Friday, January 23, 2015

Darned Records: Mickey Mouse’s Vitals

If you thought Mickey Mouse was born at the Disney Studios in California in 1928, the Disneyland Hospital in Chicago, Illinois may beg to differ. He was born there in 1918. And who knew that he’s dating a mouse with the same name as his mother. The registrar, perhaps fearing his job, chose to remain anonymous. (Thank you, Sarah Stoddard, for providing this birth certificate.)

A parody of a birth certificate of Mickey Mouse

Next is Mickey’s obituary. Mickey Mouse is very much alive, so’s record of his obituary is very much in error. has erroneously posted an obituary of Mickey Mouse.

You might ask yourself how this happened.

Over the years, companies have tried to develop automated algorithms that allowed machines to read and understand text. This is more than OCR. It is more than Word putting blue wavy lines under common grammatical errors. It is called natural language processing. And it is really, really difficult. Mickey’s obituary is a case in point. The software took an obituary of Ralph Kent and turned it into an obituary of Mickey Mouse. I would have provided a hotlink to the botched obituary, but, as I’ve pointed out before, many of the links in the United States Obituary Collection are broken.

Lessons learned:

  • You can’t safely use a record unless you understand it. In this case, knowing that a machine used natural language processing to extract information from free form text is key in understanding its evidentiary value.
  • Record abstracts are suspect. Like any derivative, consult the original.

Yes, “Records Say the Darnedest Things!”


     Birth certificate image: Cook County, Illinois, birth certificate no. 6153 (1 January 1918), Mickey Mouse, County Clerk, Chicago; image provided by Sarah Stoddard. This birth certificate is a parody of Mickey Mouse. See “Fair Use,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia ( : 8 January 2015, 16:06 revision), “Fair Use and Parody.”
     Obituary image: “United States Obituary Collection,” automated extract, Ancestry ( : accessed 10 January 2015), search for Mickey Mouse; citing Boston Herald, online edition ( : 16 September 2007); the link did not work on 10 January 2015.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

FamilySearch Releases More Record Hints

FamilySearch releases new record hints

On 23 December 2014 FamilySearch released new record hints. “Users of the Family Tree may wish to visit their ancestor pages again and see if any new hints are displayed,” said Robert Kehrer, FamilySearch product manager. Unlike’s system which continuously updates record hints (its shaky leaves), FamilySearch record hints are calculated at one point in time and then released to the public. The new release includes 14 million new hints reflecting:

  • new or updated persons in FamilySearch Family Tree
  • new or updated record collections
  • improved algorithms

“In the days since this data release, users have set new daily highs in the number of sources they have attached to the Family Tree and the number of new persons added to the tree from historical records. With the vast number of daily additions to the Family Tree tied to historical documents, the Family Tree is becoming one of the largest and most accurate genealogical trees in the world,” said Kehrer.

For more information, see “More Names Now Available with Family Tree Hinting Updates” on the FamilySearch Blog.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

FamilySearch Clarifies? Shutdown

Some of you are aware that FamilySearch Family Tree has a predecessor: (NFS). NFS is not used much, as it was never available to the general public and has been read-only for more than a year. Last November, FamilySearch announced it would turn off NFS on 1 February 2015. (See my blog article, “FamilySearch Announces Retirement of”)

Consequently, I was surprised when FamilySearch announced last week that “the website was recently closed down.” I checked the URL ( and found that was not true. It was still there and still bore the announcement of a 1 February 2015 shutdown:

Message currently on

I thought last week’s announcement was confusing in another way, as well. The Q & A portion of the announcement starts with this:

Q: Why have the engineers decided to shut down before it and Family Tree are separated[?]

A: The new.FamilySearch database and Family Tree have always been separate databases. We cannot shut down one and start the other, especially when they are so different. To address this issue, we’ve allowed a period of time where the two databases are synchronized. This means that data can be entered in one and it will show up in both databases…

I think FamilySearch is really trying to answer two questions at once. Here’s what I think they are trying to say:

Q: Why have the engineers decided to shut down before it and Family Tree have separate databases?

A: and Family Tree already have separate databases. However, the two databases are synchronized. This means that data can be entered in one and it will show up in both databases.

Q: Why are the two synchronized?

A: Using Family Tree is very different from using We could not shut down and start the other without confusing users, especially since the two are so different…

I wish the Q & A had several more questions and answers.

Q: Will shutting down remove the limitations that synchronization has imposed upon Family Tree?

According to the message currently on, the answer is “no.”

In early 2016, will be completely shut down.

It is important to note that many highly desired features of FamilySearch Family Tree cannot begin to be developed until has reached the final milestone and is completely shut-off. Once that has happened, work can begin on features such as:

  1. Merging of gateway ancestors and other people with large records. [The public calls such a person an IOUS.
  2. Highlighting and fixing other data eccentricities, such as when a person appears to have been married before birth, a child older than a parent, a child who is the spouse of parent or grandparent, and so on.
  3. The ability for users to change the gender of an ancestor.
  4. The ability to see a spouse’s ancestral line by default.

