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.

1 comment:

Thanks for your kind and thoughtful comments.