Saturday, August 3, 2013

Everyone Benefits from Data Portability

James Tanner doesn't believe genealogy companies have any incentive to make it easy for their customers to exchange data with competing products.
There is absolutely no incentive in the software industry to make your programs work well with others.
Why is it in's interest to easily share all of the data fields in Family Tree Maker with's Family Tree Builder? Doesn't that whole concept ignore the marketing factor of unique features?
He believes that would lose customers if it were easy to export all of your data and import into a competing product. I disagree.

Data Portability Leads to More Value

Genealogy products don't make money by charging to host your tree. Sure, some may charge you to import your tree, but what you're really buying is an experience. You're buying access to records, record matching algorithms, collaboration platforms, DNA, unique visuals, or any other feature that helps you research.

Imagine a world where all genealogy products allowed you to export your data in an industry standard format. You can accurately exchange people, relationships, sources, media, notes, research logs, and other common features. You receive an email notification from MyHeritage saying there is a new record match for one of your brick-wall ancestors. The record reveals the names of this ancestor's parents. After celebrating, you see that MyHeritage doesn't have any more information so you quickly migrate the parent's names over to Ancestry and FamilySearch. You discover more data on Ancestry, and share it again (perhaps even automatically) with FamilySearch and MyHeritage.

I have never paid for a genealogy product precisely because the world I just described doesn't exist. The pain of keeping multiple trees in sync is greater than the benefit of features which products offer (at least for me). If it were trivial to keep all desktop products and online trees in sync, I would start buying. I expect my first genealogy purchase to be DNA testing for this exact reason: I can easily move my data between the competing products and benefit from all of them.

Traditional genealogy products should want these same benefits, especially Ancestry and MyHeritage which sell collaboration and matching features. The more tree data they have from users, the more their features are worth. Making data exchange trivial will lead to more data in their systems and thus more value.

Will products lose customers of data migration is easy? Perhaps. But I think they'll gain more than they lose.

Imagine how difficult it would be if you couldn't call or email somebody who uses a different carrier. "Oh, you have Sprint? I use Verizon. Sorry. I guess we'll have to stick email. !!! You don't use Gmail? How are we going to keep in touch?"

Sadly, that's the current state of affairs in genealogy.

No Trade Secretes Revealed

I need to dispel the myth that enabling data exchange would remove the competitive edge by sharing the innovative features which products use to differentiate themselves.

Let's return to our ideal and imaginary world where genealogy data is easily exchanged. One day, BrightSolid creates a revolutionary way to visualize your family tree. The new visualization has no effect on the data that is exported, so data exchange does not limit the competitive edge that they just gained. Collaboration features fall into this category too. Enabling data exchange does not share the feature with their competitors.

Imagine that Ancestry releases a new feature which makes it trivial to keep and use a research log. Research logs are notorious for being tedious, and Ancestry finally solves that problem. The research log data begins to appear in export files in an industry standard format. Two things would happen when the data is imported into competing products: either it gets thrown away because the product doesn't have a research log, or it gets displayed in the same old tedious manner as before. Using the new feature would reveal more to their competitors than the exported data.

Everyone Benefits from Data Portability

We all want for our genealogical data to be portable. All companies in the industry should want that too.

Genealogy products differentiate themselves with features. Making data portable doesn't change that.


  1. In principle you're right Justin. Sharing is a fundamental tenet of genealogy. Without the ability to share data, it just wouldn't work. However, with the ability to share data - fully and accurately with other users who may be using different products - comes the ability to move away from a product. I agree with you that this is not really a problem that vendors should be unduly concerned about - unless their product has serious faults - but it *is* a perceived problem. I have had both direct and indirect feedback that some vendors do feel this way. That is very sad as it would ultimately limit the scope of sharing by "shaving off" the extra levels of scope and detail that a vendor considers to be their "edge".

    1. Thanks for pointing that out. I agree with your assertions and I meant to address that in my post. Hopefully, with time, we can educate them and overcome these perceived problems. Otherwise the market will end up doing it.

    2. A better version of this notion:

  2. Tony. It's more than that. People like to use their favorite program. But they have relatives using different programs. It's sort of like one person liking Excel and another Lotus 123 and another Quattro Pro.

    Microsoft was smart. They added input directly from each of the other formats. They also added export directly to the other formats. Now would be happy to buy Excel because it could read and write all three formats.

    This was a key selling feature for Excel.

    Personally, I think a genealogy data editing program that could do the same, read and write all other formats directly (including to and from all online family trees) would have a fantastic advantage over everyone else, and if its other features were up to par, then everyone would move to it.


  3. Microsoft is of a size where that effort & expense can be accommodated Louis. Genealogical software vendors are much, much smaller by comparison.

    Another issue here, though, is that not all vendors are as open about their proprietary formats. One vendor who would probably want to stay anomymous suggested to me that there should be something similar to the European "kite mark" that products could display if they published a fully support specification for their data format.


  4. Justin, a little warning before you buy that DNA test expecting that you "can easily move my data between the competing products and benefit from all of them": It's not that easy. Certainly no easier than GEDCOM import-export.

    Part of what the testing companies are selling is their matching ability. They all want to promise the largest database of tests to compare against.

    As for tree hosting, there are definite benefits in holding your customer hostage, if your customer lets you get away with it.

    1. Thanks for the warning about the DNA exporting. I realize it's not automatic, but I don't have to worry as much about keeping it in sync like I do with genealogy data (lack of syncing is the big pain point for me).

      Regarding tree hosting, I recognize there are certain benefits to holding your customers hostage. Do you agree with my assertion that there are even more benefits for providers if they enable portability?

      The benefit I perceive in data portability, form the user's perspective, is not so that it's easier for them to switch between their exclusive tree of choice, but so that they can easily use multiple tree providers at the same time. It would be similar to how most of us use multiple forms of social media. Even better, many of us have Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ posts automatically generated every time we publish a new blog post. Imagine that level of connectivity between multiple tree providers so that the user can enjoy the unique features of all of them.