Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Family History Technology Workshop

This past March the 6th annual Family History Technology Workshop was held at Brigham Young University. I've been waiting for the presentations to be posted online so that I could offer some commentary about some of the topics discussed at the conference and reference the presentations. The slides for each of the presentations referenced below can found here.

Peter Norvig, Director of Research at Google
There was a lot of great content in Peter’s Key Note address Thursday morning. The thing that stuck out the most in my mind was the philosophy of recall versus precision when searching a data set. The basic philosophy Peter presented seemed to be that when you are dealing with sufficiently large quantities of data your recall (as a percentage of the total data set) can be low and precision extremely high.

Matthew Smith and Christophe Giraud-Carrier – Genealogical Implicit Affinity Network
Matthew presented their work on a Genealogical Implicit Affinity Network. This was totally cool. They took GEDCOM files and mined them for affinities between interesting data points, some examples offered were relationships, naming patterns and occupations. The results were presented as hyperbolic tree-like affinity diagrams. I think there is something in this that with some refinement would help ordinary people to have a greater interest and appreciation for their ancestors, not to mention the practical value of the data in research. I was so fascinated that with their presentation that a few weeks ago we visited them in their lab to have a follow on conversation. I hope to do a separate blog posting specific to this. If you’d like to find out more about their work visit the data mining lab website.

Shane Hathaway and the Touchstone Team – The Bit Mountain Research Project
Shane gave a great presentation on what it takes to build an 18 petabyte system that can be preserved long-term.18 petabytes is the projected storage capacity that will be required overtime for the new family history system the Church is developing. This is an area where the Church’s needs appear to be ahead of the industry’s capability. The paper submitted for this session (as with the other sessions) contains much more information than what could be presented in the 20 minute time slot. It describes the use of forward error correction in a distributed file system to deliver a ‘self-healing’ data store for applications.

Dallan Quass – Identifying Genealogical Content on the Web
Dallan is heading up a non-profit organization called the Foundation for On-Line Genealogy. He presented some research about their efforts to determine the best way to search for genealogical information on the web. Finding a more effective way to search the web for genealogical data is key to making genealogy more palatable for ordinary people. I’m excited by the work Dallan’s organization is doing. You can learn more about this and other efforts at

Grant Skousen – Family Finder Prototype
Grant presented an overview of a software prototype designed to help ordinary people (read: have never done genealogy) find their ancestors. The results of the research were promising. This project is one that I became involved with near the end. It has been extremely valuable in helping to shape thoughts around what it takes to help ordinary people to family history. I hope to do a future posting offering more insight into the research. For now, be sure to review this presentation.

Randy Wilson – High-Level View of a Source-Centric Genealogical Model
Randy presented a conceptual framework for a system that would change genealogy from an unbounded task to a finite effort. I believe Randy’s proposal is on target and that such a system must be created as the foundation of an effort to make genealogy work for the ordinary person. One of the primary points of frustration to those that contemplate finding their ancestors is knowing what has already been done and knowing where to start. Randy’s paper and slides are definitely worth reviewing.

Monday, April 17, 2006

What Do Ordinary People Want?

There have been some great discussions going on in the comments of this blog and through other forums. John Vilburn recently expressed well the fundamental purpose of this blog. John said:

Making genealogy engaging for the common person requires a broader vision. A big part of that is using technology to make genealogy easier. But the more important question is "What makes genealogy engaging to someone who has no experience?"

That really is the core of the problem my team is dealing with every day. It sounds simple but it is a monumental challenge. It is hard for people who think that the status quo experience with genealogy is interesting to understand what it would take for the rest of the world to share our sentiment. So what is it that will capture the interest of ordinary people? How do you take that interest and convert it into actions that will successfully find ancestors without the interest waning? Here are some interesting things we’ve learned about what gets and keeps the interest of ordinary people.

  1. Sharing pictures, records, maps, audio clips and other artifacts of their family. Ordinary people love to see pictures of their ancestors, the records of their lives and any other artifact related to an ancestor. In some ways this is like scrapbooking. As they look at these items they are trying to get a sense of the ancestor’s life journey. They are trying to find the parallels between themselves and their roots. Even items which aren’t directly about their family but are from the same place or time can add meaningful texture.

