Friday, February 27, 2015

More Than Serendipity in Tan Le’s #RootsTech/#FGS2015 Keynote (#RTATEAM)

Tan Le’s voice wavered a bit and she shed a tear or two as she spoke of her grandmother and some special moments they shared. Le shared them with us in her RootsTech keynote. Now FamilySearch has shared them with you in a three minute video on their YouTube channel. See “#RootsTech 2015 Keynote: Tan Le Remembers Her Grandmother.”


To see her presentation in its entirety, with both the Thursday keynote presentations, visit the RootsTech website.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Search Ancestry Like a Pro (#RootsTech #RTATEAM)

At RootsTech, Crista Cowan presented “Search Like a Pro.”

“Remember, you are not searching for people; you are searching for records about people,” said Cowan. She presented the process she uses to find records.

  • Start by looking at the hints. [Click the leaf shown in the person page—below—or on the tree view.]
    Fred Ross Cown example from person page on

    “Ancestry provides hints for the top 10% of our most popular databases as a way to get people started in their discoveries.” They are just hints not certainties. Pay attention to record hints first. Use hints to other family trees as clues. [I might emphasize this. The evidentiary value of other people’s family trees is much, much less than the evidentiary value of original records. ---tai]
  • When you follow a hint, you are going to link to a record page. Pay attention to the view button on the record page (#1 in the image below). “Always, always, always look at the image.” The image is going to have more information than the record page. [And there is always the possibility of transcription errors.]
    Fred R Cowan census record example from

    When you find a record about your ancestor, attach the record to your tree so you don’t have to search for it again. [Also, marks it as such in search results and the record page (#2 in the image above). When you come across it again, you know you’ve already discovered it.]

  • While you are looking at an ancestor’s record, look at the suggested records shown along the side (#3 in the image above). This is like which shows you a list of the other things people bought who bought what you bought. That’s what suggested records are. These are records that other members have attached to the same person in their trees.
  • After you’ve looked at the hints, there are still more records to find. There are misspellings, wrong ages, and other reasons why hinting doesn’t find all the records. Search starting from the tree. [Underneath the portrait in the first image above, click “Search records.”] fills in the search boxes for you with every piece of information known about that person, including every place they have ever lived and all their immediate family. “We do this because we want to see what records bubble to the top. Is there any single record that has all the information? No, so we present a list of ranked results.” Pay attention to the records that show up at the top of the list of results. Don’t go through too many pages of results. Stop after a page or two. Then switch from records to categories.
  • Craft a basic search. [I can’t remember for sure what my notes mean by this. Perhaps she was recommending trying a search without all the extra detail added by starting a search from the tree. That’s what I do at this point. The extra detail suppresses results from databases with fewer fields.] Use the advanced search form. Once you choose to use the advanced search form, it remembers. It has more fields which will make it possible to do a more powerful search. Think about the kind of record you are searching for when crafting a search.
  • Do a global search. It searchers over 32,000 titles containing over 15 billion records. That number is growing by one million new records every day.
  • Do a category search. It searches only records that are included in a specific category. Categories are listed along the right side of the main search page. [I think Cowan also pointed out the special categories found in the lower-right corner: New York 400th anniversary, African American, and Jewish family history. Over the years there have been others. They didn’t included them in the list, so they may not be current. I’ve seen  NARA, U.S. Military, and others.]
  • Do a database search to search for records in a specific database. Extra search boxes are present to allow matching fields not present in a global search.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015 Shows New Website Improvements at #RootsTech/#FGS2015 showed upcoming improvements to their website during RootsTech/FGS2015 in their booth in the Expo Hall. These include LifeStory, Historical Insights, a new Media Gallery, and an improved Facts page.

Dan Lawyer, product manager, wrote about the changes in the Blog. In the article, Lawyer says:

We’d like to invite you to become a part of the Ancestry beta. To join the beta, simply add your name to the waitlist at this link:

We will be inviting people on the waitlist to join the beta in batches over the next few months. When you are next, we will email you instructions for how to access the beta. You will be able to send feedback to the Ancestry team from directly within the beta site. We want to hear your feedback on what’s working well, what problems you  discover, and your suggestions for improvement. When you send us feedback, you are helping Ancestry to reinvent the way we do family history.

For more information, see “Sneak Peek of The New Ancestry Website Coming!.”

Monday, February 23, 2015

Monday Mailbox: Do I cite the Entire Census or the Page?

The Ancestry Insider's Monday MailboxDear Ancestry Insider,

I have just read your article on sources and citations (May 26, 2010).  I agree that such terms should be properly defined to avoid ambiguity.

I have constructed my UK family tree, using BMD indexes to determine the basic structure of the family relationships.  To record it I used PAF and, more recently, converted to Ancestral Quest v14. 

I now wish to add the information about residential addresses and occupations that I can find in the published census returns.  To do this in AQ I need to associate the information with events in the individual's "timeline". However, the "event" is the census process itself, which is also the ultimate "source" of such information - on a national scale.  Furthermore, if I wish to include a scan of the relevant census page, AQ only makes a provision for this in a "source" record.

So, is the source the relevant census page, or is it the entire collection of records for that year?

I tried to get help from the [AncestralQuest] email group, but they didn't seem to understand my difficulty.

Are you able to advise me on how census derived information should be recorded in family histories?

Kind regards,
Paul Grant

Dear Paul,

It’s kind of scary going back five years and seeing what I wrote about citations. I’ve learned a lot since then. I’m pleased to see that what I wrote stands the test of time.

I’ve not looked at AncestralQuest citations since then. Let me speak generically so that my advice will be applicable to any revision of any tree management software. I will use dictionary definitions for source and citation. Ignore AncestralQuest for a moment, or the mismatched definitions will confuse you.

A census of a nation is a source. There is a citation that applies to this entire source.

All the pages for a county (or some other sub-jurisdiction) are a source. There is a citation for this source. It includes all the elements from the previous citation, plus some more.

