Apr 14, 2011


I hadn't planned on blogging about WikiTree, but I feel compelled to now. Although I briefly checked it out a while ago, my primary family tree is on Ancestry.com. The idea of using a wiki for a family tree intrigues me. I'm currently developing a wiki for a one-name study, but just as a standard wiki. The people have the same surname, but may or may not be related, so a family tree isn't even in the works at this point. I'm always interested in different ways to visualize information, but my plate is already pretty full, so I was vicariously following the WikiTree adventures of both Randy Seaver and DearMYRTLE.

I commented on one of DearMYRTLE's posts about the beta WikiTree embeddable widget, which has since been publicly released. A lively conversation ensued, and even the founder of WikiTree, Chris Whitten, entered the fray. I've seen him comment on other blog posts regarding WikiTree before, so that wasn't too surprising, but he created a "barebones" widget based on my suggestion. Now that's what I call customer service, and I wasn't even a WikiTree customer! Since he took the time to reply personally, and modified a widget just for me, it's only fair that I try it out (even if I'm a few weeks tardy).

I haven't input anything to WikiTree yet, so I wanted to find somebody I'm related to, which turned out to be quite easy. Apparently, some of my Callahan and Matteson relatives are already using WikiTree. So I used the "barebones" widget for my distant cousin, Blanche Callahan (we're both descendants of Thomas George Callahan):

Although there are a few quirks, I think it's a good start. Other variations of the widget include different background graphics and individual photos, if available. In a minimalist version like this, the blue and pink background color for men and women, respectively, is a nice touch. Definitely better than a solid white background. The tiny icons linking to the ancestral and descendant pages for each person are small enough to be non-intrusive, but still easily recognizable. One of my previous comments was to omit the places of birth and death, which this version does. Another was to include only the years of birth and death, which worked for the most part, except when "abt [year]" is specified. I'd also prefer the middle names be abbreviated or omitted.

As far as the technical implementation is concerned, I might have made some different design decisions. But that's easy for me to say, not having tried to create such a widget. HTML table-based layouts are passé among web designers, but I imagine a purely CSS-based solution would be prohibitively difficult. (Family trees are visually simple, but very complex diagrams to implement using web standards. Even with all their resources, Ancestry still uses HTML tables to layout their trees.) I'd probably have used a different URL format, like passing options via query strings. However, the format they did use is easy to understand, and straightforward to embed in another web page.

Overall, WikiTree has created a highly usable set of widgets to embed dynamically-updating family trees in other web pages. I'm not aware of any similar solutions. Otherwise, including a family tree in a blog post or other website usually requires static text or a graphic. Since that original blog post, they've added more versions of the widget. The straight paternal and maternal lines seem particularly useful for genetic genealogy.

It's obvious WikiTree listens to the feedback generated by their users, bloggers beta testing their widget, and even random commenters like me. Granted, it's still a young site; there probably aren't many others running large-scale, collaborative, genealogy websites who can afford such time. However, that kind of responsiveness is bound to generate goodwill among your userbase and the genealogy community in general. I wish other genealogy companies (or any company for that matter) would follow WikiTree's example.

I've already put lots of time and money into my Ancestry family tree, so I'm not in the market for another online tree. Once somebody figures out how to replace GEDCOM with a lossless data format that's widely adopted in the industry, I might move my primary family tree. But until that happens, I'll definitely recommend others checkout WikiTree.

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