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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Why a better GEDCOM? or GEDCOM unveiled

At some time in most genealogists' lives they get the urge to share some of their work with family members (whether the family members like it or not). YOU WILL TAKE SOME OF MY GENEALOGY!!! Maybe they aren't quite that reluctant. But inevitably, who ever you are sending your information to, does not have the same program you use to store their genealogy. In the best of all possible worlds, they don't have a genealogy program at all, so you can tell them to go buy the one you have. I am assuming here, of course, that your relative does not want a pile of paper printouts. It could happen you know. So you send you relative an E-mail with a copy of your file attached and by return E-mail you get the comment, "I couldn't open your file. What program are you using?" Guess what? You are both using the same program. Now what? You have no idea why they cannot open your program.

Sharing data is not as straight forward as it should be. I have a file and you want it. To make the transfer, we can do one or more of the following:

1. I save a copy of my data file in my program's format. You have the same program I have and simply double click on the file I send to you and the program opens the file copy. You now have a complete copy of my file. The file can now be saved to a new location on your hard drive, where it might be found again some time in the future.

2. Same circumstances as No. 1, except this time the file won't open. I forgot to ask which version of the program you had. I have a newer version than you do and your older version will not open my file. Solution: you upgrade your program to the same or newer version of the program I have on my computer and then the file will open.

3. Same circumstances as No. 1 but the file won't open and you have the same version of the program that I have. Most likely, I have sent you a file that will not "open" when you double click on it. It could be a backup or archive version of the file. Oh, that's right, I made a backup copy. So now, you have to restore the backup copy to an empty program file. You still have to worry about losing the program by saving it to some unknown location with a name you promptly forgot, but since you now have the same or a newer version of the program than I have, you can open the copy I send to you with the restore command (or something similar).

4. We ignore numbers one through three and I send you a file, but this time when you click on the file, nothing happens or you get an error message asking you to locate a program to open the file. You look closely at the file and it has a .ged extension (whatever that is). Not to worry. This time it doesn't matter if we have the same program or even the same version. Almost all genealogy programs can "import" a GEDCOM or .ged file (the same thing). You open a new empty file and click on the import command and in a few seconds you have my entire file (more or less, usually less).

GEDCOM or Genealogical Data Communications is text based standard for exchanging data between genealogy programs. Converting a program to GEDCOM format (exporting to a GEDCOM file) essentially makes a text file containing your information that is then interpreted by the target program and can be converted into a file in the target program (your program by importing the GEDCOM file). One very, very important rule: never import a GEDCOM file into an existing file until you have examined it carefully in a new empty file. If you do not do so, you are asking for trouble, especially if it turns out most of the names in the two files are the same people.

5. You and I both have programs that export and import GEDCOM files. I send you my file, but a lot of the information in my file is either lost of sent to a listing file. You might remember the old tests you had in school where you had to draw a line from one column of items to match with the corresponding items in another column. This is sort-of what genealogy database programs do with GEDCOM. Only there is almost always a problem for the reason that either the source list has more items (tags in GEDCOM) than the target, or the target list has different items (tags in GEDCOM) altogether. In other words, the two sets of items do not match up exactly. The problem with GEDCOM is exactly that, when moving data from one program to another, there may not be an exact correspondence between the tags marking the fields and the data in the unrecognized fields is shunted off into notes or listing files or whatever and mostly lost. Part of the problem is caused by programmers not implementing the GEDCOM tags in their programs. But part of the problem is also caused by the fact that GEDCOM is now an old standard and lacks tags for some of the newer data field types.

So what can we do about this problem? Live with it? Well, yes. GEDCOM is GEDCOM and the way each program implements a file transfer to another program is determined by the individual programmers. You might like to read about Randy Seaver's of Genea-Musings experience in trying to transfer source citations from Family Tree Maker 2011 to RootsMagic 4.

However, there are a number of programmers, genealogists, programmers who are genealogists and genealogists who are programmers, that are trying to do something about the situation. They have established an online Wiki to develop a better GEDCOM, essentially a way to improve the ability of programs to transfer genealogical information.

But meanwhile, there are a few things you can do to improve your data. Number one is be consistent in the way you enter data no matter what program you use. Second is keep information in the fields in your program dedicated to that type of information. For example, put source entries in the source fields of your program and not in the notes. Don't put extraneous information in fields in your program. For example, don't put titles and such in name fields. Even if a programs will transfer data successfully, if your data is messed up, you will transfer messed up data.

I am sure there will be more about this in the future.

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