Software for family historians, biographers and others

Dennis Allsopp

Dennis Allsopp (Author of Genota and Genota Forms) was visiting Johannesburg, so I dropped in to see him and we had an interesting chat.

We chatted about software for genealogists and family historians, and three topics in particular:

  1. The need for an event-based database program for genealogists, historians, biographers etc.
  2. Dennis’s own genealogy research programs, Genota and Genota Forms
  3. Old utility programs for which there are no modern equivalents.

As a result, I’ve uploaded a few of the old utilities to the website of the genealogy software forum, in the hope that they may inspire some enterprising hackers to reverse engineer them for modern hardware and software.

There were programs called Nameview and Namedrop that scanned BBS messages for things like surnames of interest, and manipulated those messages to collect them. They worked with Fido Technology Networks, but no one seems to have written an equivalent that works with mailing lists, newsgroups, or web forums.

There were also utility programs that took data from genealogy programs (mainly PAF 2.x) and printed family grtoup sheets on 3×5 or 4×6 cards.

That is FAR more useful than the stupid trick of software developers who tried to make a computer screen look like a card index, which had all the disadvantages and none of the advantages of the cards themselves.

But those utilities were written in DOS, and modern printers don’t work with DOS. So the utilities need to be rewritten to use modern programs and modern hardware.

There was the Tiny Tafel Generator — which not only developed but matched Tiny Tafels. Trouble is, it was written in Turbo Pascal, which doesn’t work on fast machines. You need a slow processor for it to run, under 500 Mhz, I think.

There are a few more there — back in the old days we may have had less than we do now, but very often we could do more with the less we had. So I’m hoping some hackers will have a look at them, and see if they can reverse engineer them to produce new versions.

But the main thing we chatted about was the need for an event-based program to be used as a research tool, not only for genealogists and family historians, but also for general historians, biographers and others. It would differ from lineage-linked genealogy programs in that it would not only include people that were relatives, but friends and acquaintaces, work colleagues, and even enemies. It would be a useful tool for a biographer trying to keep track of  the events in the life of their subject, or for someone writing general history.

The basic outline of the program would look something like this:

Outline for an event-tracking program

Dennis introduced me to a rather nice mind-mapping and concept-mapping program called VUE (Visual Understanding Environment) which drew the above diagram (he has a far better drawing of it), and shows how the various parts of the program would relate to each other.

The main part of the database would be a chronological list of events, and people and organisations assocated with this events. The organisations could be both formal and informal groups — a political party, church, club, school, hospital, business firm, trade union, family or any other human group.

The “people” part would not only be for family members, as one finds in lineage-linked genealogy programs, but for non-related people, like friends, work colleagues, teachers, pupils, godparents, acquaintances and so on. Perhaps it could also be useful in testing theories of six degrees of relationship — that we are only six degrees of relationshop away from knowing everyone else on earth, and that my wife’s boss’s godmother’s cousin’s penfriend’s vet knows me.

One reason for posting this is to try to find out if there are any others who think that and event-tracking and chronology program would be useful, and if so, what you would like it to be able to do.

A quiet week

Not too much to report on the family history front over the last couple of weeks. We’ve been recovering after Easter and all the pigging out in bright week. You can say what you like about Easter eggs — I like mine fried, with bacon. Actually our Bright Week breakfast was the BEST breakfast: Bacon, Egg, Sausage and Tomato.

Taking some people back home after the Easter vigil at about 3:30 AM we fell into a hole in the road, because another car would choose just that place to come down the hill with its lights on bright, and the streetlights were out too. So I’ve had an enforced stay at home after buying two new tyres and waiting for the wheel to be repaired.

And then yesterday the Internet went off again. No, not again, we said. We increased out limit from 2 Gig to 3 Gig, but it still ran out. So while waiting to get that sorted out, I spent less time on line and played around with askSam for Windows, the program I use to record a lot of information in the archives etc. I used to use askSam for DOS — still do, in fact, and find it easier to use. But the new Windows printers don’t print from DOS programs, so you have to go through all, the schlep of outputting to a file, and then pulling it into a Windows program like Wordpad to print. So I thought I’d play with the Windows version, and it’s producing some quite decent reports now. But, unlike the DOS version, it’s not so easy to just pull the output into e-mail and send it to family members around the world. But if I keep playing with it, maybe I’ll find out. I’ve been using the DOS version for 16 years now, and it’s still hard to beat for sheer usefulness. I use it more than any other program.

And then we did get an e-mail from Val’s cousin Peter Decker, which was very encouraging. We visited his father 30 years ago, just after we got married, and pumped him for information about the family, but then he moved away and we lost touch, and so having his son contact us was a nice surprise.

Now our internet connection is working again, so I’m writing this after a couple of disconnected days, but looking at the usage I suspect that it may be caused by spyware or something like that. The uploads are tracking the downloads, which makes it look as though someone is using one of our computers to disseminate spam or something, so we’re updating our antivirus and anti spyware programs.