• genealogy
  • History
  • opensource
  • software
  • Technology

Reading gedcom files

The other night I was having a fantastic time with some friends after a barbeque and the subject of family history came up. I had pulled some old photographs off the walls and we were talking about this and that character in the photo and when someone asked the question, I realized I had no idea what year my grandfather had been born. "No problem", I said, "I'll just fire up the Mac and call up my website - I have this awesome software running that I share with the family with lists and graphs and everything, we'll just look it up!" Seconds later I was staring at the screen wondering what had happened to my data. I couldn't log into my own site and all my family data was inaccessible.

My mom has done a lot of work in Family Tree Maker (FTM) over the years putting together a database of relatives and their relationships and she's been kind enough to keep me up to date by sending me an output file called a "Gedcom" (which has the extension .ged) from time to time that contains all this wonderous family info. Gedcom is sort of the defacto standard file format for genealogy data. I don't own FTM since its a Windows only software which would be pretty useless to me though I do have a copy of Reunion which is a fairly good genealogy program for the Mac. Turns out of course that Reunion had been installed only on my old powerbook - I had never installed it on the macbook. Ever since I had set up a subdomain on my website and installed the free phpGedView there, Reunion was pretty much redundant. Since the data was accessible over the web, I could get to it from home or work and on any operating system. I could even make accounts for others in the family and share the data with them easily over the web. It had been running for a few years without any problem, I had loaded gedcoms my mom sent me with no problem.

It created all sorts of interesting graphical reports of my relation to ancestors, it could do calculations to determine if I was the third cousin twice removed to this or that person, it allowed me to upload images of the various folks making the aforementioned charts and graphs far more compelling - it made the relationships between people easier to grasp. I could tell who I shared a birthday with, that it was the 140th anniversary of someone's death, etc.

Turns out phpGedView had been updated recently and the changes in the software meant it would no longer run correctly on my hosted webserver. I had installed it using a simple one click installer which made it real easy to upgrade, unfortunately that also made it real easy to break since I incorrectly assumed that the web host wouldn't push out new versions that were incompatible with their server setups... Come to find the software is no longer available in their one click installer either.

Seeing as I had a little extra web time on my hands since I'm not wasting a lot of it wading through comments and videos on facebook I decided to install phpGedView directly on my mac and use it there. Turns out I couldn't use the newest version on there either because of some stupid php settings apple decided to use, but I managed to get an older version (4.21) up and running pretty quick. Having the software running on the Mac means its no longer accessible to the family on the web, but at least I can view the Gedcom files locally again. phpGedView is a fantastic web based software but right now has some funky server requirements which have very unfortunately made it difficult for me to use right now. They do offer a stand alone Windows version if you swing that way - but I haven't tried it.

The real power of phpGedView as I see it is as having it running on a web accessible server someplace to allow multiple people to work on the same genealogy database in real time, to interact with messaging and on forums and to work together to improve the data. Passing files around (like word docs and excel files or in this case gedcoms) is a very 90s way of thinking that we inherited from DOS and Windows. We need to wean ourselves of this and work together on the same data out there in the cloud.