Tuesday, November 24, 2015

New Ancestry Soon to be the Only Ancestry

On 15 December 2015 the new Ancestry will be the only Ancestry.

On 16 November 2015 I received notification that “on December 15, the new Ancestry will be the only Ancestry.” This caught me by surprise. Ancestry.com went many years tweaking New Search before shutting down Old Search. They spoke often with customers, trying to understand the ways in which Old Search was better. They made numerous tweaks to New Search, as well as all out additions to make it possible for genealogists to continue their old workflow. They didn’t please everyone. And eventually they closed down Old Search. Now, after only months, Ancestry has announced they are cutting off users of Old Ancestry. This is a sad commentary on Ancestry’s ability to service its customers. The comparison of their current practices and their past practices is stark.

Here’s another sad commentary:

Back in 2012 politicians started talking about closing down the Social Security Death Index (SSDI). Because the United States lacks national civil registration, the SSDI is an important tool for genealogists. Long used as a tool to combat fraud, criminals had discovered that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) was failing to use it. The IRS failure allowed criminals to file fraudulent tax returns. In the most convoluted logic ever, congressmen started rumbling, “If the IRS is too incompetent to use the SSDI to fight fraud, then we won’t let anyone use it!” To stave off loss of the SSDI, the genealogical community mobilized a petition drive. The goal was to present the White House a petition of 25,000 signatures asking that the IRS start using the SSDI to prevent fraudulent returns. Barely 5,000 genealogists signed it and the government closed access to the most recent three years of this important tool.

Today, Ancestry.com has redesigned the tree pages of its website. Customers are unhappy and have mobilized the community to sign a petition to present to Ancestry CEO, Tim Sullivan. Signers proclaim “We, the undersigned, hereby sign this petition to acknowledge that we, do not like the look, style, color, and format [of the New Ancestry.]” Nearly 4,000 genealogists have signed the petition to date and the number is likely to exceed the number signing the SSDI petition.

If all this sad commentary is getting you down, I encourage you to check out a blog post by Kerry Scott that is sure to lift your spirits, at least if you are willing to laugh at yourself. See “14 Reasons the New Ancestry is the Worst Thing Since Unsliced Bread” on his Clue Wagon blog. HILARIOUS!

Monday, November 23, 2015

Monday Mailbox: When an FHC is Not an FHC

The Ancestry Insider's Monday MailboxDear Ancestry Insider,

Recently, a search of the FamilySearch Book Catalog of digital images resulted in the "restricted Image" pop-up message which directed me to a Family History Center to view these images. So I visited the FHC in the Mid-County Library at Port Charlotte, FL. I have used this FHC in the past to order film from FamilySearch & the Library of Virginia.I started with the local volunteer who knew knew nothing about the FamilySearch site, except that film could be ordered by someone else at the library. Next, I spoke to the library film ordering expert; however, she knew nothing about the digitized book access capability at FamilySearch. So I gave them a demo and we received the same "restricted image" pop-up that I had received at my home. Both she & I agreed that the FS server probably was not recognizing their FHC IP address, but she said she would look into the situation. A week has past & I have not heard from the library.

I searched the FS site for some help. By browsing around, I found a document called the "Family History Center Affiliate Agreement" in a section about how libraries could become FHCs. This document clearly states that "restricted images" are not accessible at affiliate FHCs. So I sent all of this conflicting story (including cut & pasted images of the pop-up & Affilliate doc) to the FamilySearch Help center. I have not received a response, but I can no longer find the "Family History Center Affiliate Agreement" at FS.

This conflicting information from FS is quite tedious & frustrating. That I have not received a reply from the Help center is very surprising to me, but I really have only one interest. That interest is this: Should my local FHC be able to access "restricted images"or not? If the answer is no, why does the pop-up direct me to go to a FHC to see these images?