A single page is a source. There is a citation for this source. It includes all the elements from the previous citation, plus some more. 

A line of a census is a source. There is a citation for this source. It includes all the elements from the previous citation, plus some more.

All of these statements are true at the same time.

Most tree managers provide some mechanism to speed citation entry. One can enter some of the more general details of a source citation into a data structure so they can be reused over and over. I will call this a Master Source List. When specifying the citation for a single fact, one references an entry in the Master Source List and then adds additional citation detail.

What you specify in your Master Source List is entirely up to you and the specific research project. The Master Source List feature (or whatever it is called in your tree manager) is there for your convenience, so you get to decide to what specificity you use a Master Source List entry.

  • You could specify the national census in the Master Source List entry and add remaining detail each time a specific fact is cited.
  • If the majority of the citations are for a particular county, one might wish to add a second entry that includes the county details. Add remaining detail each time a specific fact from within the county is cited.
  • It is conceivable, but unlikely, that a situation could arise, perhaps for a small project in a small file, where a majority of the citations specified a particular page. In addition to a national or county entry, one might have a Master Source List entry for that one page.

There are other considerations that might affect your decision:

  • How long of a Master Source List is too long? How easy does your tree software make it to find an entry when you need it? (I do most of my work in an Member Tree and has awful, awful, awful management of source citations. Any length is too long. But I digress...)
  • Will you be producing a research report that includes a bibliography? And do you want to use the Master Source List entries verbatim in the bibliography?
  • Are you collaborating with another person?  Making your citation entry optimal may not work the same for them.
  • Does it bother you to mix jurisdictional levels in your Master Source List? Some people may find it illogical and a violation of mutual exclusion. Others may find it too difficult to remember what they've done if they are inconsistent.
  • Are you synchronizing your tree with an online tree? Citation exchange is still in the wild, wild West. It may take some experimentation to learn what works best with your desktop software and your online software.

The bottom line is that the feature is created for you, not you for the feature.

---The Ancestry Insider

Thursday, February 19, 2015

NewsBank and FamilySearch Obituary Partnership (#RootsTech #RTATEAM)

imageJohn Alexander of FamilySearch and Ross Allred of GenealogyBank presented a session titled “The Future of Genealogy – Indexed Obituaries: Learn How FamilySearch and GenealogyBank Have Partnered in Creating an Indexed Obituary Collection.”

NewsBank is the parent company of GenealogyBank. They have been in business for more than 40 years. They tried to acquire content for professors and students to do research. They have been trying to acquire all the news media tat is out there so that professors and students could do research. They were not in the consumer space, but they noticed that about 30% of all their searches were for single names in obituaries. Who do you think was doing all that searching? Genealogists, of course. Seeing the market, they created GenealogyBank.

Their modern obituaries (starting in 1977) are not from scanned images, but were “born digital.” They have the Social Security Death Index, but they estimate their obituary collection covers roughly 90% of all deaths. Allred was tasked with finding a way to extract the information from the obituaries. If my notes are correct, GenealogyBank currently has 47 million digital obituaries and add three to four million a year.

For decades FamilySearch has focused on traditional records like vitals and censuses. Increasingly there are privacy restrictions that protect those records. They started looking for substitutes and found that newspapers are rich in content, stories, and relationships. But there were issues. The records were narrative text versus fielded documents. Indexing volunteers might not be willing to index complicated texts. FamilySearch had acquired very few newspapers and it would be very difficult to try and visit the large number of publishers. Newspaper publishers aren’t interested in giving content to FamilySearch for free. Many had already licensed their content to other online publishers exclusively. A partnership between FamilySearch and NewsBank served the needs of both organizations.

And while there is lots of great content in newspapers, the two decided to begin with obituaries. They also decided to begin with born-digital obituaries rather than historical obits. Digital obits are more modern and bridge the gap between modern vitals and the 1940 census. NewsBank receives 10,000+ of them daily. The goal is to hand these off to FamilySearch and get them quickly searchable.

They will start indexing historical newspaper obituaries beginning in 2015. By about 1876 obits contained rich content. But they will be a challenge. It would be unwieldy to hand a page of obituaries off to an indexer. There are an average of 12-18 obits per newspaper. They are figuring out how to cut out individual obits to make them available to indexers. FamilySearch initially thought they would do a light index: just the decedents name and basic vitals. Ultimately, they decided to index as many relationships as are present. They have found an average of 7.3 named relatives in each obit. The number was much higher in Idaho, where they averaged 27 named relatives.

About 100 million names were indexed in 2014, about 90 million of them from GenealogyBank obits That’s an average of 600 thousand names indexed daily from about 80 to 85 thousand names per hour.

Searching and showing obituaries is just like any other record. Search results look the same. Record details look the same. The record detail page provides a link to the full obituary for GenealogyBank subscribers. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can follow a link to an image containing the full text of the obituary. (Remember, these are born-digital obituaries. There is no image of a newspaper page.)

There is still a lot more newspaper content beyond obituaries. It’s now just a matter of prioritizing the work. They are looking forward to starting with births and marriages, especially where they don’t have access to the vitals. There is also military information, probate notices, photograph, stories, social notices, and more. There are also ethnic and international newspapers.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

“Who Do You Think You Are? Story” at #RootsTech (#RTATEAM)

Who Do You Think You Are? Storyian Tester of Findmypast addressed one of the luncheons at RootsTech. His topic was the “Who Do You Think You Are? Story” website of Findmypast. One of the most common comments made in response to the TV show, Who Do You Think You Are? (WDYTYA) is, “I would love it if I could have my own episode.” The WDYTYA? Story website—to some small degree—was designed to do just that.

After putting in a few facts about yourself and a couple of ancestors, the website produces a short episode about you and those ancestors. It adds music (nice at first, but the 20 second snippet becomes obnoxious after hearing it endlessly), animation, and historical facts. The more photos and information you add about your ancestry, the fuller the episode becomes.

