Thursday, February 12, 2015

GEDCOM Replacement is Here (#RootsTech #RTATEAM)

GEDCOM XAt RootsTech two years ago, Ryan Heaton of FamilySearch talked about a GEDCOM replacement: GEDCOM X. (See “Ryan Heaton: A New GEDCOM.”) Today, GEDCOM X is a reality. Heaton’s presentation this year was titled “The Ecosystem of Genealogical Data Exchange.” I believe they recorded it; you’ll probably be able to view it yourself at some point. A warning is warranted, however. This was an Innovator’s Summit session. The target audience for the presentation was software engineers.

Heaton spoke of a genealogical ecosystem of information exchange. Family Group Sheets and other forms imposed structure on the exchange of genealogical data. Computer programs enforced it. Now we use the Internet and data types are tightly defined.

The elements of a genealogical data ecosystem are

  • records
  • persons
  • relationships
  • sources
  • citations
  • analyses (How did I make this inference? What makes me believe this information is true?)
  • Research (For example, what are the to do items in my research plan?)

The actors are

  • Systems
  • Users

He talked about information flow between users and systems. By user he meant a desktop genealogy tree management program like Ancestral Quest, Legacy, or RootsMagic. By system he meant an online tree manager. The information flow can be from:

  • User to user. This exchange has been done with GEDCOM or proprietary file formats of the desktop genealogy tree managers. Users can generally import the proprietary data files of competitive tree managers, but generally can’t export in competitors’ formats. There can also be data loss. There is limited exchange capability of citation metadata; elements or formatting are often lost. Internationalization of character sets are sometimes mishandled.
  • System to/from user. This is done with publicly facing interfaces (APIs).
  • System to system. This is usually done using bulk exchange formats.


There are reasons inhibiting user-to-user exchange. There is no specification commonly used by desktop tree managers to exchange citation metadata. Tree management software vendors lack incentive to make it easy for you to move to their competitors. This includes FamilySearch, who doesn’t necessarily want you to download all your data in one step.


Many desktop managers have the capability to exchange data with online tree systems. The desktop managers use APIs that allow desktop programs to talk to online tree managers like FamilySearch’s Family Tree, and MyHeritage’s tree.

The FamilySearch API conforms to GEDCOM X. A significant number of partners are using GEDCOM X to talk with the FamilySearch Family Tree. (I think his point here is that desktop tree managers know the API and could use it to exchange with each other if they chose to.)


Companies sometimes strike business deals to share their data. A non-genealogical example is Open Archives. OAI-PHM and A2A. FamilySearch has also done bulk data exchanges with, MyHeritage, and findmypast. FamilySearch gives them a big atom feed that transfers GEDCOM X data sets.

What inhibits genealogical dataflow?

  • Security
  • Budget constraints
  • Data loss
  • Feature mismatches
  • Lack of well-established specifications
  • User reluctance to share
  • Programmer awareness

Heaton ran out of time before he could talk about GEDCOM X directly. But I think his message was that GEDCOM X is here. It is alive. If vendors use it to exchange data with FamilySearch, but not with each other.

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