An Open Letter to Leaders in the Online Family Tree Business

Last October, my good friend Jeff Bockman sent the following letter to a number of the folks in leadership positions within the genealogical community. I haven’t heard that he’s received a response from anyone, but he shared the letter with me – giving me permission to post it on this blog.

For many years now, Jeff has been looking to the future of genealogy. In fact, I’ve published two articles written by him on that topic, One in Heritage Quest Magazine, and another in The Genealogical Helper. Jeff has some good ideas – and if they could be accomplished, it would be a boon for genealogists. However, in order for his ideas to work, some giant corporations would have to agree to work together on the development of a Single Family Tree. Whether that’s possible or not, I don’t want to hazard a guess. However, we’re seeing a lot more cooperation now than in years past.

Following is Jeff’s letter:

Regarding: Building a Single Family Tree

Dear Leaders of the Genealogical Community.

Since the number of major players in the genealogical industry has definitely consolidated and many of you are already cooperating on various projects it occurred to me that this might be the right time for you to cooperate even more and take a step from providing genealogical data to providing an easy way to finding families and information and potentially provide a service to more than just the genealogical community.

As a researcher it can be tedious checking all of the numerous sites for genealogical data. It is difficult and often impossible to search the numerous online family tree sites, many of which only show information to subscribers or have portions of the data blocked out.

A single starting point would be wonderful for researchers, students, and anyone just starting to look into their family history or looking for information about a person. It would actually be beneficial for the subscription genealogy sites as well. A single publically available family tree with the basic birth, marriage, death, and parent data would make it easier for researchers to locate their family. This would reduce the effort and resources from multiple people researching and adding the data to various sites. By following the links to the supporting information at the various sites would actually help to increase the traffic to the subscription sites that hold the additional information or records about the various events, photos, stories, etc. while reducing the unnecessary searching activity on all sites. Family History has grown way beyond just adding names and dates to a pedigree chart so why not automate it for once and for all. The data in the tree is not proprietary to the site especially if submitted by a user.

A researcher should be able to build their family tree wherever they want and then be able to add it to or connect it to the public tree. They should also be able to extract a portion as well.

Almost everyone agrees with the concept of a single tree, however, they want to be “The Single Tree.”

Two of the major concerns with an online tree are the illegal and genealogical misuse of the data.
• The illegal misuse (i.e.: Identity Theft issue) needs to be addressed before all of the information can be made public. See Eliminating Identity Theft.
• The best way to manage the genealogical misuse of data would be to connect the data to the correct person and event and have methods to resolve conflicts.

First, there needs to be a unique ID for each person. It needs to be cross-linked to the ID in each of the various systems and also to their Social Security or other national ID number. Even after all duplicate entries are eliminated there will need to be cross-references to any prior IDs. The person’s Social Security or other ID number should be entered to easily identify and automatically link to the correct person, without it being displayed until the ID issues is resolved.

While digitizing and indexing historical records it would be beneficial to immediately tie the record to a person or family and prevent the same record from being used for a different individual or family without opening a disputed record discussion. The indexes should also have the ability to store the ID for each individual in the record so that they could be entered during indexing or once the record is attached to an event for a person. This would prevent the same marriage record or census record from being used for several people with the same name or at least identify that the two should be reviewed or merged. It could automatically flag the record, notify the researchers, and open up a discussion about the conflict in a Research Wiki or location/surname message board with links. This would then create a place for discussions and a final resolution. Once resolved there needs to be a way to prevent someone from just changing it without appealing the decision.

Names and Dates have been used to build individual family trees for centuries on paper and now on computers. The birth, marriage, death, and burial events can have links to vital and church records. Land records with maps, photos, newspaper articles, biographical sketches, yearbooks, and city directories could eventually be linked by researchers when they find their relative or by indexers or other volunteers with any variety of interests such as probate researchers.

People adding photos and tombstone information to cemetery photo sites could just link to an individual in the single tree rather than posting sometimes fictitious or “hopeful” family information. Organizations such as the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, the DAR, Society of the Descendants of Charlemagne, and the many others could put their seal of approval on portions of the tree.

All of your sites have the capacity, portions of family trees, event data, and the technology to identify and link or merge people, along with the technology to import data from the various sources. What is lacking is the cooperation to put the core information all together in one place.

A consortium of the key genealogical organizations and interested parties should be formed to create and support a neutral Single Tree. It would eventually have an impact far beyond just the genealogical community and it should eventually tie into jurisdictional systems.