The target audience is the non-genealogist. Not surprisingly then, feedback from one genealogist stated, “This is of absolutely no value to the serious genealogist.” The website:

  • It had to be about more than data—the non-genealogist doesn’t have much. They have only sketchy information about their ancestors.
  • It had to be quick and it had to be free.
  • It had to be delightful.
  • It puts your family in context.

It took just 12 weeks to bootstrap the website—still marked as “beta.” Findmypast learned some things from the experiment. Many people watch TV now with a tablet on their laps. The WDYTYA Story website was seven times more likely to be accessed via tablet than desktop. The age group 25-55 liked it better than other age groups.

For an example, see an episode about Josh Taylor.

Josh Taylor example episode from WDYTYA? Story

Tester said that he carries his episode on his phone, ready to share with family.

Findmypast’s director of family history, Josh Taylor, was a RootsTech keynote speaker. For a little about his presentation, visit

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

#RootsTech/#FGS2015 Keynote: We Are All Cousins (#RTATEAM)

As described by the RootsTech website, “A.J. Jacobs is an author, journalist, human guinea pig, and cousin.” He is the author of four New York Times bestsellers that combine memoir, science, humor and a dash of self-help. He is the editor at large at Esquire magazine, and a commentator for NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday. He has given three TED talks with nearly three million views combined.

And he is organizing a family reunion for everyone related to him.

No matter how distantly.

And yes, that means everyone. For “we are all cousins.”

A.J. Jacobs is a cousin of the 20,000 RootsTech attendees.

Jacobs was a hoot. We laughed and laughed. Take for example, the time an adulterer in New York City’s Central Park stoned  him with little pebbles. He—Jacobs—was dressed up like a biblical prophet at the time, complete with full beard and bleating sheep from Rent-a-Sheep. (Long story.)

The Global Family Reunion is an outgrowth of an email he received out of the blue. “You are my twelfth cousin,” it said. He thought the next line was going to be something about a Nigerian bank account. No. It turned out to be a man with no other agenda than to enjoy the fact that they were related. They were cousins. He was intrigued. He decided the idea was positive and optimistic.

“For the next month all I did was explore my family tree, going up and down, finding cousins,” he said. He started putting in famous names. He put in Gwyneth Paltrow and found she is his wife’s first cousin once removed’s husband’s nephew’s wife’s third cousin once removed. Barack Obama is his aunt’s fifth husband’s father’s wife’s 7th great newphew. The fact is, scientists say that the entire population of the earth is no more than 70 degrees apart.

A.J. Jacobs is a cousin of Albert Einstein

He showed a series of photos of famous people standing with him, holding a sign reading “I am a cousin.”

A.J. Jacobs is a cousin of Daniel Radcliffe

A.J. Jacobs is a cousin of President George H.W. and Barbara Bush

A.J. Jacobs is a cousin of the Ancestry Insider.

“So my hope is, and I know it’s idealistic, that when people realize how closely we’re connected, they’ll treat their cousins with a little more kindness and tolerance,” he said.

“I love this idea that we’re all related and we do have common ancestors, and not that far back. I hope it will be bad news for bigots. I’ve got news for them. They’re pretty close cousins to whatever ethnic group they happen to hate.” It was a powerful message.

Having found so many cousins, what was the logical thing to do? Organize a family reunion! And we are all invited.

For more information, visit,

Saturday, February 14, 2015

FamilySearch Partnerships: Get the Inside Scoop! (#RootsTech #RTATEAM)

At RootsTech, Ryan Koelliker and John Owens presented a session titled “FamilySearch Partnerships: Get the Inside Scoop!” (I think they said they work for the Partner-Services Division.)

There are quite a few partnerships. FamilySearch has over 60 certified partner applications. There are two types of partner applications. One type taps into the information on, such as Famiily Tree. FamilySearch added 36 new partner applications in 2014. They plan to add 98 new partner applications in 2015.

Why is FamilySearch doing this? Three reasons:

  1. Because of you.
  2. “It’s a pretty big world. It would be crazy for us to think we can serve all the problems through FamilySearch,” said Koelliker. We are not just dealing with the living. Partners might be able to pull stories out of the many cultures and geographies that FamilySearch can’t.
  3. Without a vibrant community, you can turn out like Blackberry instead of like Apple and Google.

At FamilySearch, we don’t believe we are in competition with our partners because we have two, totally different objectives.

FamilySearch Family Tree is a very powerful and useful place. The Tree, in combination with partners, is even better.


Image courtesy of jesadaphorn at

FamilySearch Roadmap at #RootsTech (#RTATEAM)

Note: FamilySearch informs me that the Pedigree Resource File has not been renamed. I've made that correction to this article. (17 February 2015)

Bill Mangum, a product manager at FamilySearch, presented a session at the RootsTech Innovator’s Summit titled “FamilySearch Product Road Map.” Because it was an Innovator’s Summit session, he warned us that there would be some technical content and that the session’s audience was FamilySearch partners. Mangum is the product manager for the back end. That’s the man behind the current. More precisely, he’s the product manager of the man behind the current.

FamilySearch Family Tree

  • We talk about Family Tree as being SCOE: source centric open edit, he said. We want people to specify sources for information in the tree. And we want everyone to contribute. We want users to provide reasons when they add or modify the tree. Family Tree keeps a log of changes and gives the capability to restore changed values. Discussions are saved. It is possible to trigger an email when something changes information. That is called a watch.
  • The hard part of the model is resolving conflicts. Partners are encouraged to help out in this regard. We’ve seen conflicts resolved when people add sources, add a watch, and when changes occur, contacting the person making changes without sources, he said.
  • Some things are changing [in the way partners interact with the back end, I assume]. “Rules are really rules and not suggestions.” Mangum wouldn’t elaborate except to say that they are going to make it harder for people to make unfounded changes.
  • The desired direction is to make sources more obvious as part of the complete record.
  • FamilySearch is adding Help Panels to the right side of some pages. A pop out comes out with helpful information and short videos. (I wonder about that. If they can’t afford to provide an up to date manual, how will they keep up when it comes to expensive video clips.)
  • FamilySearch applies changes to the tree three times a day. Most are behind the curtain and don’t affect users.
  • Hints are big and are resulting in many, many sources being added to the tree.

