Modern Software Experience

2009-07-29

copy & paste history in the mix

private beta

WorldHistory is a website by FamilyLink.
WorldHistory opened in private beta late in 2008. I received the WorldHistory.com is ready for you to join!! (FamilyLink sure likes exclamation marks) message on 2008 Nov 19.

Back then, getting a private invitation was the only way to join. Today, you can just sign up. A soon as you click the email confirmation link, you are logged in and immediately land on your user profile. You can then decide to invite ten others, but you do not have to do that. Anyone can sign up now.

web site

The site suffers from so-called postage stamp design; the site is fixed-sized and does not adjust when you resize your browser, so if you have a very high resolution monitor, it may look like a postage stamp.

Another mistake is that the site relies heavily on JavaScript. The main navigation seems to work without it, but many of its pages, such as the Map page, and People in History page, do not. If you browse safely, the site is practically unusable.

home page

WorldHistory Home Page

The home pages asks How do you connect to history, and that seems to sum up the idea behind this site quite well. As the menu along the top shows, the site has pages for Maps, People, Events, Artifacts and Timelines - and not just for famous people, events, and artefacts, but for your Ancestors too.

mash-up

WorldHistory does not offer much original content, but is a mash-up of Google Maps, Wikipedia and your data. The maps are from Google maps, most of the description for famous people, events and artefacts are straight out of the Wikipedia and the data on your ancestors is provided by you.

Map

WorldHistory Map page

This is what the map page looks like. I have no idea why WorldHistory opted for this particular type of map, with all the highways showings. I guess it decided to show Leiden because it left that decision to Google Maps.

Anyway, the orange icon on Leiden is there because of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. When you click on the icon, a small window pops up with the Wikipedia text for Rembrandt in it. That window is too small to be practical, the screenshot shows what that window looks like after clicking the Expand link.

Notice how Rembrandt’s name along the left side of the map has unceremoniously been chopped off because it does not fit the limited space. The site does not wrap the name and does not allow resizing either. Also note that it uses the self-portrait shown at Wikipedia for his icon, and a tiny image for a painting.

People

The initial tagging of content has been presumably be done by FamilyLink. As I browsed through the list, I was surprised to note that FamilyLink had included Brigham Young and tagged him as prophet, yet omitted all the others tags that apply to him; if you use the tags to search for known polygamists or racists, his profile won’t show up.

In fact, none of the random tags I tried resulting in anyone showing up, and even clicking on any of the tags on the tag cloud on the right, presumably a list of tags that has been applied to people, most often resulted in an empty list - until I figured out that the site kept stacking the tags you had chosen, without very clearly showing that. If you clear the tag list first, clicking the tags in the tag cloud works fine.

I clicked the composer tag to get some idea of how many famous people are in there, and it sure seems that FamilyLink has copied every composer in the Wikipedia; there are thirty pages of results.

Events

WorldHistory Events page

The events page seems to demonstrate a narrow view of history; it is mostly a list of battles. Major scientific discoveries that changed our world view, and technologies that changed our world, do not seem to be listed at all.
This narrow view of history as a list of battles is not just disappointing, but perhaps also a demonstration of over-reliance on the Wikipedia. Perhaps it is unfair to blame WorldHistory for this, and should we really be grateful that it is exposing a weakness of Wikipedia as it is today.

Artefacts

WorldHistory Artefacts page

The artefacts page is perhaps the most interesting one, although I’d rather browse the Wikipedia directly. Not only is the Wikipedia more up to date, but the limited browsing I have done suggests that WorldHistory contains a very limited selection. All the pages for artefact I randomly selected from this list do list the name of a user who added that page; that suggests that something is only on the WorldHistory if some user bothered to add it, and that reinforces the impression that you are better off browsing the Wikipedia itself.

The WorldHistory site is a Wicopydia; almost all the content is copied from Wikipedia.

Wikipedia

copied

To say that the World History site relies very strongly on Wikipedia is an understatement.

The WorldHistory site is a Wicopydia; almost all the content is copied from Wikipedia. Generally, the legal consequence is spelled out under the copied article: Content from Wikipedia offered under GNU Free Documentation License.

The WorldHistory site does not display current Wikipedia content, but dated Wikipedia content.

dated

It is good that the site spell out the legal issue of the copied content, but to the average user, the technical consequence of the copied content is more significant; all the content is dated; while the Wikipedia is constantly updated, WorldHistory is not. The WorldHistory site does not display current Wikipedia content, but dated Wikipedia content.

WorldHistory Michael Jackson page

A painful example is WorldHistory’s Michael Jackson page. Never mind the misspelling of his name; the real issue is that this page has still not been updated to reflect the fact that he died some weeks ago.

