Friday, May 08, 2009

Genealogy Questions Answered in 6 Minutes

How many times when you’re stuck on a genealogy problem have you thought to yourself, “I’m sure someone out there knows the answer to this question.” If you could just ask the right person a quick question it would save you a ton of time. Well over at FamilySearch we’ve been kicking around some ideas of how we might help people with this experience. This past Wednesday I was thinking about how much I’d like to find the death certificate for a particular ancestor when the thought struck me, “I’m sure someone out there knows the answer to this question.” The question for me was, how do I find the death certificate for Warren Dodge, who died about 1888 in Barton County, Kansas?

Well I decided to try a little experiment. What if I could throw that question out to a large audience. Would they respond? Would they answer my question? Here’s what happened.

6 May 11:47am I posed my question on Twitter. Twitter automatically put my tweet on Facebook as well.
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  • 11:53am - 1st response comes in via Twitter
  • 12:04pm - 2nd response via Twitter
  • 12:04pm - 3rd response via Twitter
  • 12:14pm - 4th response via Facebook
  • 12:31pm - 5th response via Facebook
  • 12:51pm - 6th response via Facebook
  • 4:14pm - 7th response via Twitter

Here are images of the Twitter and Facebook responses.

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Fullscreen capture 582009 41310 PM.bmp

The first response was within 6 minutes! The last response was less than 6 hours later. All responses were accurate and helpful. As a result of the information provided I went to the Barton County genealogical society website and discovered that the county did not have death certificates that early and the state (as my online experts indicated) did not keep death certificates until 1911. I did not waste any more time looking for a death certificate but rather changed my focus to probate records. I called the Barton County records office and asked if they had a probate record for Warren Dodge who died there in the 1880s. Without even putting me on hold, she looked it up confirmed they had it and is sending me a copy of the whole file. Wow! That was a terrific experience.

Oh, by the way. The folks that offered answers on twitter are not people that I know personally. One of the responders on Facebook is an old friend I haven't seen for nearly 20 years. The other Facebook responder is a relative that I frequently collaborate with on genealogy stuff.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Timetoast takes a turn at timelines

I came across another time line tool today. My first thought was "really, another time line?" Then I thought, "surely they must know there are some good time lines out there..." This was followed quickly by "then they must think they have something unique...". Luckily, I keep a stash of artifacts and data about several ancestors so I can check this stuff out really fast. So I quickly made the time line below.

As with all time lines I've seen, it doesn't deal well with fuzzy dates that are common in genealogy (abt. 1850, etc.). I was also a let down to see that they didn't have a way to zoom or otherwise manipulate artifacts. Many genealogical artifacts are boring thumbnail-style and really require a lot of zoom to read. Aside from that, this was really fast and in about 10 minutes I had created a time line, shared it on my facebook profile, and embedded it in my blog. Nice work Timetoast.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Conceptual Overview of Genealogical Research

In the past I've been critical of the design of the currently available genealogy software tools. In fact, I just went back and re-read a couple of my posts and realized that at times I come across quite critical. This is not my intention and I feel badly about that. I’ve made some very direct statements like, “…one of my basic beliefs as I've analyzed the genealogy space over the last 4 years or so is that sound design, including a solid understanding of the information architecture of genealogy is largely missing in the software tools that are in the market today.” I think I was going for passionate with that one but probably came across as arrogant.

What really got me thinking about this was a statement by Shoebox Genealogy asserting that PAF was still the best genealogy program out there in spite of its faults. That honestly set me back on my heels. I really respect the thoughts of Shoebox Genealogy so I couldn’t just write off that statement. I spent some time creating a concept map of PAF and much to my surprise, discovered that the concept map of PAF is really quite good. It has no concept of supporting collaboration in a meaningful way but as for its ability to support the individual work of someone trying to record the conclusions of their research it is pretty sound. The biggest flaws with PAF are that it has no concept of a hypothesis or theory, the integration of digital sources was an after-thought and suffers because of it, and it doesn’t help the user with the research process. I’m sure there are other holes, but these are just top of mind. I also noticed that some of the key concepts I thought were lacking in PAF were actually there, I had just never found them before because the user interface obscured or hid them.

So what are the key concepts that should be supported by a genealogy program? With the help of some co-workers, I put together a concept map about genealogical research. A concept map is a simple, but powerful, way to capture and communicate knowledge about a topic. The map identifies nouns (concepts) and shows how they are related through verbs. Here is a PDF of the concept map. The video below is a guided tour through the concept map. I’d really appreciate your insight and feedback on the concept map.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Genealogy Today

I've been trying to find a way to quickly communicate the basic challenges of genealogy to others. I thought I'd try kind of a white board approach to it. This is The first portion of a longer video. The entire video presents a quick overview of what genealogy is, what some of the common challenges are for those getting started and proposes a future solution - 'The FamilySearch Way'. I've cut out the last part - 'The FamilySearch Way'. So sorry, I'm not tipping my hat yet about what's coming after new FamilySearch. I'd be curious in your feedback on the first two parts of the video. Does it hit home for you? Are there some major issues that should have been included in a high-level overview of this nature but were not?