Background & Discussion
In 1998 and 2006 I wrote two articles looking at the future of genealogy and they are slowly becoming fact:
• “The List” – Looked at the future of genealogy in 1998. Heritage Quest Magazine, Issue #78, November/December 1998, page 15. Online at
• “The Future Revisited” – reviewed the 1998 predictions and then looked to the future. Everton’s Genealogical Helper November/December 2006, page 55.
Cooperation (from the 1998 article)
• Could this be done? Yes.
• Should it be done? Yes.
• We made it past 1984, Y2K, and 2001, so why are we still worried about the Big Brother aspects of it? Hiding information is rarely a good method when trying to solve a problem. Theft, of all forms, occur everyday, we need to deal with solving the real problem. If everyone got rid of their automobiles, they would no longer have to worry about car theft, but that is not the best solution.
• Can a single company or entity do it? No.
• Individually we have all dealt with relatives, jurisdictions, churches, cemeteries, funeral homes, libraries and museums, genealogical and historical societies, newspapers, genealogy publishers and companies, and others to obtain the information needed for our own research.
• Can we now get them all to cooperate and use their collective resources to create a system that will ensure the highest quality of information available online and be easy for everyone to use? The system should require proper research techniques or at least encourage them and highlight any questionable ones.
• It will be interesting to see where things stand in 2014, eight years from now. (2.5 months)
Making the Single Public Family Tree a Reality

Today it is technically possible. Many of the features are available in the various family tree programs. Some of the information for deceased people is already publically available online. Most of the other pieces are available on various websites but they are not tied together. The major obstacles to an online tree that includes everyone are:
1. The need to Eliminate the threat of Identity Theft
2. Individuals being able to handle their privacy concerns
3. Getting private companies and various jurisdictions and governmental agencies to all work together. (this is probably the biggest problem)

A Single Public Family Tree will probably start in the genealogical community. Eventually it should tie into a single governmental system to verify IDs. It could then be integrated with the systems and process of the various jurisdictions and agencies.

What the Single Tree should include and do
• Provide a single, free, easily accessible starting point to find and contact a person
• Not contribute to identity theft or “do any harm.”
• No matter where the data is entered or stored it should feed the single tree.
• The events in the tree should link back to the various systems for the user to view additional details and supporting documents.
• A single record for every Living Person with a unique global ID.
o Eventually every individual should have secure access to enter and update their own information and application choices. [possibly a Google profile page]
o Include cross-references to other key identification numbers (ie: Social Security Number in the US – stored but not displayed). Use the SSDI to make a living person deceased.
o Include a preferred contact method – email or telephone number
o Individuals could allow viewing or edit capabilities for family members, etc.
o Until the privacy and identity theft issues are resolved there may be various views for the living people but there should not be duplicate records!
• Flag all duplicate key identification numbers, people with the same SS Number.
• Prohibit any new duplicate entries and help to eliminate any duplicate entries.
• Even if some personal entries are private, show the structure of the tree.
• The ability to link to and view an individual’s page or tree without logging in.
• The ability to contact the person, record creator, or other researchers with an interest outside of any membership website. Too many problems contacting people with expired memberships.
• Automatically update an individual’s death information from the SSDI report. A person will not be able to update their own record if they have died and no one else can do it if they do not have access.
• Send a notice to the individual and interested researchers when an update is made.

Privacy Concerns?
Most people would probably say that they do not want their name, address, phone, email, and family information available in such a system. What they do not realize is that much of it is probably already out there! The people you do not want to have easy access to the information probably already do but for everyone else it is becoming more and more difficult to find among the desired data among the garbage on the internet
• Name, Address, & Phone: This information has been published for years in Telephone Books and Directories. It used to be easy to type in a name or phone number and get the information from web sites like Google,, and Now it is more tedious but you usually can find it.
• Birth Date, Parents, and a Woman’s Maiden Name: Much of the information has been published in newspaper announcements for births, marriages, and deaths for an individual or their family members and some may be online. Birth dates are available at People on Facebook often show the birth date but block the year. They then give their High School graduation year or mention their age in posts. They often show family or have them as friends.
• Everyone worries about the Government and Big Brother! – They can get all of the information from tax records, drivers’ license bureau, telephone companies, banks, and other governmental units easily or with a court order. Without a unique ID used by all of the systems there is a greater risk of confusing individuals with the same name.

Eliminating Identity Theft
Social Security numbers were never private! They can never be made private, nor should they be! There needs to be a number that can link all of the systems together and the SS# is already in most systems. What is needed is a Personal Identification Number (PIN) that only the individual knows and is used to verify their identity and provide access to a system. Your car and your house have keys, your bank account has a card and a PIN, and to access websites you have an IDs and passwords. A single ID or number by itself can never be secure.