That leads me to ask another question:

Q: What is the difference between shutting down and completely shutting down

The message currently on again provides the answer:

On February 1, [2015] all public … interfaces…will be turned off, as will be the ability to access the program. [In other words, isn’t going away, just public access to it.] This step is necessary as we enter the final phase, which is to transfer and synchronize all of the remaining data from to FamilySearch Family Tree. It is anticipated that this final phase of data testing, transfer, and retesting will require a year to complete. Once this phase is completed in early 2016, will be completely shut down.

That leads me to my final question:

Q: What is the “remaining data” to be transferred and synchronized?

The answer might be this information from the Q & A and a comment posted online by Ron Tanner.

To help users identify the actual individuals who were combined in new.FamilySearch, we are planning to create sources on each person in Family Tree that refer to the original AF, PRF, and IGI records. (Q & A.)

We will be migrating the IGI sources from NFS over into Family Tree. These sources will link over to the records which contain the film and batch numbers. (Ron Tanner.)

That’s exciting. I can’t wait for these sources to be added to Family Tree, as well as the ability to clean up the problems in Family Tree.

To see the remaining questions and answers, see “Why Was Turned Off: Frequently Asked Questions.”

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

FGS/RootsTech Conference Preparation

RootsTech App ImageSmart phone apps are available now to help you plan your time at the 2015 FGS and RootsTech family history conferences, 11-14 February, in Salt Lake City.

According to FamilySearch,

The new RootsTech 2015 conference app is now available to download, giving you access to all of the conference information, including classes, exhibitors, speakers, and more.

With the conference app, you can:

  • Create a personalized class schedule.
  • Find speaker information.
  • Discover exhibitor details
  • Connect with other conference attendees.
  • Tweet and post your favorite quotes and pictures at RootsTech.
  • And more!

Plan for RootsTech 2015, and download the RootsTech 2015 conference app today at the [Apple] App Store and Google Play.1

I tried out the app with good success. They need to increase the resolution of the map of the exhibition hall; as is, it is illegible. Last year the app was also available via HTML, which was nice for laptops or Windows mobile phones. I didn’t see any mention of that this year.

View the entire announcement on the FamilySearch blog.

There’s been no announcement about the conference section of the FGS app, although it does exist. But it may not be ready for prime time. As I write this, the app has a couple of problems. The session schedule doesn’t show Saturday. And the session planner locked up. The app is available for iOS and Android.

The lock up was probably because I added the FGS conference to my RootsTech registration. I asked FGS about not being able to use Plan My Sessions in this situation. The conference registrar informed me that she can do nothing for me.

If you plan to attend the FGS 2015 conference (remember it is co-located with RootsTech this year), now’s the time to register. FGS recently reminded us that

The early registration discount for the 2015 Federation of Genealogical Societies Conference ends January 23. Early registrants pay $159 for the full four days. The online registration price increases to $189 after January 23. The cost to add-on RootsTech remains $39. Register now to pay the lowest registration price.2

That’s this Friday, so don’t delay. As you make your travel arrangements, be aware that the FGS classes on Wednesday are genealogical society related. View the entire press release on the FGS conference website.

Genealogical conferences are an important education opportunity and these are two of the best. I hope to see you there!

The Ancestry Insider is an official RootsTech ambassadorThe Ancestry Insider is an official FGS Conferrence Ambassador


     1.  Chad K, Schumacher, “New Scheduling Tools are Now Available for RootsTech 2015,” FamilySearch ( : 9 January 2015).
     2.  “2015 FGS Conference Early Registration Discount Ends January 2,” PDF file, Federation of Genealogical Societies Conference 2015 ( : 9 January 2015) > press releases.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Actual Cause of Death

It is well understood that birth information on death certificates is secondary. But for death and burial information, they generally provide primary information. Does that mean they are always right?

Consider the case of William Henry Malloch, died 10 August 1920 in Milltown, Charlotte, New Brunswick. The death certificate specifies one cause of death. His burial date suggests quite another.

Death certificate of William Henry Malloch of New Brunswick

Which date is wrong? How do you know?

As Tom Jones has said, “Conclusions about whether evidence is or is not correct results from aggregated evidence, not source-by-source assessment… A source’s accuracy is unknown until the researcher has accumulated enough evidence for tests of correlation—the comparison and contrasting of sources and information to reveal points of agreement and disagreement.”1

Darned clerking errors! Yes, records say the darnedest things!

Thank you, William Romanski, for this example.


     Image: “New Brunswick Provincial Deaths, 1815-1938,” index and image, FamilySearch ( : accessed 1 January 2015), William Henry Malloch, 10 Aug 1920; citing Milltown, Charlotte, New Brunswick, death certificate 004641, Provincial Archives, Fredericton; FHL microfilm 2,134,614.
     1.  Thomas W. Jones, “Skillbuilding: Perils of Source Snobbery,” Board for Certification of Genealogists ( : accessed 1 January 2015); citing OnBoard 18 (May 2012): 9-10, 15. See also, “The Genealogical Proof Standard,” Board for Certification of Genealogists ( : accessed 1 January 2015).