Backend Conversion

  • FamilySearch is changing the backend database from Oracle to a non-SQL database. (Didn’t I warn you that some of this would be technical?)
  • FamilySearch has more users on Sunday than any other day. Recently, usage has increased so much that weekdays are busier than Sundays used to be. Sunday usage is even heavier. (This makes the website slow.)
  • As of part of the solution, they have shutdown and moved the resources over to work on speeding up Family Tree. To reach capacity goals for 2020, they are having to make major changes to the backend. Besides moving away from SQL, they are moving computers to the AWS cloud. (That doesn’t mean anything to most of you, but it allows them to beg or borrow additional servers when they need to, without using or paying for them at other times.)

User Submitted Genealogies

The User Submitted Genealogies (including Pedigree Resource File or PRF) section of has been an underutilized resource. To find it, go to Search > Genealogists and scroll to the bottom of the page. When you upload your tree, it is “edible but not editable.” It is visible to be searched and seen by anyone, but no one can change it. “We are going to preserve it, basically, forever,” he said. The contributor can’t edit it online, but can upload a replacement. (This is unlike PRF, in which regular submissions resulted in lots of nearly identical trees.)

A software engineer, chimed in with additional information. (I don’t recall if they identified him by name so I shouldn’t mention it. Randy, do you remember? Oops.) FamilySearch is working towards the goal of being able to preserve person ids when uploading a new version. Also, when you upload your GEDCOM, sources are preserved. Files must be GEDCOM format. GEDCOM X is not supported.

The User Submitted Genealogies user interface is going to be improved over what it is now. Remember, “futures” may or may not happen.

When you search User Submitted Genealogies, you can search just the Ancestral File, or PRF, or both. But you can’t search by submitter. (Randy piped in again: If you find someone in a tree you wish to focus on, you can click on the submission number and get a search form that specifies that submission’s number.)

Community trees are currently on a separate website, but will be moving over to

Place API

(I’m not going to talk about this, other than to say this is a service FamilySearch provides to the community to handle place names and jurisdictions. It is the same thing you can see today in Standards Finder in FamilySearch Labs.) The database has about a million historical places. It handles historical name changes, For example, Allen’s Camp, Arizona changed to St. Joseph, Yavapai County, Arizona, which changed to St. Joseph, Apache County, Arizona, which changed to Joseph City, Apache County, Arizona.


FamilySearch currently has two mobile applications. In the future the Tree app will have the ability to add new persons, create and modify conclusions, and create and modify relationships. The Memories app will allow tagging and people view.


The Memories API (application programming interface) will allow partner apps that can upload, read, delete, and attach memories (photos, stories, and documents). It allows citing a document as a source. It can read all the memories uploaded by the current user.These are all things that partners haven’t been able to do. We’re going to see much richer partner apps.

You can upload in jpg, tif, gif, bmp,and pdf, up to 15 MB. (Not every flavor of every types is supported.) Notice tif support. Yay! And the increase to 15 MB. Yay!

Message Services

FamilySearch is going to complete a little service this year that will allow a user to send a message to another user of On a user’s contact card you’ll be able to click a link to send a message. When they login, they will see an icon indicating they have new messages. Mangum’s personal preference would be that the message is visible to all. The messaging service is not going to be available in the API on initial release. They hope to have this in the first half of this year.

Open ID Connect

This feature isn’t really something you will notice as a user, (so I don’t know why I’m even mentioning it). It will allow single sign-on. It is coming this year.

Ideas for Partners

FamilySearch wants to provide everything users need, but can’t do everything. Unlike other companies, FamilySearch has a set scope. Partners could do products outside that scope, like medical apps, or other relationship oriented products.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Laura Bush and Daughter Jenna at #RootsTech / #FGS2015 (#RTATEAM)

Jenna Bush Hager interviews her mother, Laura at RootsTechIt was a message rich with family.

Former first lady, Laura Bush addressed the keynote session of RootsTech and FGS Friday morning. It was delightful. She was bright, smart, and articulate. (“Reading is one of the guiding passions of my life.” And, “Books have the power to shape our journey as a nation.”) She was self-deprecating. (She showed us a Laura Bush bobble head doll a friend had found—on a clearance rack.) She reported on the doings of all her family members. (“President Bush” celebrated his 90th birthday in June by jumping from a plane.) She was philosophical. (Soon after 9/11 she watched in fear as “George” took the field to throw out the first pitch in New York’s Yankee Stadium. But then she realized it was the job of every American to stand up on the pitcher’s mound and face our problems.)

After her speech, her daughter, Jenna, joined her onstage. Jenna works as a special correspondent to NBC (“continuing the Bush family tradition of working closely with the press,” her mother quipped). In form, Jenna “interviewed” her mother. But conversation bloomed into reminiscing which blossomed into laughter and tears.

It was the election of 1988, the two decided. President Bush was vice-president and running for president. Laura said she and George were out on a date and President Bush was babysitting. It was the night before a presidential debate and President Bush was looking for Spikey the cat, the beloved stuffed animal of Jenna’s sister, Barbara. Barbara had lost Spikey and was quite distressed. Jenna chimed in, “He had the secret service out looking with flashlights! I told him Barb couldn’t sleep without Spikey!” Jenna said that after searching unsuccessfully for an hour, President Bush came in to find them both, fast asleep.

Jenna testified that although they held the highest job in the land, they always put family first.

FamilySearch App Gallery Highlighted at #RootsTech (#RTATEAM)

Introducing the new FamilySearch App GalleryFamilySearch recently released an App Gallery. They really want you to know about it. They’ve explained it in three of the FamilySearch sessions I’ve attended and mentioned it in two others. One speaker hearkened back to Blackberry. Not very long ago, Blackberry had a huge share of the smart phone market, but no 3rd party apps. Along came Apple iPhones, which allow 3rd party apps. It wasn’t long before there were more than a million apps extending the basic capability of iPhones. Along the way, Apple had decidedly displaced Blackberry.