The screenshot of this particular page also shows another problem I noted on many of the pages I looked at; the Wikipedia content is bluntly truncated after just a few paragraphs (there really is nothing after those ellipsis), which is yet another solid reason to prefer the Wikipedia original over the WorldHistory copy.

updates

WorldHistory allows you to update their pages, but just how sensible is that is when their pages are just dated copies of Wikipedia content? Wouldn’t you rather update the current Wikipedia page instead? Wouldn’t you rather use the Wikipedia instead?

WorldHistory may be a nice alternative viewer for Wikipedia content, but does not allow you to view anything but its limited selection of dated and very often even truncated content. That is hardly a compelling proposition, and the less than impartial tagging of the content is not appealing either.

When you compare the WorldHistory site to Wikipedia, it is hard not to view it as a poor attempt to present a rather narrow and coloured view of history.
It is tempting to conclude that the right thing for FamilyLink to do is to donate the viewer to the Wikipedia project, where it can be used to browse all content, up-to-date content and where you can click through read the full articles.

…the WorldHistory site is a bit more than an alternative Wikipedia viewer that only shows you a limited selection of dated and truncated content.

more

However, the WorldHistory site is a bit more than an alternative Wikipedia viewer that only shows you a limited selection of dated and truncated content.

I am not saying that the limited selection, dated content, truncated content and biased tagging aren’t serious issues. These are all very serious issues that need to solved and solved soon if FamilyLink is serious about promoting the site without it becoming a canonical example of how not to do a mash-up.

Yes, the site is a Wicopydia, and a technically poor one, but what makes this site interesting is that it is more than a Wicopydia.

Timelines

The timelines pages does not just show timelines - notice that big ugly Create New button - but also lets you create your own timelines to share with others.

I briefly played with this and found it easy to use. You first create a timeline, and can than add events to it. The timeline editing was pretty responsive too. This is worth mentioning, as responsiveness is an adjective I would not apply to the entire site.

I particularly like how easy it is to link to events already in the database; just start typing, and it shows titles that contain the fragment of text you just typed - all you have to link to it is click on it. The feedback to confirm you did selected one of the links could be better, but the selection process itself is as easy as it gets.

Ancestors

WorldHistory Ancestors page

upload link

The Ancestors pages invites you you to upload a GEDCOM and then see your ancestors on map. However, when I clicked Upload GEDCOM, nothing happened. I tried it in all major web browsers, I even tried it in Internet Explorer, but it just does not work.

I browsed the list of users and visited some other user profiles, to see if anyone else had ever succeeded in uploading a GEDCOM file. I concentrated on the few users who had bothered to upload an avatar, and still did not find one family tree. Now, it is probably true that few uploaded their tree yet, but another reason I did not find a tree is that you apparently need to be friends to see someone else’s tree.

upload button

After some puzzled moment, I figured out that the Upload GEDCOM link does not work, but the upload button does. I uploaded a tiny file of less than 500 individuals. The import of this tiny file took about 5 seconds, and during that time, the site did not display any message or progress bar.

An import speed of just 100 individuals per second for such a tiny file does seems surprisingly poor, but it is hard to say whether the import is really slow or whether the overhead around the import is responsible for most of the time the import took until this functionality is tried with a sizeable file.

Once it was done importing, WorldHistory asked me Do you want to see your ancestors on a map?. Even though this GEDCOM did not contain my ancestors, how could I refuse this offer?

geocoding

Of course, things are not quite as simple as that. When I eagerly clicked that button, I initially got to see a world map without ancestors. Above it was the question Right now you can view 0 of your ancestors on a map. There are still 443 ancestors that can be Geolocated. Would you like to start the geolocating process? and just one possible answer: Yes, I would like to geocode my ancestors.

After clicking that option, the site showed the text Please be patient...This may take a couple of minutes. It actually took about 45 seconds to geocode 200 ancestors out of the almost 450 ancestors. Assuming an average of two places per ancestors, that is processing just 20 places per second, and geocoding less than half of these, not a impressive achievement. The site did offer to try and geocode some more ancestors, but I just wanted to see the results.

The map initially showed just one person. By default, the timeline shown above the map is active, and that timeline selects people from a particular year. To see all ancestors, uncheck the Use Timeline check box below the map.

A list of the people in your tree is shown next to the map. If you click on any particular person , it shows a timeline, with lines on the map connecting the places where vital events took place.

surprising distribution

Well, that is what is supposed to show. I had selected a GEDCOM for a Dutch family and was surprised that all the pins the map showed where in the United States of America only. I did expect some emigrants, but I mostly expected lots of pins in the Netherlands, and a scattering of pins throughout Europe and former Dutch colonies.

