Thursday, March 26, 2009

Death of Ancestry.com's living person database

Ancestry.com's Gary Gibb recently announced the demise of the U.S. Public Records Index, a database with a billion names culled from records created between 1984-2008. The database will be replaced with a new database of the same title, containing half that many names but not extending past 1990. Removing the post-1990 records opens the door for Ancestry.com to try for a fifth time to establish a mutually beneficial partnership with a living-people-finder website.

(I have wonderful intentions to write an article about corporate memory and the role good product specs play. While doing some work for Hewlett Packard I saw a wonderful example. Good multi-generational, internal product/project/program specifications, descriptions, and outcomes outlast today's transitory workforce. Not that such specs guarantee an organization won't make the same mistake twice... Not that I'm saying Ancestry.com is making the same mistake twice... But I digress...)

Here's a history of Ancestry.com's dead live-people finders.

BigHugs.com before it diedBigHugs.com

Back in 2002 The Generations Network (TGN), then known as MyFamily.com, Inc., acquired a live-people finding website, BigHugs.com. See the press release for more detail. You can see to the left how, as best as the Internet Archive can remember, BigHugs looked before it died:

There's also a book that came out of this acquisition: Lost and Found: The Guide to Finding Family, Friends, and Loved Ones. 

Home page of MyFamily People Finder in 2005MyFamily People Finder

Next, MyFamily.com, Inc., produced a service on the MyFamily.com website called MyFamily People Finder. It looked like this before it died:

Without breaking any NDA, I can say as a knowledgeable person in this marketplace that a non-living-people-finding company that wanted to produce such a website would generally want to partner with a living-person-finding company to provide the data for such a website. Click here to see an example of the detailed information that could be obtained from public data sources and provided on such a website.

Long Lost People websiteLong Lost People

MyFamily People Finder was replaced with a totally separate website named Long Lost People. Before it died, it looked like this:

I don't know if I can call this one dead or not. I was able to do a search and get veiled results, although I couldn't get the terms and conditions or privacy policy links to work. Its probably an invitation for civil suits to operate the site in this condition. Obviously, it's not drawing any attention from TGN.

I've shown the results of a search for Barack Obama below. Notice the link to Ancestry.com that I've circled at the bottom-right. The link implies that the same results and more are available there.

Search result on Long Lost People

Sure enough, the same results—and more—are available in the soon-to-perish U.S. Public Records Index database on Ancestry.com.

Search results from the U.S. Public Records Index [1984-current]

What was that next website?

Some time after the U.S. Public Records Index appeared on Ancestry.com, I started noticing links to yet another living-people finder website among the search results. Was it www.mypeoplereports.com? No; if memory serves, it had dark brown text on a not-as-dark brown background.

Link to Living People FinderOne example where a link used to lead to the third-party website was the left side of the Old Search UI result list. I've shown it circled, to the left. At the time of this writing, that link merely goes to the U.S. Public Records Index.

Another link was located on the individual result page. I can't remember if it was below the data in the record or in the Page Tools box, which used to be located to the right of the data. I've shown an old example that doesn't show the link, circled, below.

Snippet showing Page Tools
Apparently, this partnership didn't meet with one of the party's expectations, as the links are gone and TGN has found another partner.

MyLife.com

That brings us to #5. Along with the change to the U.S. Public Records Index, Gibbs announced a partnership with another living-people-finder website, MyLife.com, formerly Reunion.com. BEWARE! Numerous complaints have been posted about this choice. See, for example,

ABOVE ALL, DO NOT GIVE mylife.com ANY LOGINS OR PASSWORDS TO YOUR ACCOUNTS ON OTHER WEBSITES OR YOUR EMAIL!

I'm sorry. By the time you read this the old U.S. Public Records Index will be gone. Had I given you enough warning, you could have saved all the records you needed from the database to your tree. These links are supposed to continue to work after the new version comes online.

Wait a minute... Same database name... Links all continue to work... Year coverage drops in half... Number of names drops in half... Something about this new and improved database seems vaguely familiar...

5 comments:

  1. TGN customers have been criticizing this move since it was announced.

    Database half the size, with narrower date-range? Given the same name as what it replaces? Links to a known dangerous web site?

    Must have something to do with money.

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  2. I wrote to Gary Gibb after the old version went down and before the new version was up:

    I review obituaries daily for my one-name study. The Public Records Index has been extremely valuable to me for matching the recently deceased with their families, especially when the obit gives little information about relatives.

    It has only been a few hours since the PRI went away, but I can see already that its loss will make my task much more difficult.

    In my opinion, as a researcher and former Ancestry employee (who has almost never criticized the company), taking down the PRI was a stupid, anti-customer move. I hope you will reconsider.


    He replied:

    I would like to know if you have tried the new USPRI? If it is not out yet it should be out in the next day. I wonder if it will work for you.
    GG


    I tested the new version and responded:

    I have now tried the new USPRI by comparing results of the new version to results from the old version for a few people who died within the past year.

    The new USPRI is better than nothing.

    UNFORTUNATELY, it appears that many of the entries from the old USPRI that I used over the past several months to attach deceased individuals to their families do not have any kind of equivalent in the new USPRI.

    I looked very briefly at MyLife.com, which appears to require a separate login, and separate searches, to get less information than you had. Certainly not the seamless connection you have killed. And a couple of the recently deceased individuals who were in your old USPRI don't seem to show up in either the new version or on MyLive.com

    I also note that you have removed from the new USPRI the ability to search by county or by zipcode. Not only did you reduce the data available, but you also made it harder to search. WHY???

    A big step backward and disservice to your users.

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  3. From a privacy standpoint, the current U.S. Public Records Index is not an improvement over the previous effort. It still contains the records of almost a billion living people. The data include name, date of birth, and address. It doesn't require much more than that to steal an identity. I realize that all of this data can be purchased online, but why make it any easier? I wonder what your take on this is?

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  4. I agree with otosankeith, I've found a marriage record from my first marriage on here. It's got a lot of information that just about anyone could use for purposes less that legit. I don't think that kind of record on a living person ought to be available. Much less, their current details and where abouts. I'm sure the women's shelters love dealing with this kind of thing.

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  5. Good news, I wrote to Ancestry about this issue, and here's the response I got: "All requests to have information or data removed from our website are handled by our Executive Office department. These requests should be sent by email to customersolutions@ancestry.com requesting that the information be removed.

    Note: Please include in the following information so we can better serve your request.

    Your email address
    The URL address to the page in which the information appears
    Specify which portion of the page you would like to have removed

    Once these requests have been sent to customersolutions@ancestry.com, the Executive Office department will respond to your email within seven business days. Any further questions about information removal should be referred to the Executive Office department."

    So as long as they actually honor requests, I'll be happy. I'll try it and post my results. This information should really be made widely available. Ancestry Insider, what do you think? How 'bout a blog post on this? I'll post one on my blog, but it's about living in Japan, so there won't be many hits.

    ReplyDelete