FamilySearch also allows extension by 3rd party apps. Over 60 applications have been certified. There are three new ones added every month and this is expected to rise to two a week. Just recently they certified their first game apps.

The FamilySearch App Gallery showcases all the FamilySearch apps. However, it works a little differently than the Apple and Google app stores. Visit the App Gallery to learn about apps. Visit vendors’ websites to obtain apps. Go to the App Gallery directly at Currently, you can also go to the FamilySearch home page, scroll to the bottom, and click the link in the box highlighting the App Gallery. I don’t know if that will be there long term, as those boxes seem to change. Maybe FamilySearch will fix the link in the site map.

FamilySearch has built the App Gallery in such a way that vendors can upload their own content. They control what is displayed in a framework defined by FamilySearch.

In the App Gallery, browse apps by category. Filter apps by platform, price, language, and FamilySearch compatibility. Just this week FamilySearch added user ratings.

Friday the 13th at #RootsTech #FGS2015 (#RTATEAM)

There is no 13th floor in my hotel. There is no room 13 next to mine. So since it is Friday the 13th, I was being careful. When Word died (again) I lost almost nothing.

I’ve not had any time to write and publish, but you’ll hear from me eventually.

While I’m here waiting for Ron Tanner to begin, I’ll share a quick observation. I was amused Wednesday when I noticed that FGS and Innovator’s Summit began their conference opening sessions at different times. Different times; different target audiences. One started at 8:00 and one at 9:00. Guess which one was genealogists and which one was programmers.


Back to the 13th: the real fallout of Friday the 13th will occur tomorrow when I spend Valentines Day at a genealogy conference instead of with my significant other.

That’s when the real bad luck is going to hit.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

#RootsTech and #FGS2015 Opening Session (#RTATEAM)

Computer crashed.

Backup malfunctioned.

All my notes gone.

You’re stuck with some general impressions—and lots of screen captures.

Welcome to RootsTech

This is RootsTech. I do remember that, despite my bad memory and despite the loss of my notes.
Who Inspires You? RootsTech 2015 videoThe session started with a video titled “Who Inspires You?” Watch it yourself on YouTube.
Celebrating Families Across GenerationsThe theme this year is “Celebrating Families Across Generations.”
Preserve the PensionsJosh Taylor, president of the Federation of Genealogical Societies took a quick minute. He was accompanied by his costars of The Genealogy Roadshow, Mary Tedesco, and Kenyatta Berry. They gave a progress report on the Preserve the Pensions project. If you aren’t aware of this project, you should be.
Mary Tedesco, Josh Taylor, and Kenyatta Berry at FGS/RootsTech

Taylor’s comments mirrored the introduction on the project website:

The Pension Records from the War of 1812 are among the most requested documents at the National Archives. Unfortunately, these fragile documents are in urgent need of digitization. In support of this monumental task of digitizing 7.2 million pages, has provided a dollar for dollar matching grant, so every dollar you contribute will make four more pages accessible and free for everyone.

He reported that they have broken the 50% milestone! Visit the Preserve the Pensions website to donate.

Dennis Brimhall shows map of RootsTech affiliated family history fairsFamilySearch CEO, Dennis Brimhall gave the first of three keynote addresses. He announced that as of this morning the number of RootsTech registrations was 21,927. All states are represented this year except for West Virginia. Every year there has been one missing, but it has never been the same. The number of vendors in the exhibit hall is up to 170. After the conference, RootsTech-associated family history fairs are held around the world. Last year, 1,183 such events were held. Below is a photo of a fair held in Nigeria.
RootsTech affiliated family history fair in Nigeria

Sonia Meza Morales with Captain Jack StarlingDennis gave a report on the FamilySearch initiative to index obituaries. Last year, Captain Jack Starling joined him onstage to introduced the initiative. This year Dennis reported that volunteers had indexed 100 million names. He said that Captain Starling would be proud. There were 319,000 indexers. On average, they indexed 1.3 million names every day.

Dennis said that FamilySearch is working with partners to digitize, index, and publish new record collections. These collaborations produce more records, more quickly. FamilySearch is currently partnering with on the following projects. (Thanks, Randy, for the list.)

  • Canadian census records (pre-1911)
  • U.S. probate records
  • U.S. homesteader records
  • Northampton parish records
  • New York State Archives records
  • Virginia vital records
  • WWII draft records
  • 80 million Mexican vital records

With FindMyPast, FamilySearch is doing

  • English parish records
  • U.K. airmen service records
  • U.S. passenger lists
  • U.S. Revolutionary War pension files
  • U.S. Civil War pension indexes
  • Irish Poverty Relief Fund records

MyHeritage and FamilySearch are partnering on

  • U.K. census records
  • Finnish confirmation records
  • Swedish household names
  • Dutch records
  • U.S. passenger lists

Dennis announced two new partners: the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) and

He next demonstrated the new Discovery Center experience, which he called, the “Museum of Me.”

The Museum of Me

Because I’ve already written about the Salt Lake Discovery Center, I’ll relate Dennis’s experience through pictures.

 Dennis Brimhall visits a Discovery Center where he takes a selfie Dennis Brimhall visits a Discovery Center where he takes a second selfie Dennis Brimhall visits a Discovery Center where he learns the meaning of his name Dennis Brimhall visits a Discovery Center where he learns the meaning of his name Dennis Brimhall visits a Discovery Center and sees the distribution of his name Dennis Brimhall visits a Discovery Center and sees the distribution of his name Dennis Brimhall visits a Discovery Center and learns interesting facts about his birth year Dennis Brimhall visits a Discovery Center and learns interesting facts about his birth year Dennis Brimhall demonstrates a visit to a Discovery Center at RootsTech Dennis Brimhall visits a Discovery Center and finds a picture of his Father's Purple Heart medal Dennis Brimhall visits a Discovery Center and learns his national origins Dennis Brimhall visits a Discovery Center and learns his national origins Dennis Brimhall visits a Discovery Center and, just for fun, dresses up like a Roman soldier

That is the “Museum of Me.” Well, actually, it’s the museum of Dennis Brimhall. To build your own museum, bring your family to the Salt Lake Discovery Center. (To make an appointment, visit FamilySearch will open a discovery center in Philadelphia. They are looking for a place in London. And they will soon open a small center in Seattle.

