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This review of WikiTree is a slightly edited version of a review that I posted on the soc.genealogy.computing newsgroup on 26 April 2014.

Having used WikiTree intermittently for several months, I feel I have now spent enough time using it to have a relatively good idea of its capabilities and deficiencies. As I failed to find many useful reviews of it on-line, I thought I'd post a short review in the hope that it might be helpful to others.

WikiTree's components are a curious mix of the well-developed and the under-developed. Were it a new site still in beta release, it would be a very promising start. But at six years old, it can hardly be considered new, and for a product of its age it is extremely immature. Broadly speaking, those parts of the system to do with collaborative editing are well thought through and work, while those to do with the actual genealogical data are inadequate.

Its privacy model is a good example of something that seems well thought through, and is considerably more sophisticated than the usual dichotomy of hiding all living individuals and making public all dead individuals. For example, there's a distinction between public (meaning anyone can read it) and open (meaning anyone can read it and any user can edit it). You can place specific users (for example, your relatives) on the trusted list for individuals, giving them access to otherwise private details and also edit permission. It's easy to do this for a whole branch of a family in one go.

They seem to have implemented sensible processes to handle collaboration where one party is unresponsive, uncooperative or unreasonable. If you can demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that something currently on WikiTree is wrong, it you really should be able to get it changed, however intransigent the other party is, assuming you are willing to put the time in to follow the correct process and not lose your cool over it.

But once we start looking at the more genealogical parts of the system, they are much more shaky grounds. Many of the problems stem from the underlying storage model, so it is worth explaining this first. Every individual on the site has a wiki page containing narrative text on the individual, plus a small collection of structured data on the individual seemingly stored in a separate relational database. In principle, this is could be a good choice of implementation, but as always, the devil is in the detail.

One major problem is that there are no means to keep the two sets of data in sync. When I create a new individual, it is the structured data that you are encouraged to enter first. From this, it generates a initial narrative that you may, but needn't, edit. If you now notice an error in the structured data which you fix, you also need to update the same information in the narrative. It is all too easy for the two to get out of sync. In principle, it should be easy enough to allow the narrative text to access structured data, so the generated narrative could contain something like the following:

{{name}} was born on {{dob}} and died on {{dod}}.

which the site would rendered as

James Edward Moody was born on 28 November 1862 and died on 1 April 1921.

If I wanted to edit the narrative, perhaps to say that he died suddenly or unexpectedly, I can do so, and still leave the {{dod}} references fetching the data. There are existing technologies (such as the Semantic Mediawiki extensions to Mediawiki, which is the software they use for WikiTree's narrative text) that do pretty much exactly that, but they have not been used on WikiTree.

Another big problem is that there is no means of sourcing the structured data. The intention is that this is done solely in the narrative, and WikiTree make a big thing of encouraging good sourcing of data, but the reality is that it is often omitted because it's unnecessarily painful to do properly. Some types of sources are used time and time again: censuses, parish registers, wills, the IGI. Mediawiki makes it trivial to set up a template to format a source citation in a standard format, and which over time could be developed to include links to pages of additional information on the particular sources and how to access it. Such things are used all the time on Wikipedia, which uses the same basic software, but are practically non-existent on WikiTree.

Several important classes of event are not handled in the structured data at all. Baptisms and burials are prime examples. Most software I've used will use baptisms and burials as proxies for births and deaths, respectively, when the latter are not available: but not WikiTree, which punts the whole thing to the narrative text. Even the structured data that is available cannot be searched adequately: for example, searching by places is not possible, and searching by date is limited.

Perhaps more seriously, no calendars other than the Gregorian calendar are supported. The site documentation repeatedly tells users to convert Julian dates into the Gregorian calendar, but I am pretty certain this is rarely done; and if it is, I'm sure it causes confusion. That said, it doesn't help that the documentation appears to have been written by someone who doesn't understand the difference between the Julian calendar and Lady Day year endings, and that converting between Julian and Gregorian dates isn't simply a matter of sometimes adding one to the year.

As I said at the start of this review, these problems would be excusable in a beta release of a new product, but not in something as established as WikiTree. The problems have all been reported many times over, but there seems to be no inclination to fix them. Indeed, I see few signs of significant improvements to the site in the last few years. This is a shame, as I think the idea of building a collaborative genealogical site around Mediawiki has a lot of potential, and I'd like to see it explored more thoroughly.

But unfortunately the problems I've discussed here are not isolated deficiencies, and as a result I cannot recommend WikiTree in its present state. It would be nice to think that these problems might be addressed in future, and if that happens, WikiTree might become a viable platform for collaborative genealogy. The potential is there, but I'm sorry to say, I shan't be holding my breath.

Note The original version of this review stated that WikiTree was run and owned by the Wikimedia Foundation. This was incorrect. WikiTree is in fact run by, the company that runs WikiAnswers.

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