31 July 2011

The FamilySearch Tree's "Universal" Future

NOTE: FamilySearch attended this year's Open Source Convention (OSCON), held on July 25th-29th in Portland, Oregon. At this event Gordon Clark of FamilySearch was interviewed. The latter part of this post is a summary of that interview.

Genealogically relevant data is being posted online at an intense rate. New technology expands crowd-sourcing techniques, smartphones allow instant uploads of records with GPS tags, advanced cameras can convert all types of media into digital format in less time than ever before, and "the cloud" provides flexible data storage options for all that new information. Throughout this technology boom several different companies and organizations have recognized the opportunity to provide better genealogy services.

Genealogy techies like me no longer ask, "Will the records I need ever be within my reach?" Now we are more concerned with, "Do I have to spend hours looking at different websites? Why can't I see everything I want in one place?"

For those not familiar with technology this question may seem deceptively simple. With several different companies and organizations involved it is unrealistic to believe there will ever be one website onto which all genealogy data will go. Such effort toward a genealogical monopoly is not only overwhelming administratively, but would harm the entrepreneurial creative spirit. It is also difficult to imagine the look of a website on which all the historically and genealogically relevant data about an individual could be put in one place. There is simply too much data.

Many online family tree services allow images to be uploaded to the user's tree. For example, if I take a headstone picture and upload it on FindAGrave.com I can also upload it separately to my tree on Ancestry.com. Every time I upload a file to another website it is duplicating the file's web presence--in hopes to increase the odds it will be seen--but with the new concept being worked on at FamilySearch uploading on multiple sites becomes unnecessary. Using what is called a Person Identifier, any data about your ancestor can be linked to the Family Tree. During this year's OSCON, Gordon Clark of FamilySearch explained his company's vision regarding the FamilySearch Family Tree and the way it will become "universal."

"You link to the data... A good way to look at that is when in geo-mapping the anchor is a longitude and latitude... we want to have a clear understanding of who this person is, where they are in time, and who their parents and who their children are. Then that person--our person ID which we hope will be universal someday--then all the richness of the material on the web which has been digitized can be linked to our person in our master tree."

This vision of a universally linked tree allows FamilySearch to avoid duplication in technology development and use of resources. FamilySearch's position as the largest genealogy organization in the world came about through their focus on volunteerism, free data access, and efficiency. To an audience of software developers at OSCON, Clark said, "Web services is what we're all about... what we're all about is the building up of the data and the sharing of the data so there can be lots of innovative applications..."

FamilySearch's data is built upon a platform so they have API's (Application Program Interface) for app developers to use which enable users to interact with FamilySearch data from within 3rd-party apps. Clark explained the purpose of FamilySearch API's:

"...to generate more clients, more innovation--in how you access the data that we have."

Suggested uses of the FamilySearch API included
  • Mobile applications that search FamilySearch
  • Applications that consider the audience, including:
  • culturally oriented applications
  • applications that consider age of user
  • applications that consider computer skill of user
FamilySearch's vision of sharing data openly was being expressed at the BYU Family History Conference at the same time that OSCON was live in Portland. Ransom H. Love of FamilySearch spoke about the budget problems of archives and FamilySearch's efforts to help digitize and index records. Generally, when FamilySearch microfilms, digitizes, and indexes the records of an organization the only "payment" is a copy of the records to be held by FamilySearch. For legal reasons, some organizations may wish to retain full control over all copies of their data. With this in mind FamilySearch has recently begun undertaking select preservation efforts without requiring a copy of the records.

With FamilySearch's long-term vision, flexibility, and encouragement of innovation family history lovers can expect many new tools and resources to advance their work.

Family Village Review

Family Village in alpha came out several months ago at which time the concept sparked my interest. In the more recent beta stages of this Facebook app I decided to give it a test run.

Facebook and Facebook games have become popular as of late among a crowd not necessarily prone to interest in genealogy. There is a movement growing in the genealogical community to reach out and bring more people in by making apps that work better with these new audiences. These apps generally take advantage of mobile technology and/or social media. Family Village is a prime example. Lovers of FarmVille and other similar Facebook games will recognize a familiar feel. In this game the player controls a village by building new buildings, populating the village, and assigning jobs to the villagers. The twist is that villagers are the people in your family tree and while you play the game it automatically searches FamilyLink genealogy databases (such as WorldVitalRecords) for documents about those ancestors.

I played the game for several hours and over a period of a couple weeks starting the last Saturday in May. By the end of my first day of playing several issues with the game were apparent, the most disappointing being the search function. Only once was something found that correctly identified an ancestor of mine. The search is limited to FamilyLink databases. After holding a subscription to WorldVitalRecords--one of their databases---for 2 years, I canceled my membership because it provided too few records relevant to my family history research. I have instead found websites like FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com to be worth the price--free in one case. If Family Village used the FamilySearch API in their app then all of the records on FamilySearch.org could be searched for free from within the Facebook game. That would add significant value and no additional cost to the developer. A manual search option or search filters could also improve the search experience. Many other improvements could be made to make the concept of Family Village a success. I continue to believe the concept of Family Village is a good one, but the time investment to play it is not worth the minimal genealogical return it provides in its current state. The company acknowledges Family Village is still in beta and has several improvements on the way.

Family Village has a wonderful concept and deserves to be watched. My recommendation is to keep track of this app. There are several minor upgrades that are being put into place on a regular basis making it a better game. One major game-play upgrade occurred when I booted up the game while I was in my couple week testing phase for this review. I simply hope that when it comes out of beta FamilyLink and Funium will have addressed the issue with search.

In the mean time if you are looking for fun new technologies that help advance the work of genealogy I suggest trying out the new headstone photography and transcription crowd-sourcing program, BillionGraves.com