Dave Woody

Dear Dave,

Among many genealogists, “Family History Center,” refers specifically to a family history center owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is especially true of employees and volunteers of FamilySearch. These are different from public and institutional libraries who have established an affiliate relationship with FamilySearch (AKA the Genealogical Society of Utah) giving them film-loaning privilege. These public libraries are not considered “Family History Centers,” even though it is possible to rent films there from the Salt Lake City Family History Library.

A topic in the FamilySearch.org help system mentions the document you referred to, and answers the question you had:

The authorized agent of a public facility is sent the Genealogical Society of Utah Affiliate Library Agreement. … Patrons of approved affiliate organizations can order unrestricted microfilm and microfiche on loan to view at the affiliate organization. Books and CDs do not circulate from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. Access to additional family history websites is not part of the affiliate agreement. Additional access to restricted images on FamilySearch.org is not part of the agreement.

(See “Public Libraries, Archives, or Genealogical Societies Requesting Affiliate Status,” FamilySearch [http://familysearch.org : accessed 22 November 2015], search help system for “affiliated libraries.”)

I recently learned that FamilySearch does not officially claim the name “Family History Center” as a trademark. I guess it is because the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will not allow trademarks of such generic phrases. In officially reviewed communications, FamilySearch does not use “Family History Centers” (uppercase) as a proper noun, but “family history centers” (lowercase) as a common noun. Unfortunately, that leaves Church owned family history centers without a name that distinguishes them from family history centers owned by other organizations. FamilySearch should create a new name and use it throughout its products, to prevent the confusion you’ve experienced.

---The Ancestry Insider

Friday, November 20, 2015

Darned Federal Birth Certificates

We depend upon records to reveal the “truth” about the past. Yet sometimes records have anomalies. Some are amusing or humorous. Some are interesting or weird. Some are peculiar or suspicious. Some are infuriating, or downright laughable.

Records are the darnedest things!

Notification of Birth Registration for David Hankins McCauley

Some time ago I came across an interesting blog post by Linda McCauley: “Did the U. S. Federal Government Register Births?” Linda has in her possession an official certificate from the Bureau of the Census (shown above) that documents the birth of her father. It gives his name, the date and place of birth, and it names his parents. It is signed by official authorities.

How do you feel about using this source as evidence for this birth?

  • Source (original or derivative): Is this an original, government document?
  • Information (primary or secondary): Did the informants have primary (first hand) information?
  • Evidence (direct or indirect): Does it provide direct evidence concerning the birth?

The more we learn and understand the records we use, the better our conclusions will be. As part of her evaluation, Linda took the time to understand this source. What is this darned record? Why was it created? Who created it? Where was it created? When was it created? How did they get their information?

With a little poking, Linda learned about notifications of birth registration. According to the Census Bureau:

The “Notification of Birth Registration” form, issued by the U.S. Census Bureau during the first half of the twentieth century, is not a birth certificate. The U.S. Census Bureau designed this form in 1924, at the request of various state vital statistics offices, to promote the accurate registration of births in the United States. The notification was completed and sent to parents of newborns when the state office of vital records received information on the birth and made up a birth registration record. If parents found errors in the information shown on the form, they were asked to correct them and return the form so the state’s record could be corrected accordingly. The notification was used until the late 1940s and then discontinued once states were keeping satisfactory birth records. The U.S. Census Bureau does not maintain these records.1

Now, how do you feel about using this source as evidence?

Linda pursued acquisition of the original from the state. However, instead of a facsimile of the original, the state sent her a so-called “short form” abstract.

Now, how would you feel about using this source as evidence? How would you compare the strength of these two sources? Are the two independent? Is there any advantage to having both? What can be learned by comparing the two?

Yes, records are the darnedest things!



     1.  “Open Government and FOIA: Birth Records,” United States Census Bureau (http://www.census.gov : accessed 14 November 2015), search for “Birth Records.”
     Image credit: Linda McCauley, “Did the U. S. Federal Government Register Births?” Documenting the Details, 27 April 2011 (http://lfmccauley.com/did-the-u-s-federal-government-register-births : accessed 14 November 2015), digital image of Bureau of the Census, “Notification of Birth Registration,” David Hankins McCauley, 1926, privately held by Linda McCauley, 2011.