In order to prevent identity theft more information is needed not less. If someone could enter a person’s ID number into a secure system to verify identification and then see a photo and the address from their last driver’s license or passport it would be much easier to see if the person applying for a job or credit is or is not the same person, especially if it showed that they died last year.

Nobody should be allowed to open a bank account, apply for a credit card, loan, or utility service without personally entering their PIN. A notice would be sent to the person whenever there was a transaction or maybe even an inquiry to alert them of any fraudulent activity. Laws need to be passed along with penalties and punitive damages for any company or organization that conducted transactions without having a verified ID.

There needs to be governmental systems to Verify a person’s ID with the following features:
• Any applications would transfer the user to the site to enter their PIN – never given verbally
• The system sends a verification code back to the requesting application
• The PIN is never entered into or stored in any other system and it is never given out!
• The person can access the system by ID and PIN to maintain their user fields.
– Contact info: email address and phones – pick their preferred notification method
– Current: Address, Social media links: Facebook, websites, photos.
– Opt into “No Call” lists by phone number, or “No e-mail” lists.
• The system sends a notice to the person to notify them of all transactions
• The system stores:
– Names used, Birth Date and Place, Parent’s names & ID#,
– Name, Address, photo, and number on Drivers licenses and Passports
• System checks for duplicate SS, DL, or PP #s, inconsistent addresses, etc.
• Facial recognition software could compare photos looking for duplicates or flag changes.

Integration with Other Systems
The ID system should eventually be integrated with other governmental systems and processes to first verify IDs and then obtain information from the following processes:
• Filing Taxes online would require ID & Pin to prevent fraudulent filing
• Filing Taxes on paper – verify addresses and have the refund only sent to same bank account as their SS payments.
• Medicare, Disability, & Retirement applications – verify ID & information
• Passport Application – verify a person’s ID, address, capture information and photo
• Drivers License – verify a person’s ID, address, capture information and photo
• Birth Certificate of a Child – verify the ID # of the parents – create a temp record
• SS # Application for Child – update the temp record
o Verify the parents – mother’s ID would be the key
o Date & place of birth
o Establish a proxy person and PIN until they get a drivers license or selective service card
• Marriage Application – verify IDs & include their latest photos on the certificate.
• Marriage Return – store the date & place, official, and any new name(s)
• Death Certificate – verify ID, update the system, notify SS
• Property purchases, transfers, etc – verify ID
• Probate Records by person’s ID and list the IDs of beneficiaries
• Automatically update key events as they are recorded and verified with a notice of the activity sent to the individual or their proxy.
• System contains both secure official public information and user maintained data.
• Require the user to maintain basic contact information and any links.
• Applications for employment, credit cards, loans, utilities, etc. – verify the person and key information by # and show the most current Photo – sends a notice that must be verified by the user if they did not personally enter their PIN.
• Online articles could contain a link to the individual in a story to prevent confusion about similar names.

Family History in the Future
“The Single Tree” could eliminate many of the actives that people currently associate with genealogy such as adding people to a family tree and finding the supporting records. Would having a tree automatically built and maintained for living generations be that bad?

Current researchers are a bit like squirrels gathering and storing the increasing number of digital records but never going back and really looking at them in detail or even attaching them to the person.

Future generations could sit down and pick an ancestor or relative and look at all of the records, newspaper articles, stories or memoirs, and photographs to actually learn something about them. It would also be much easier to contact and hopefully actually meet distant cousins.

Current researchers will not have to worry about losing their hobby because it will be quite a while before the historical single family tree is completed, documented, and then allowed to become petrified. There will always be someone trying to “take” your ancestor or documents and tie them to their branch of the tree.

If the current generations are too busy or uninterested to document their own family and life then why not let the systems automatically help to do it. People will still need to add the stories.

The makers of jigsaw puzzles and Sudoku books would be very happy if bored genealogists used their problem solving skills to solve their puzzles.

I would like to thank you for what you have already done to make online research available but please consider some of the enclosed ideas to make it even better. Feel free to share this with others that have a common interest.

Thank you,
Jeffrey A. Bockman

2 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Leaders in the Online Family Tree Business

  1. Hello Leland and Patty:
    I enjoy your blog and can’t believe how many great books you have recommended.
    Re the one tree – actually WikiTree is doing much of this. It sets up trusted members to ‘manage’ profiles so they cannot be corrupted. They are busy merging and correcting the oldest profiles (European royalty, Early New Amsterdam Settlers, etc) and it is all free. They have assigned a unique ID number to each person to eliminate confusion. Their objectives are to create one world tree. It is an ambitious undertaking but many professionals in the genealogy field seem to be assisting and it is encouraging to see.
    Best wishes for the new year!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.