WorldHistory Sumatra in USA

I picked the first person in the list, a woman who lived on Sumatra. According to the WorldHistory site, the island of Sumatra is in the middle of the American mainland. The Dutch places her husband was born and died are apparently on the American mainland as well.

WorldHistory’s ostensible geocoding is not just poor, but horribly unreliable.

geocoding quality

When the site claimed it had geocoded 200 of the 443 people, I assumed it had done the easy ones, all the places names that are so unique or so well specified that there is no ambiguity.

That assumption was obviously too kind. WorldHistory’s ostensible geocoding is not just poor, but horribly unreliable. Its matching logic does not seem much better than that used by Map My Ancestors.

privacy

You can upload multiple trees. All trees default to private, but you can decide to share them with your friends. Alas, there seems to be no option to share with everyone, nor is their any kind of smart matching, so your chances of finding any distant relatives on WorldHistory are poor.

There seems to be no privacy policy, but WorldHistory does allow you to delete your trees.

FaceBook games

Along the bottom of each page are three buttons that lead to FaceBook. One leads to the WorldHistory fan page. The first two lead to two FaceBook games, History Quizzes and Remember when..., and I happen to know that FamilyLink is developing a third application.

These games show that WorldHistory content is usable in games, but I wonder whether FamilyLink sees this site’s future as a provider of game content.

phone applications

The site additionally promises that an iPhone and Android application, as well as an iGoogle gadget will be available soon. Those who remember previous time-related FamilyLink announcements will take those promises with a bucket of salt.

RSS feeds

What is available right now are RSS feeds. The site claims to provide feeds for Events, Places, People and Categories, but that last one does not seem to work. A quick look at the current feeds shows that they just added ten more battles, ten composers, and ten places in the USA.

questions

I have not done exhaustive testing of the GEDCOM functionality. I uploaded just one tiny file from my collection, but the mere fact that the site features GEDCOM upload and geocoding already raises all kinds of questions.

Why does WorldHistory feature GEDCOM upload, while We’re Related still does not? Why does World History feature geocoding, while WebTree does not? How do these applications relate to each other, if at all? What questions like these highlight is how poorly coordinated FamilyLink’s multiple sites and applications seem to be with each other.

Perhaps FamilyLink intends to merge the features of WorldHistory and WebTree. Perhaps they intend to merge it with We’re Related as well.
Whatever they are planning, in the meantime, existing users of these applications seem to be forgotten, and ignoring the needs of existing users is a great way to build a bad reputation for yourself.

conclusion

I do not remember seeing an official announcement that WorldHistory it is out of beta, but it is open to everyone now and it does not sport a beta logo, so it sure is a public site now.

There are some user interface rough edges, and you need to pay attention to the timeline, but the site is not hard to navigate. I do think the site uses too many colour gradients, but that is a minor quibble and a matter of taste.

The overall idea, to show your ancestors in the context of history, is a nice one, but I dare say that the timeline support in several current desktop genealogy application does a better job of it.

There are two big issues with this site that severely limit its usability. The first one is that it really is an Wicopydia with an alternative interface. That interface is nice, but the overall experience is hampered by the limited selection of content, dated content and truncated content. As soon as you notice these things, you are likely to leave to browse the Wikipedia itself.

The second issue is that the one feature that should lift the site above its status as a poor Wicopydia - the mash-up of your ancestral tree with the global history data - is severely hampered by an ill geocoding algorithm that does the worst possible thing; it tends to claim geocoding victory while it is actually failing spectacularly.

A third issue is that the social aspect of the site is limited by the inability to share (some of) your ancestral data with everyone. If only your friends can see your tree, you are not going to find many new matches you did not know about yet. In fact, you are not going to find many matches at all. It seems that Geni.com has nothing to fear from this site.

The ability to add people, places and events is nice, but WeRelate already offers that. Perhaps the biggest mistake of the WorldHistory site as it is now is not its poor technology, but the decision to mash-up your date with Wikipedia and Google Maps, while it should be mashing up Wikipedia, Google Maps and your WeRelate account.

updates

update 2009-07-29: WorldHistory FaceBook Games

World History FaceBook Games provides a brief overview of the FaceBook games based on the WorldHistory site.

2011-04-23: FamilyHistoryLink

The FamilyHistoryLink domain is defunct. The broken link has been removed.

2010-04 23: WebTree no more

FamilyLink abandoned WebTree. See WebTree no more. The broken WebTree link has been removed

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links

FamilyLink

other