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Cloud-Based Mind Mapping Tools to Help You Organize Your Genealogy

Mind mapping is a brainstorming technique where visual diagrams are used to show how thoughts or ideas are connected. The process is commonly used in project planning and presentations.

But have you tried it for genealogy?

Mind maps look a lot like family trees that got a little loose and crazy. And I know that’s exactly what it feels like when I’m thinking through a difficult genealogy conclusion, analysis, or DNA problem.
Not all family history writing is linear. A mind map can help

Genealogy is Linear, Right?

Try a Mind Map to Get Your Family History Out of Line

A mind map is a great option when you need to break out of a pedigree chart, clearly defined generations, formal outlines, or any other “linear” organizational structure. I don’t use mind maps for genealogy all the time because often it is linear, (I don’t care if there are certain time travelers that claim time is all wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey, for most genealogists, it’s linear).

Sometimes you’re not working on something that has a natural structure. Often this happens with a really difficult problem focusing on one person. Their life has a linear progression but if you’re writing an analysis to prove something (usually a relationship, but that can include a relationship to his/herself, as in proving two people are the same person), you don’t want to just layout their timeline.

A good genealogical analysis takes its structure from the available documentation. What I mean is, you don’t just start with “he was born” and go to “he died.” If you need an analysis, what you're writing about isn’t obvious.

Not All Family History Writing is a Family History

An exact narrative of a life is for storytelling or obvious facts. An analysis is needed when during a timeline-narrative, the “audience” would stop and say, “are you sure that’s the same person?” In other words, the documentation (or “the facts”) do not obviously belong to this person and require additional explanation.

(Keep in mind, your analysis also has a purpose. Every detail of someone's life doesn't relate to that purpose. If it did, that would be a family history, not an analysis. You could, of course, also use a mind map to consider non-linear options to tell a more compelling story, not just for an analysis. Your writing has a purpose and so does a mind map.)

If you have to break up the timeline in your writing, that’s where a mind map becomes helpful. If everything is straightforward, you begin at the beginning and stop when you come to the end. When it’s not obvious, you have a pile of facts here, a pile there, some singe or pairs of facts tossed about.

They are running about your head in an ever-shifting order!

They can be placed in chronological order, but that order doesn’t always support your analysis (it should indicate you aren’t dealing with more than one person and might “support” your conclusion, but it’s not always the best order to prove your point).

If you want to work with piles of documents on the floor, moving them around, or sticky notes you can reposition, or a whiteboard where things are easy to change, you might need a mind map.
If your ideas are scattered, try a mind map.

Basically, the mind map is where you dump your ideas without worrying about the order. Digital mind maps make it super easy to move ideas as a structure begins to emerge.

I’ve used mind maps for capturing all my ideas for a proof argument or summary. This is perhaps the only way to start when you don’t know where to start your argument.

Other Ways to Use Mind Maps in Genealogy

I’ve used mind maps for FAN Club projects. This can be tricky because source citations need to be seen when analyzing a FAN Club but it’s also helpful to shift your information to see it chronologically, geographically, or by surname (or any other “grouping” you can think of). A digital mind map can allow you to do this (and can handle those “in-between” items you want to place between two groups).

You can see an actual Mind Map I created to work on the FAN Club for one of my ancestors. This is a work-in-progress and just one idea of how to use a mind map for a FAN Club.

You could use a mind map for a DNA problem. That often does not have a linear structure. Although you are usually dealing with multiple generations, different matches come in at different places generationally (both in the ancestor they share with you and the number of generations between the ancestor and match). On top of that, we toss on the actual amount of DNA inherited and that’s three ways to linearly organize our matches, but they are three different linear structures.

A mind map is ready to help if you want to work with DNA results in a non-linear fashion. In fact, this is what is done with genetic networks and is a way to deal with “clusters.” A mind map is an option you can control although it won’t be as powerful as some of the automated tools out there (but you will create it so there won’t be the learning curve, either).

You can do whatever you want.

It is an organizational structure when other types of structures won’t work. Don’t worry about it being right or wrong (you CAN fill out a pedigree chart wrong, you can’t create your mind map wrong).

In today’s digitally-focused world, it’s easier to create and share mind maps than ever before. Here are a few cloud-based applications that let you and your research cousins create and modify a mind map together.

Here's that example of a FAN Club tracked in a mind map (if you don't want to click the link to visit).

FAN Club in a mind map

click "Play" and you'll be able to go through a "presentation" which will zoom in on each of the entries.




A really popular option is MindMup. It’s also a good option when you do want a more linear (or tree-like) structure.

https://www.mindmup.com/

LucidChart is popular in the genetic genealogy community. You can use it to graph out the lineages for DNA matches but you could also use it for mind mapping.

https://www.lucidchart.com/

Draw.io is an alternative to LucidChart. It has a very small learning curve and integrates with Google Docs.

https://www.draw.io

In the early days of online mind mapping, I always used MindMeister. Along the way they also created MeisterTask which is linear organization (Kanban boards like Trello). If you need more than just a quick mind map, this might be a good option but it’s aimed at businesses so it may be way more than you need.

https://www.mindmeister.com/
The example I provided above for how to use a mind map for a FAN Club was created in MindMeister.

Note that all of the options I'm mentioning have a free and paid option. Most are right around $5/month for the basic paid option (with the free option most limit you to 3 private maps).

I’m mentioning this because there are a few options that were way more expensive. They might have a lot more bells and whistles, but since we’re talking genealogy, not your software startup, you are probably good with a free plan or something around $5/mo if you really love to mind map.


Here are three more options to consider. I haven’t tried these but they are similar in features and pricing.

Bubbl.us


Bubbl.us is a free tool that allows you to create virtual mind maps in order to brainstorm and map ideas. Start with a central topic, then add new topics either at the same level or one level lower.

Bubbl.us will format these bubbles into a tree automatically, though you can also move the bubbles around to suit your needs. You can change the color and size of your bubbles to bring style to your brainstorming session. Bubbl.us offers a free option, but an account is required in order to create or edit a tree.

https://bubbl.us/


SpiderScribe


SpiderScribe is an online-based brainstorming and mind mapping tool that allows you to easily share your mind map with others.

You can use SpiderScribe to connect files, notes and even calendar events on maps you can design how you want. Your maps are stored in the cloud, which means that you and the people you choose to share the map with can access and edit it at any time. SpiderScribe offers a free personal account and upgraded “pro” and “business” options for a small fee.

https://www.spiderscribe.net/


Coggle


Coggle is a free and easy mind mapping application that you can sign in to via your Google account. When creating a mind map with their software, Coggle will automatically randomize the color of each branch, although you may change it to whatever color you wish by clicking on the branch you want to change.

When you have completed your mind map, you can download and share it with your friends or co-workers. Not only that, but you may allow the people that you share your mind map with to edit the content too. It also gives you the option to look at what your mind map looked like before you allowed other people to make changes on it.

https://coggle.it/


If you want to consider more options (particularly if you want to collaborate with cousins and don’t want to actually test every option but want to read about them, first), Zapier has a great article to help you get started collaborating with mind maps.

These are just a few of the mind mapping tools available online. There are many other services available offering mind mapping resources and other useful brainstorming tools. It’s up to you to decide which is best to help you organize your ideas.

Do you have questions or ideas? Leave a comment. There are so many ways to use mind maps in genealogy!


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