, and then to determine whether there were relationships between the candidate persons and what (if any) they were. A spreadsheet helped this process immensely; the limited genealogical-program display did not allow homing in on sorting out the particular evidentiary findings in quick form.

  7. I like your idea, but I would not like to see everything in one program. There are too many bloated programs as it is.

    For your “Conclusions” part, I think Legacy is pretty good, as a lineage-linked program. I’d just like to see a “biography” field added.

    I’d like to see a program that does what your “Evidence” one does. At the moment I use a general database, askSam, which is fairly good for that kind of thing, but I’d like to see one designed to interact more easily ans specifically to a lineage-linked program like Legacy. There is another program, Genota, which is reaching in that direction.

    I’d also like to see a third program, for recording Events. I’ve described that more fully here: Hayes & Greene family history: Event-based history and genealogy software for family historians, biographers and others.

    It would be part-way between raw evidence and conclusion — a way of gathering, sorting, linking and interpreting evidence before putting it in the conclusion.

  8. Michael great write up. Although I am not currently writing any genealogy database front ends, I do write software to allow users to import their GEDCOM files and build ancestral trees on my website. I have just recently added support for a special GEDCOM conclusion model (_MODL) tag that can be used when adding source references to any claim/assertion/fact to indicate if the source reference is making a claim (presenting evidence) or supporting a conclusion. Here is a link to my blog entry describing in more detail how this can be used and presented to visitors:

    Since there are no vendors currently supporting this type of field, it can only be used by those that support adding user tags to GEDCOM files directly, such as Family Historian, which uses GEDCOM as its native database model.

  9. Pingback: Genealogy Software: Why Can’t I…

  10. Michael,

    Have you looked at Evidentia? ( )

    It is based on the GPS model.

    I have a different view, based on your AWESOME set of requirements. I do appreciate the detail.

    What you DIDN’T say, or I didn’t pick it up, is that the programs that you mentioned are based on Relationships.

    Evidentia is Document Based. You don’t build Trees in Evidentia, you work on Records, You CANT get to the conclusion, until you Look at, Capture Claims that that document provides.

    I won’t go into detail, but it Walks you through GPS very nicely.

    The ADDED bonus, is that you CAN export a GEDCOM from Evidentia and bring that into each of the programs you mentioned.

    I have done this and blogged about it a couple of times.

    I have the ability to put my Conclusion for Proof Statement, or each Fact or Event, into the notes field for that Fact or Event in my genealogy software.

    If you haven’t tried it, there is an Evaluation version on the website AND some very nice Videos to go along with the program.

    I think, now I may be wrong here, that you will find it works very well with GPS. Oh, and you will be able to develop an Evidence Explained citation. AND that step is done Up Front, not an after though.

    Thanks for your blog post.


    • Russ,

      I agree completely that Evidentia is a great program. It had not yet arrived when I wrote this blog post almost three years ago. I was one of the beta testers for Evidentia and have recommended it to many people since its debut. It is a much better software option, in my opinion, for recreating the actual research process than any of the lineage-linked genealogy database programs.

      Not to dwell on semantics, but the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) is not part of the research process. It is a standard by which to assess the results of the research process. Evidentia automates some of the research process, by allowing for categorization of source/information types and construction of arguments based on claims from these sources. Categorization of source/information types is only the most rudimentary form of analysis, and not nearly enough to fully meet the GPS is many cases. As Elizabeth Shown Mills recently wrote in a post to the Transitional Genealogists Forum mailing list, “evidence analysis is not just a matter of applying the right ‘label’ to what we have. Rather, it’s a matter of understanding the strengths and weaknesses that each label represents and using these to guide us to the best quality evidence possible–so that we will not make premature conclusions that lead us astray for years.”

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