Whew. I bet you’re glad I lost me notes. How much longer could that have been? Well, the loss of my notes actually will affect the rest of my report.

Introducing Instant Discoveries by MyHeritageDennis was followed by Mike Mallin, chief product officer for MyHeritage. During his presentation, Dennis had shared a video commercial produced by MyHeritage. (See “Introducing Instant Discoveries™ by MyHeritage” on YouTube.)

Tan Le was the final keynote at RootsTech's opening sessionThe final keynote of the opening session was Tan Le. She told a story of hardship, heartbreak, fortitude, survival, and triumph. She escaped Vietnam with her mother as a small girl. Her earliest memory was the stark and frightening escape on a boat. The boat became a metaphor of strength acquired through adversity and perseverance.

Watch the video when it is posted on

That’s it for the first keynote. See you tomorrow.

GEDCOM Replacement is Here (#RootsTech #RTATEAM)

GEDCOM XAt RootsTech two years ago, Ryan Heaton of FamilySearch talked about a GEDCOM replacement: GEDCOM X. (See “Ryan Heaton: A New GEDCOM.”) Today, GEDCOM X is a reality. Heaton’s presentation this year was titled “The Ecosystem of Genealogical Data Exchange.” I believe they recorded it; you’ll probably be able to view it yourself at some point. A warning is warranted, however. This was an Innovator’s Summit session. The target audience for the presentation was software engineers.

Heaton spoke of a genealogical ecosystem of information exchange. Family Group Sheets and other forms imposed structure on the exchange of genealogical data. Computer programs enforced it. Now we use the Internet and data types are tightly defined.

The elements of a genealogical data ecosystem are

  • records
  • persons
  • relationships
  • sources
  • citations
  • analyses (How did I make this inference? What makes me believe this information is true?)
  • Research (For example, what are the to do items in my research plan?)

The actors are

  • Systems
  • Users

He talked about information flow between users and systems. By user he meant a desktop genealogy tree management program like Ancestral Quest, Legacy, or RootsMagic. By system he meant an online tree manager. The information flow can be from:

  • User to user. This exchange has been done with GEDCOM or proprietary file formats of the desktop genealogy tree managers. Users can generally import the proprietary data files of competitive tree managers, but generally can’t export in competitors’ formats. There can also be data loss. There is limited exchange capability of citation metadata; elements or formatting are often lost. Internationalization of character sets are sometimes mishandled.
  • System to/from user. This is done with publicly facing interfaces (APIs).
  • System to system. This is usually done using bulk exchange formats.


There are reasons inhibiting user-to-user exchange. There is no specification commonly used by desktop tree managers to exchange citation metadata. Tree management software vendors lack incentive to make it easy for you to move to their competitors. This includes FamilySearch, who doesn’t necessarily want you to download all your data in one step.


Many desktop managers have the capability to exchange data with online tree systems. The desktop managers use APIs that allow desktop programs to talk to online tree managers like FamilySearch’s Family Tree, and MyHeritage’s tree.

The FamilySearch API conforms to GEDCOM X. A significant number of partners are using GEDCOM X to talk with the FamilySearch Family Tree. (I think his point here is that desktop tree managers know the API and could use it to exchange with each other if they chose to.)


Companies sometimes strike business deals to share their data. A non-genealogical example is Open Archives. OAI-PHM and A2A. FamilySearch has also done bulk data exchanges with, MyHeritage, and findmypast. FamilySearch gives them a big atom feed that transfers GEDCOM X data sets.

What inhibits genealogical dataflow?

  • Security
  • Budget constraints
  • Data loss
  • Feature mismatches
  • Lack of well-established specifications
  • User reluctance to share
  • Programmer awareness

Heaton ran out of time before he could talk about GEDCOM X directly. But I think his message was that GEDCOM X is here. It is alive. If vendors use it to exchange data with FamilySearch, but not with each other.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Inside Look at’s Product Development (#RootsTech #RTATEAM)

Chris Bradford

Josh Penrod
Josh Penrod

Kendall Hulet
Kendall Hulet presented a session at RootsTech Innovator’s Summit titled “Inside look at’s Innovation and Product Development.” Three members of’s management team made the presentation: Chris Bradford, vice president of product engineering, Kendall Hulet, vice president of product management for AncestryDNA, and Josh Penrod, senior director of user experience. The presentation was geared to Innovator Summit attendees: software engineers and entrepreneurs. “We wanted to talk about how we innovate and how we do product development at ancestry,” said Hulet.

Hulet noticed that experienced users came to day after day and reentered the same searches time after time. Plus, they wouldn’t enter enough information for’s search engine to find many of the matching records. At the same time, Penrod noticed that new users came to and typed in their own names, then left when they found nothing.

Commiserating together, they wondered how to solve these problems. Then they had an idea. Respond to visitor’s natural instinct to enter their own name by having them build their own tree. If they allowed users to create a user tree, they would work past themselves, and they would provide enough data about ancestor to do a good search. That’s how we came up with the idea of member trees and shaky leaves, said Hulet.

They now have

  • 60 million trees created
  • 7 billion profiles created
  • 5 billion hints accepted
  • 3 billion records attached

The three presenters emphasized that there needs to be a common vision among their three teams: engineering, product management, and UX (user interface) design. “If you only remember one thing from this presentation, getting to a shared vision is the most important thing.” The shared vision needs to include what they are solving and who they are solving it for, said Hulet.