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Popularity of Genealogy: Why Dick Eastman is Wrong

Yesterday Dick Eastman posted an interesting article about the popularity of genealogy. His summation:
I will suggest that genealogy is indeed a very popular activity among Americans. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps a million, people are actively looking for their family heritage. However, that number pales in comparison to some other personal interests that I have mentioned.

As proof points he contrasts some indicators of interest in genealogy to indicators of interest in other popular activities like sports. He rightly (and convincingly) points out that if the interest in genealogy is so high (Time Magazine reported it as one of the four most popular activities on the Internet in 1999) then there should be other indicators like money spent, magazine subscriptions or attendance at conventions. He points out that the dollars spent on genealogy pale in comparison to the billions spent on sports. Where for example is the Sports Illustrated of genealogy? Why are there so few attendees at the National Genealogical Society conference but 40,000+ at a Star Trek convention?

Well to be truthful, Dick is right. The number of people sufficiently interested in genealogy (as offered in the current magazines, trade shows, etc.) is quite low compared to other major hobbies. So how do you account for the difference between Time Magazine and Dick Eastman? Did Time get it wrong and Dick get it right? There is a simple explanation and here it is:

Interest < Barriers to Adoption

There is no question, in my opinion, that the majority of people in America (and I suspect on this planet) do have a strong interest in knowing more about their ancestry. However the effort required in order to satisfy that interest is currently too high for most people. Try this test on a random friend. Tell them that you have found a picture of their 3rd Great Grandpa and you think there are some striking similarities. Ask them if they’d like to see it. What do you think the response rate would be? Pretty high.

Then tell that friend that to see it they have to pay you $350, create a research plan, keep a research log, spend countless hours scanning through microfilm, become an expert on the Palatine Migration, learn to read ancient German and walk across a bed of hot coals barefoot while carrying an elephant in one hand. The number of positive responses goes down slightly.

People are interested in their ancestors. They aren’t interested in becoming genealogist or in running a gauntlet to satisfy that interest. The creators of genealogy magazines, conferences and the industry as a whole have focused on delivering something that is of interest to those that are willing to run the gauntlet. For example, Elizabeth Shown Mills excellent reference, Evidence Explained, while impressive in detail and thud factor, is not going to be on the coffee table of the average American. I’m sure this wasn’t her intention. To the average person it makes the gauntlet that much more overwhelming. To those that are willing to run the gauntlet it is an essential reference.

I believe we are getting close to a tipping point on the equation. Imagine what would happen if the equation changed.

Interest > Barriers to Adoption

There has been a flurry of activity in the industry recently trying to make genealogy accessible to the masses. For example, both and FamilyLink’s We’re Related Facebook application have millions of subscribers. I suspect that ‘serious’ genealogists don’t consider these very relevant – especially We’re Related. They are extremely relevant to me. They have successfully created something that allows the average person with an interest in genealogy to start playing. There is however still a gap between the ordinary person’s desire to know about their ancestors in a rich, accurate and easy way and what these applications offer.

What will it take to deliver an experience that is accessible to the average person but can still help them discover their ancestors in a genealogically sound manner without requiring them to become a genealogist? Here’s an extremely high level list. Just making progress on these four items would take us past the tipping point.
  1. Make the most relevant historical records viewable and searchable online. FamilySearch and The Generations Network (and many others) are actively working on this.
  2. Remove inhibitors to collaboration. and FamilyLink are making progress on this by integrating social networking concepts with genealogy. Their efforts aren’t a complete solution but a good start.
  3. The system knows how to do genealogy so the user doesn’t have to. I think there are three major areas of focus on this one: 1) The system needs to be able to help the user decide what to do 2) the system must be able to identify and execute a research strategy 3) the system must be able to help the user perform meaningful analysis of evidence without the user having to know how to analyze evidence (I believe this is the hardest one).
  4. Integrate item two and three above so that the system can take the complex work process of genealogy, divide it into discreet tasks and spread those tasks across large numbers of users (based on their interest, resources and skill) and coordinate the final outcome into ‘completed’ genealogical research.

While these are hard tasks, they are not impossible tasks. They are hard on the order of a decade or two. The tipping point however is within five years. When that happens there are hundreds of millions of people with an interest in their ancestors that will be able to have a meaningful experience without having to walk on hot coals or carry elephants.