Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Digital Cocktail Napkin? Sketching Out Your Research Projects

So, let's say you are having a cup of coffee at a diner with a family member, or perhaps a cocktail with some co-workers. And let's say your most recent brick wall has been invading your thought waves all day. So, if you are like me, very often you will take a napkin - cocktail or other - and begin sketching out a plan.

I used to sketch madly before I found Free Mind which is now my "brainstorming" software of choice.

Free Mind falls into the category of "mind mapping" applications. Mind mapping, putting it simply, is a virtual method of charting your ideas, thoughts, concepts and problem solving tasks around a central idea or theory. I've been using Free Mind to assist me in mapping out a strategy for my brick walls and then documenting my progress.

Free Mind has these advantages over several other mind mapping solutions:

- it is open source software, meaning it is FREE. That is my favorite price.

- it is easy to install since it requires Java and is not tied to other programs such as Microsoft Office, etc.

- it does not require advanced markup skills such as HTML, CSS, etc.

- it does not require advanced drawing skills; if you can sketch on a napkin, you can sketch on FreeMind.

- it allows you to create child nodes (think sub-ideas) and sibling nodes (think co-ideas) and then drag and drap them all over the chart.

- it allows you to use icons to visually indicate the status of a node or task; icons such as Important, Key, Stop, Go are valuable when looking at the map and getting a visual sense of progress.

- it allows you to insert hyperlinks to images, PDFs, websites, etc.

- it allows you to connect nodes with various types of arrows to point out dependencies and relationships.

So, take Free Mind for a test drive. You may find yourself using it for more than just genealogy: recently I was able to track the case status over at Unclaimed Persons where I am a case administrator. I have been handling a very difficult case for several weeks and instead of reviewing pages and pages of messages from the volunteer researchers and the other case admins, I decided to condense the information down into a mind map.

And if you want a copy of the Free Mind mind map I used to research my brick wall concerning how the letter "a" was added to McEntee by my great-grandfather to make the name into MacEntee, I'd be happy to send you a copy of the map.


Jasia said...

Your mind map is impressive! Thanks for the software tip. I'll check it out!

Rick Koelz said...

Thomas, I would love to receive a copy of your mind map. I've been using mind maps for work for years and would like to see how you have taken those tools to genealogy.

Since I can't find an email address to send this message tp you privately - my email address is