To better communicate who they are solving it for, the team creates personas—market types—that describe the archetypical customer. They give the persona a name so they feel a greater connection to that customer segment. An audience member asked if they could share more. They declined; they felt that information confidential. But I’ve seen this done enough times, let me sketch one out:

Nelly Newcomer is a forty-something married female. She’s well educated and has a career. She has expendable income, but little free time. Her parents are both alive, but aging. She has one sibling and no children. She’s not the scrapbooking type, but enjoys looking through old photo albums with her parents and reminiscing. She’s seen part of an episode of Who Do You Think You Are and was intrigued with the idea of learning more about her ancestors.

It takes a lot of interaction with customers to understand their needs. You have to get your product ideas out in front of your customers. product managers have been known to get in line at Starbucks, strike up a conversation with the person next to them, and offer to buy their coffee if they will sit down and review an idea. (They said in Salt Lake City they might frequent cookie shops instead of Starbucks. That’s not to say we don’t have them in Utah. I walked two blocks to McDonalds this morning and passed three Starbucks. I heard Jay Leno say once that Starbucks was proliferating so much, they had started putting Starbucks in the parking lots of other Starbucks. But I digress…)

The rest of the presentation consisted of different ways and products that uses to watch and learn from their customers. They fly all over the place. They use software to remotely watch the computer screens of website users. They have popups that ask users if they would be willing to participate in some testing. If they are willing, the survey gathers some demographic information that can use in the future to determine who to contact.

They have “listening labs” without prescribed agendas. A notice on the site invites a user to participate. If willing, calls them immediately and asks them what they’re hoping to do on the site that day. Then just watches them work, perhaps asking a question now and then. “We do these every Friday,” Penrod said. Sometimes the CEO sits in. If he sees an obvious problem, you know you’re going to get a “we should fix that” assignment. These sessions are also great bonding exercises for teams when the team watches together and sees failures in the features they are responsible for.

In the question and answer segment, someone asked that if was so interested in learning from their customers, why wasn’t there a feedback link somewhere on their site. They explained that has millions of customer interactions and that if they had a feedback link, they would not be able to review all the submissions. It’s a bad idea to ask for input and that you don’t actually read.

They admitted that they don’t always get it right. But from all they said, it is apparent that they try. Releases 2015 Product Plan at #FGS2015/#RootsTech

imageWednesday afternoon I received the following press release about’s 2015 product and publication plans.

Ancestry Announces 2015 Product and Content Lineup

Industry Leader Talks Innovation and New Collections At Annual RootsTech Conference

(PROVO, Utah) – February 11, 2015 – Ancestry, the world's leading family history service, is ushering in the next generation of family history, with the debut of an updated story centric website, groundbreaking advancements in AncestryDNA that will revolutionize how people discover their ancestors, and the anticipated addition of nearly 1 billion new records to the largest collection of historical records online in 2015.

“We’re incredibly excited about all the amazing things we have in store for our members this year,” said Tim Sullivan, CEO of Ancestry. “In 2015, we’ll be launching some of the most innovative new features and services in our company’s history. We think these additions are going to make Ancestry an even more powerful resource for our existing users, while also making family history easier, more accessible, and more fun for those just getting started. We’re also proud of our commitment to continue investing in new content. Our 2015 content roadmap will be anchored by our expected fall release of more than 170 million Probate and Wills images, one of the most exciting, engaging, and interesting content collections we’ve ever published.”

Over the next year, Ancestry will introduce breakthrough features and compelling content – made possible by powerful advancements in science and technology – that will give you an easier, richer and more engaging way to discover and tell your family story, and make your family history journey easy and engaging, through a highly customized, relevant and historically rich experience rooted in discovery and storytelling.

Major Product Developments

  • A new and improved Ancestry website will make it easier for anyone to discover and tell the rich, unique story of their family, through new features and site enhancements that will reinvent the ways Ancestry members create and showcase their family story. The new site experience is currently in limited Beta and will be demonstrated at RootsTech On Friday, Feb. 13 at 1:00 pm MT (Room 151) as well as at the Ancestry booth. Visitors to the Ancestry booth will be able to opt in to participate in the Beta.
  • Ancestry mobile will introduce a full search feature in the iOS app that will empower users to access 15 billion historical records and hints anytime, anywhere in the native app environment. The intuitive interface will make both simple and advanced searches easier, while the presentation of search results will also help you quickly identify and prioritize the most important results, making search less complicated.  The Ancestry mobile team will showcase version 1 search in the Ancestry booth and discuss search and other mobile features in length during an FGS class, “Ancestry’s Mobile World,” on Saturday, Feb. 14 at 1:00 pm MT.
  • Ancestry will also remain committed to providing the best in educational resources with the launch of Ancestry Academy in April. The new resource will offer how-to tutorials and historical guidance to help experts and novices alike. Released as a limited Beta this week, Ancestry Academy will be showcased via demo in the Exhibit Hall on Friday, Feb 13 at 3 pm MT. Those interested in participating in this Beta should stop by the Ancestry booth for more information.

Continued Growth for AncestryDNA

  • With a database of over 700,000 genotyped members, AncestryDNA has generated over one billion cousin connections to date. In 2015, we project this database to grow to exceed well over one million genotyped members, resulting in even more and higher quality cousin matches.
  • Following the successful launch of AncestryDNA in the UK, we will soon be bringing the service to our members in Australia and Canada, and in doing so, will connect the major English-speaking migrations and globally connect families like never before.
  • Building on DNA Circles, in 2015 we will launch a new experience that will use the latest genetic technology to discover new ancestors without the customer having to search records or build a family tree.  This new feature will transform how family history research is done by providing valuable hints to help experienced genealogist looking to break through brick walls, as well as open family history to a whole new segment of the population. Through this new experience, AncestryDNA customers will be able to discover new ancestors as far back as the 1700’s by connecting into existing DNA Circles.

