Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Evidence Management and Ancestry.com Member Trees

In the absence of evidence, superstition. It's a Middle Ages thing. That's my theory anyway.

Tucker Carlson

You may recall that a session at the NGS conference by David Rencher and team got me thinking about evidence management. In “The Evidence Architecture of the New FamilySearch Tree” I showed that records preloaded into the New FamilySearch Tree (NFS) from Ancestral File, PRF, and the IGI are evidence summaries.

To illustrate evidence management in Ancestry.com, I’ll again use the tree from Rencher’s presentation.

Record View

Compare the evidence summary example, below left, to the Ancestry.com record view, on the right.

Example Evidence Summary   1850 Census Angeline Clements Detail

As in an evidence summary, each piece of evidence is separate and labeled by what kind of “fact” it is (e.g. name, age, birth date). Unlike an evidence summary, it is not possible to annotate information in the summary or to give it a summary name for easy identification.

In the header of the evidence summary there are two links, one to the subject person and one to the source. Equivalent functionality is available in the Ancestry.com record view, shown more completely below. Click the Save record to… link circled on the left to link to a subject individual. Since Ancestry.com doesn’t have source management, the source information is displayed on the record view page (the four circles on the right).

1850 Census Angeline Clements

Review Record Hint

When you click the Save record to… link, Ancestry.com allows you to review the information from the source before saving it into your tree, as shown in the illustration, below.

Save record to is part evidence summary, part conclusion entry

This interface allows the user to set or change conclusions in their tree. The left side shows the information indexed from the source. The right side shows corresponding conclusions in the user’s tree.

The user’s choices are limited. For each piece of information the user can:

  • change the conclusion
  • link the source to the conclusion
  • create an alternative “fact”
  • link the source to the new alternative

This system has many weaknesses.

  • The user can not see existing alternative “facts.”
  • The user can not see existing sources linked to conclusions or alternatives.
  • The user can not link source to existing alternatives.
  • If information already exists as an alternative “fact,” there is no way to link the source to it.
  • If information already exists as an alternative “fact,” adding an alternative creates a duplicate.
  • Two duplicates with different sources can not be combined.
  • The user can not change conclusions and retain old conclusions as alternatives.
  • Changing the conclusion does not unlink sources that supported the old conclusion.
  • Sources can be linked only for indexed information. For example, if a death record also has birth information, but only the death information is indexed, then the interface above will lock the birth fields. The user can not enter the birth information nor link the source to it.

Compare this to evidence management’s conclusion interface, reproduced below. Each alternative is preserved and associated with its source. Additional information and space for analysis guide the conclusion process.

Example conclusion interface

This concludes this series on evidence management. The primary audience has been development personnel at family history organizations. See “Evidence Management” for an overview of the series and links to other articles.


  1. It is possible to link Ancestry sources to existing facts where the system does not automatically create those links. A good example is changing the London parish christening registers from the London Metropolitan Archives so that the christening is pointed to as a fact rather than the stupid way that the software insists on linking to the birth even though the indexed fact is the christening date and the birth date is often not recorded in the registers.

    Changing the fact linked to or adding additional facts linked to is a process that must take place after the source citation has been saved to the tree concerned. The source citation must be edited and at the bottom of the edit screen is a drop-down list of all the facts for that particular person where the fact linked to can be altered. In order to add additional citations to different facts, citations automatically created must be edited and pointed to the desired fact and the source then re-attached to the person. This will recreate the automatic fact citations and increase the number of available citations.

    Please note that such editing and addition should only be undertaken using some facts such as name, gender, birth and death that the system believes there can only be one of as otherwise duplicate facts, eg residences for censuses, will be created.

    The Ancestry system definitely needs improvement and it will be interesting to see whether the eventual public availability of the NFS tree system pushes Ancestry into making those needed improvements.

  2. I use ancestry.com evey day. One of my 'beefs' with it is when checking the hints, they tell me that the author has 5 sources. I think I'd like to see their sources; but when I go there, they don't have 5 sources; they have unsourced info they have copied from 5 other unsourced trees. I feel mis-led! I'd like them to distinguish between data from another tree and data from a generally accepted source document.

  3. Ancestry uses a "convenient system" to show generally gathered information pointing to a possible conclusion. Those of us who feel primary & sec. sources are necessary wish Ancestry would promote evidence management in their trees. For real value, in the long run this is what is needed.

  4. I enjoyed this series. It provides concepts and tools for the family historian to better document her researches. Thank you for these articles!

    Happy Dae·

  5. I also use ancestry.com every day. Although I have my own website, I have also started creating an Ancestry Family Tree. I have a whole list of frustrations with it, but several of them relate to this topic.

    1. In the "compare" view, I am limited in the facts that I can see or change. For example, saving a U.S. Veterans Cemeteries record brings up the comparison with the death record, but not the burial record! I've tried it with or without a previous entry of a burial fact.

    2. Directly related to that is that I can't figure out this:
    a. I have a source already saved to the person's profile.
    b. I have a fact already saved to the person's profile, but that source is not attached to that fact.
    c. I want to attach the source to the fact, retaining the link to the original record (i.e. I want the source to have the arrow icon)


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