Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Personal Message from Tim Sullivan

2015 New Year's message from's Tim SullivanI logged into my account recently and received a personal greeting from Tim Sullivan, sent just to me and 2.7 million of his closest friends.

To the Ancestry community,

You had an incredible year in 2014, showing more commitment and passion than ever for discovering your family story.

Here at Ancestry, we worked hard this past year to make our service even more useful, rewarding, and fun for you. Last year, we launched more than 2 billion new global records, helping fuel discoveries in over 67 countries. Nearly half a million people took an AncestryDNA test to learn about their unique ethnic mix and to connect to hundreds … or even thousands of newfound genetic cousins. And more people than ever enjoyed the convenience of discovering and sharing their stories on the go with the Ancestry mobile app.

Good News: 2015 promises to be one of the most exciting in our own family history.

In the coming months, we’ll be introducing features that let you tell richer, more personal life stories about your ancestors, adding historical context around the times and events that shaped their lives. You’ll also see a new way to engage with other Ancestry members around a shared ancestor, helping you make new discoveries and collaborate like never before. If you’ve taken a DNA test, you’ll experience some new types of discoveries made possible by the groundbreaking DNA science and research teams. And everyone who visits Ancestry will find a simplified, easier-to-use site that puts important information front and center to make family stories the focus.

Most importantly, we will continue to add to the world’s largest online collection of family history records and content. Look for exciting additions like 170 million searchable images of probate records and wills that might reveal your ancestor’s dying wishes, all vital records from Virginia since 1900, substantial releases from Germany, and a milestone collection of almost 80 million Mexico Civil Birth, Marriage and Death records spanning from 1860 to modern day.

At Ancestry, we’re proud of all that we do to help you bring your family story to life. We think that this year’s new content and features are going to make the world’s leading online family history service even better.

Best wishes for the year ahead,

Tim Sullivan

Dear Tim,

Thanks for the message. Hope you and I and all subscribers have a great year.

---The Ancestry Insider

Monday, January 26, 2015

Attention Impulse Buyers: End of #FGS2015 and #RootsTech Discounts

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

If you’re an impulse buyer who has been waffling over attending either the FGS or RootsTech conferences, I’ve got news.

Today is the last day to obtain early registration discounts! Both conferences extended their deadlines from last Friday until today, 26 January 2015. Both conferences are being held at the same time (February 12th to 14th) in Salt Lake City, Utah.

For FGS conference registration, today’s discounted price of $159 will save you $30 over registering tomorrow and $80 over registering at the conference. (That’s an important point for you procrastinators. If you decide to attend at the last minute, you can show up and register at the conference.) FGS also offers a one day pass for $89.

For RootsTech registration, today’s discounted price of $159 for a 3-day pass is an $80 savings over registering later. I’m sad to report that the popular—and free—RootsTech Family Discover Day is sold out. (Family Discover Day is a program for members of FamilySearch’s sponsor, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.) RootsTech offers other registration options, such as a $19 one-day pass for a “Getting Started” track. See a table of offerings on the RootsTech website.

Which conference should you attend? Consult the class schedules to see what topics each conference offers. You can download preliminary (meaning a few things may have changed) class lists in PDF format for either the FGS conference or RootsTech. You can read current schedules online. The RootsTech schedule page is capable of showing both RootsTech and FGS classes, although I would consult the FGS conference schedule page as the final authority. And you can read the schedules on the FGS app (iOS or Android) or the RootsTech 2015 app (smartphone or laptop).

Special topics may inform your choice of conferences. If you are an officer of a genealogical society, consider attending the FGS conference’s society day. (FGS stands for Federation of Genealogical Societies.) If you are a librarian, consider attending the FGS conference’s librarians’ day. If you are a technologist or businessman, consider attending the RootsTech Innovators’ Summit. If you are a beginner wanting an inexpensive option, consider RootsTech’s Getting Started track. The Getting Started pass is also the way to go if you’re only interested in attending the keynote sessions and the RootsTech evening entertainment. (All FGS and RootsTech attendees can attend the keynote sessions and the RootsTech evening entertainment.)

If you can’t decide between the conferences, you can sign up for both by paying an extra $39.

The keynote speakers are Tan Le on Thursday, Laura W. Bush and daughter Jenna Hager on Friday, and Donny Osmond and A.J. Jacobs on Saturday. The evening entertainers are Alex Boye, One Voice Children’s Choir, the cast of BYUtv’s Studio C, and American Idol runner-up David Archuleta.

RootsTech/FGS speakers and entertainers include Laura Bush, Jenna Hager, Donny Osmond, David Archuleta, and the cast of Studio C.

Other News

I have other news for FGS conference attendees. FGS has fixed the problem that prevented some registrants from using the Plan Your Sessions option on the account page. Look for the button underneath the list of purchased items. And the FGS syllabus is already available for download. Look for the button above the list of purchased items.

Location of buttons for syllabus download and session planner

The WDYTYA Live conference in London has been the biggest family history conference in the world, with onsite attendance of up to 15,000 attendees. Last year, FamilySearch said there were 13,000 people in attendance onsite at RootsTech 2014, over 10,000 more online, and an anticipated 130,000 additional attendees at local, RootsTech-affiliated conferences. Add FGS conference attendees, and this year will be the largest family history event of all time!

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.”