Tag Archives: data portability

categorical imperitive digital cameras entropy ethics Facebook Flickr genealogy GeneoTree Gmail Google Google search information-retrieval intellectual property linkedin openness PhpGedView social networking Usability web search

Web-based genealogy software – any recommendations?

Desperation This past year we moved away from most of my family and added a new leaf to the family tree.  This has inevitably turned my thoughts to family history.  As expected from a guy who let the internet vote for his baby’s name and Twittered the delivery, I’m not going to be happy typing up a plain old document and mailing it out to family members.

I want to start collating a family history and collecting stories, photos, and other artifacts and I want to do it with a web app so that I can share with family spread all around the country.  Though I don’t have time for any hard-core genealogical research right now I’d like to set up a good framework in case anyone else in family catches the bug and finds themselves hunched over microfiche at the local LDS church.

So two of my main concerns are usability and openness.  Openness means having complete access and ownership of the data (so Facebook family tree apps are out) and compatibility with standard genealogical file types.

It would also me nice if it were written in a language I know like PHP, Java, or even Python in case I get the urge to write plugins or change the interface.

I know of two systems that might fit the bill, PhpGedView and GeneoTree, but I’m hoping to get some suggestions and recommendations before I start installing lots of stuff on my web server.  Has anyone done a project along these lines, or played around with this kind of software?

Please leave any input in the comments below.

Obsolescence and obscurity in digital cameras

University Hall Tower at OWU I’m planning on buying a new DSLR, and as I looked through old photos from college today I started to think about my first digital camera, a Philips ESP50.  Here’s a page with some specs, translated from German.

I remember buying the camera, logged in to eBay from my parents’ house late at night the day after Christmas.  I think I ended up paying something like $250 for it.

This was before the megapixel war, when 640 by 480 was considered a viable resolution.  This camera applied tortuous levels of JPG compression to fit images on the 4MB disk.  At the time, though, it seemed like a good deal.  Film cost money, and developing film cost money, and most of the year I was a ramen-noodle-eating college student.  Probably the biggest reason to go digital was the tiny little screen on the back – you could actually tell if you got the shot, instead of waiting to get back a bunch of blurry prints.

The camera is painfully obsolete now, and even then it was somewhat obscure.  The thing is, the Web was a pretty amazing place even back in 1998 – there were lots of web pages about this camera.  I remember reading at least a couple reviews, and searches for it on WebCrawler or Alta Vista or whatever I used back then came up with retailers, other auction sites, etc.  Look for information about this camera now, and it seems that it has been largely forgotten:

And that’s about it.

I wonder, is this the destiny of all cameras?  Will I do a search for my Nikon Coolpix 5700 in 2014 and come up with just as little, or has the Web expanded so quickly that the copious product reviews, blog posts, and technical discussions on photography forums outweigh the force of entropy?  I wonder if the Internet has gained any stability as it has matured – do pages tend to stick around longer, or is linkrot a constant of the universe?

Future generations will hardly feel deprived if they miss out on information about some crappy old digicam.  Still, you never know what kind of information will end up being useful to someone at some point, and this same problem extends to all the information on the Web – from reviews of obsolete products to the human genome.  If a website goes under and deletes a thousand blogs, it won’t exactly make the news.  But our great-grandchildren might look at that stuff the way we look at letters from the Civil War.

The only solutions I have are more effort behind projects like archive.org, increased data portability, and rational intellectually property laws that don’t make saving 70-year-old content from deletion into a federal crime.

For discussion, how do you deal with ancient equipment, keeping around old web content, or even archiving old email?

The Ethics of Web Apps, or, Ever try to get a list of your contacts from Facebook?

Jagged path Even before I worked at Google, I was pretty impressed by the “don’t be evil” motto.  Not that I think any company is perfect or that anyone can hire only saintly employees – but it’s impressive when anyone recognizes the ethical implications for what we do as programmers and web developers.

Now that I work there, I can tell you that everyone really seems to take it to heart (disclaimer:  this is my personal blog and I am not representing my employer in any way).  At this point, you may be asking, “programs are just lists of instructions, web sites are just products, what’s the ethical dilemma?”

I’ll give you an example.

I’m a big fan of Facebook, I think they’ve really done a great job building a social networking system, and it’s been very useful for keeping up with friends all over the world.  But I also have an account at LinkedIn, and Flickr, and Yelp, and an address book in Thunderbird, and another on my iPhone, and…  you get the picture.  So I’m trying to collect all my contacts together in one system (Gmail) so I can just import/export to keep all these different social networking systems up to date.

But Facebook doesn’t have a function to export a list of contacts and email addresses.  What’s more, they’ve apparently actively blocked attempts by developers to build systems to do it and disabled people’s accounts.

They are, of course, not legally obligated to let you export your contacts.  And if I were building a social networking site, it probably wouldn’t be the first feature I would implement.  But ethically, I think, they should do so.  Why?  We can refer to Kant’s categorical imperative or Jesus’ golden rule:  They should build open systems because they would like other systems to be open.

They certainly take advantage of the openness of other systems, allowing you to import contacts from Gmail.  Google’s social networking site, Orkut, will happily export your contacts, and I don’t think that’s an accident.  The engineers and product managers at Google make conscious choices to do the right thing.

But wait…  am I really asking them to make it easy for their users to take their data and go over to a competitor?  Isn’t that a bad business practice?

It’s possible, but beside the point.  I’m sure you and I could think of plenty of things that are profitable but morally repugnant.  What’s more, I don’t think it is a bad business practice at all.  I think that the walled garden approach is a sign of desperation rather than innovation.  Orkut is not the only one that lets you take your data with you – LinkedIn allows exports, for example.

Paul Graham wrote a really interesting post about this recently:

When you’re small, you can’t bully customers, so you have to charm them. Whereas when you’re big you can maltreat them at will, and you tend to, because it’s easier than satisfying them. You grow big by being nice, but you can stay big by being mean.

If you’d like to read more about this subject and see what some developers are doing to make your data more portable, check out DataPortability.org.