  2. Stories. Ordinary people are interested in stories about their family. Again, they seem to be trying to appreciate the life of the ancestor. Learning about the ancestor somehow helps them understand themselves better. It boosts their self-worth to realize that their ancestor did something great, funny, unique or just survived. While stories that relate directly to an ancestor are most meaningful, some stories that are about others in similar places, times and events are also meaningful. Stories add texture.

  3. A sense of community. This is an area we are just starting to explore. There seems to be something appealing to ordinary people in just knowing that others are interested in the same people, stories, pictures, times and places and being able to communicate with them. The ability to see who else is interested is powerful.

  4. A sense of relation. Ordinary people seem to like knowing how they are related to others (both living and deceased). They aren’t very good at figuring this out themselves but are interested in the information when it is offered.

  5. Immediacy. Ordinary people (at least in 1st world countries) have an expectation of immediacy. They don’t want to search for a picture or record of an ancestor, find out where it is and then write a letter to request a copy or wait 3 weeks for a microfilm to come in. If they can’t see something immediately they aren’t likely to be interested.

  6. Short bursts of time. You have a matter of seconds to convince someone coming to a website that they’ve come to the right place. Once you’ve got them to stay on your home page you have a few more seconds for them to determine how to access what they’re looking for. If you’re lucky they’ll give you two tries to produce the desired result. Once they’re convinced that the desired results are available you may get them to give you 5 or 10 minutes of their time. I point this out not because I think all genealogy experiences are web-based but because it shows how sensitive ordinary people are to succeeding in short bursts of time. Ordinary people need to get something meaningful done in 10 minutes or less. When they come back to the activity later they need to be able to pick up where they left off without losing any time.

  7. Don’t want to be trained. Ordinary people (varies slightly by culture) don’t want to read the manual and don’t want to take a class. We cannot rely on manuals or training to get ordinary people involved.

  8. Don’t like to feel stupid. Ordinary people don’t like to feel stupid (as it turns out this isn’t limited to ordinary people). There are some classic examples of this but one that is fairly ubiquitous is search. There are lots of ways to stump people with search: complex search forms; pages and pages of ambiguous results; and my favorite, 0 results.

Please comment and add to the list of things that would interest ordinary people.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Making Genealogy Accessible

The predominant approach of those trying to help novices engage in genealogy is to attempt to train them to do research. There are some that are extremely skilled in this area and have made a substantial contribution to the ranks of genealogy hobbyists and credentialed genealogists. There will always be a need for those with the rare talent of helping someone along the path toward sound genealogical research.

Last summer issued a press release indicating that according to a recent poll, 73% of Americans are interested in discovering their family history. Most of us have seen similar studies before. In the context of taking genealogy to common people, the question could be asked, “How do we get 73% of Americans to participate meaningfully in family history?” It is probably not feasible to get them all through a genealogy class or paired with a great mentor. It also seems that a relatively small percentage of those interested in their ancestors are able to do genealogical research. This is not a derogatory comment about average intellect but a recognition that there are many factors beyond cognitive skills which prevent people from doing genealogical research.

So if the intention is to take genealogy to common people, how can it be done? The philosophy behind this blog is not to attempt to turn 73% of Americans into researchers. Rather, it is to encourage innovation that makes the experience of genealogy substantially easier and more engaging than it is today. Make it so that individuals don’t have to become researchers in order to have success finding their family history. Simplify genealogy for researchers or those that want to become researchers as much as possible.

This will require technology to do much of the heavy lifting for the uninitiated. There are many examples that could be drawn upon to illustrate this type of shift. Some that we are all familiar with include:
  • the shift from paying a telegraph operator to send a message for you to picking up the phone and calling someone
  • the shift from professional typists to ubiquitous e-mail
  • the shift from professional photography to point and shoot to digital cameras

One of the most interesting things about these shifts from a domain of experts toward pervasive use is the increasing rate at which they happen. Some recent shifts that are happening quickly but not yet complete:
  • blogging
  • video editing
  • podcasting

We are not attempting to teach 73% of Americans to be genealogists. We are attempting to make genealogy accessible to 73% of Americans.