Thank you, Linda, for your permission to share your record.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

RootsTech Contest Deadline

Click for more information about RootsTech.Remember that tomorrow is the contest deadline for the Insider’s RootsTech 2016 Giveaway. Send me an example of a darned record. Darned records are funny, weird, unique, cool, or awesome. Extra credit is given if the example is instructional. I must receive it before the end of the day, Friday, 20 November 2015, Mountain Standard Time.

The prize is a $249 three-day pass. RootsTech 2016 will be held 3-6 February 2016 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

For complete contest rules, see “RootsTech 2016 Free Pass Contest.”

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Bad Merges in Family Tree

Two cars merge badly in an intersection.I was affected again by a bad merge in FamilySearch Family Tree. Someone had merged a Tilford in Virginia with a Telford in Ireland to produce a monstrosity of a person with a gaggle of children. Mysteriously, this man bounced back and forth between Virginia and Ireland, using the Tilford spelling for all children born in Virginia and the Telford spelling for all kids born in Ireland. Hmmm. What an odd fellow.

I can’t watch all my relatives so I didn’t know the merge had occurred until it was too late. Rather than undo the merge, people had come in and made various repairs. It was no longer possible to undo.

I have often spoken of the indiscretions of FamilySearch’s past, accusing them of bad automated merges. Perhaps because of this I’ve received a message on the topic from one of FamilySearch’s engineers, Randy Wilson.

“Machine merging was done very carefully [when the New FamilySearch tree was created],” he said. “[There is] a lot of empirical evidence showing that errors were less than 0.5%. There have been a lot of bad merges done in the system, to be sure. But almost all of the bad merges I have seen (and I've seen a lot of them) have been caused by users, not the machine.”

I hope he’s right. He’s one of the brightest fellows I know. (And he’s a relative and I’d like to believe intelligence runs in the family.) But there’s something that gives me pause: Ancestral File.

My perception was that Ancestral File was a mess. I thought the first release was especially messy. No one can be blamed besides FamilySearch. Users couldn’t make any changes, good or bad. Only FamilySearch can be blamed.  I think my perception was shared by many genealogists.

“Yes, AF had some bad merges, too,” Randy said. “The actual number wasn't as bad as the user perception, because common ancestors happened more and got merged more and common ancestors also get seen by users more, because, well, they're common. So you get a ‘squaring effect’ of the bad merges being especially visible there.”

Are the software engineers of today somehow smarter than the engineers of the 1990s? Randy Wilson said

There was, in fact, a big difference between the merging algorithms used for Ancestral File…and those used in New FamilySearch. The former used "probabilistic record linkage" with simple field-based features, using parameters derived from statistics on a few hundred labeled pairs of records. The latter used far more advanced neural networks with 80,000 labeled pairs of records, with 20,000 more used to verify accuracy and select thresholds. I don't know if the engineers are "smarter" than in the 1990s, but the algorithms used sure are, and the engineers did have more extensive training in machine learning than before. In particular, we had a few Ph.Ds with a background in machine learning and neural networks working on it this time (me, Dallan Quass and Spencer Kohler).

Frankenstein genealogy results from incorrectly combining recordsIs there something about genealogical data that inherently leads to incorrect merges? Perhaps the ramifications of a merge depend on how clean the data is to begin with.

I can imagine two identical pedigrees, each sprinkled with Frankenstein monsters or extra generations or random pedigree errors. (See my article, “Frankenstein Genealogy.”) A machine algorithm is let loose on the two pedigrees. I can image the machine could become confused or react in unexpected ways.

At the very best, the machine cocks the gun. Then some naïve genealogist comes along and pulls the trigger.

Image credits:
       shuets udono, photograph of auto accident of two cars in an intersection in Japan, Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/63522147@N00/408633225 : accessed 18 October 2015). Used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.
       “Frankenstein Genealogy,” The Ancestry Insider (http://ancestryinsider.org : 23 March 2011).