Ancestry Around the World

  • Last winter, Ancestry expanded the availability of to users in the UK, and just last month in Australia and Canada.
  • Later this year, Ancestry will announce resources for users in Germany and Mexico. With more than 58 million Americans claiming sole or partial German heritage* and an estimated 34 million residents of Mexican origin** the new sites will give nearly 100 million people in the US alone, the ability to learn more about their family’s story.

New Record Collections

  • This fall Ancestry will release more than 170 million name-searchable images of million Probate and Wills records. The most comprehensive collections of its kind, these records will provide access to almost all wills probated in the United States from the mid 19th century to 2000– an unprecedented treasure trove of information to better inform familial narratives.
  • This spring, Ancestry will release the comprehensive service records collection for the Australian Imperial Forces – the main expeditionary force of the Australian Army during World War 1. Made available in time for Australia’s 100-year commemoration of its entrance into the war, the historical records will help honor the brave men and women that served.
  • Also in 2015, Ancestry will make available in the UK, a variety of content collections including WWI War Diaries, Parish Baptism Marriage and Burial Registers, and a collection of Francis Frith historic photos gathered from over 7,000 individual cities, towns, and villages across the UK from 1860-1960.

Professional Research, Award Winning Television and You

  • With more than 150 years of combined research experience, Ancestry’s professional research group, AncestryProGenealogists, has helped people trace their family trees and connect with the past for more than 15 years. The team has grown to become the largest service of its kind, supporting research for the Emmy Nominated Show “Who Do You Think You Are?.” AncestryProGenealogists will continue to grow and help solve family mysteries, break down brick walls, and discover the stories that tell you who you are and where you came from.
  • Ancestry will also continue showcasing family history around the world, through shows like Who Do You Think You Are?, Genealogy Roadshow, Finding Your Roots, and Long Lost Family.

“Your family story is a universe that is always expanding,” said Sullivan. “With new products and even more records, Ancestry will provide the most unique, personable, and engaging family history experience on the planet.”

To learn more about how Ancestry is transforming family history, visit the Ancestry booth at the RootsTech Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah from February 11-14, 2015.


* 1990 U.S. Census
** Pew Research Center 2013

About is the world's largest online family history resource with more than 2 million paying subscribers across all its websites. More than 15 billion records have been added, and users have created more than 60 million family trees to the core Ancestry websites, including its flagship site and its affiliated international websites. offers a suite of online family history brands, including,,, as well as the AncestryDNA product, sold by its subsidiary, DNA, LLC, all of which along with its core Ancestry websites, are all designed to empower people to discover, preserve and share their family history.

Forward-Looking Statements

This press release contains forward-looking statements. Forward-looking statements involve a number of risks and uncertainties that could cause actual results to differ materially from those anticipated by these forward-looking statements. Such risks and uncertainties include a variety of factors, some of which are beyond the company’s control. In particular, such risks and uncertainties include the company's ability to add tools and features and provide value to satisfy customer demand and its ability to acquire content and make it available online. Information concerning additional factors that could cause events or results to differ materially is contained under the caption “Risk Factors” in the Quarterly Report on Form 10-Q for LLC for the period ended September 30, 2014, which was filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission on November 3, 2014, and in discussions in other of the company’s Securities and Exchange Commission filings. These forward-looking statements should not be relied upon as representing our views as of any subsequent date and we assume no obligation to publicly update or revise these forward-looking statements.



Matt Deighton
(801) 705-7834


Speaking of’s product plans, it’s public knowledge now, so I can share that just lost their chief product officer, Eric Shoup. Eric has moved on after being with for over six years. I admired him a lot. He will be missed.’s Scott Sorensen Addresses #InnovatorSummit @ #RootsTech (#RTATEAM)

“It’s a really exciting time to be in the family history business,” said Scott Sorensen at the opening keynote of the RootsTech Innovator’s Summit. “We’re all working on a piece of the same puzzle,” he said. “It’s the same with technology.” Sorensen is the chief technology officer (CTO) at where he directs 400 engineers. He gave a short presentation prior to the main speaker.

He’s been at for 13 years. In that time, he’s seen a lot of changes. That’s back when the website looked like this:

The appearance of in 2002

Sorensen talked about three technologies.

1. Mobile platforms. Sorensen said when he started at he owned a flip phone. Today, with smart phones and family history apps he can do his family history anywhere. A lot of family history opportunities are location-specific. When at your aunt’s house, you want to access your genealogy and capture documents she has.

2. Handwriting recognition. When Sorensen started at, speech recognition was where handwriting recognition is now. Last summer sponsored a competition at the 13th International Conference on Document Analysis and Recognition. (See “Competition as Collaboration – Handwriting Recognition Competition .”) They are hoping to do it again this year.

Handwritten document sample provided to contestents

Basic algorithms are working, but the developers are working out edge cases.

3. DNA Science. When Sorensen started at, it cost a couple of million dollars to sequence a person’s complete genome. (Wow! Did I write that down right? I’m pretty sure I did.) Today it can be done in less than a thousand dollars. is innovating in the DNA space, but that has required deliberate effort. has grown to have 1,400 employees around the world. Large companies have a hard time innovating like small companies do. They separated the team so they could act like a startup. They were unconstrained. They had lots of early interaction with real customers.

The result is something calls DNA Circles. DNA Circles find groups of people with common DNA and a common ancestor, as shown by their Ancestry Member Trees. This group is called a DNA Circle. can then place people that share that same DNA into the circle, even if they don’t have a tree or haven’t previously done any genealogy. This can quickly connect a customer with a wealth of stories, photos, and records.

DNA Circles can quickly connect a prospective genealogy with his ancestors

I’m going to skip reporting on the main speaker to give me more time to write about and FamilySearch. (Sorry, Nathan.) His presentation was titled “How to Apply the Innovator’s Method to Increase Your Success and Decrease Your Risk.” I think his presentation was based on his book, so if you’re really interested see The Innovator’s Method (Harvard Business Review Press, September 2014).

By the way, the guy who introduced Scott (sorry, I didn’t catch your name) mentioned something interesting: Google Genomics. For more information, see