BYU’s Relative Finder Helps You Find Famous Ancestors

Contributed By Ryan Morgenegg, Church News staff writer

  • 19 February 2015

Current student Todd Wakefield (in color) poses with Brigham Young Academy’s faculty of 1888. Seated, left to right: Joseph B. Keeler, Ottilie Maeser, Karl G. Maeser, Laura Foote, N. L. Nelson; standing: E. B. Isgreen, A. L. Booth, Hyrum Anderson. Original photo from the Harold B. Lee Library.  Photo courtesy of BYU Photo.

Article Highlights

  • Relative Finder allows users to see how closely related they are to famous people and even their neighbors and coworkers.
  • Users are able to compare their lines to find relations with different groups, such as former General Authorities or presidents of the United States.

“Many people who have never logged in to FamilySearch are motivated to do so in order to find out who they are related to. Many other people have expressed astonishment and delight at finding they are related to General Authorities. It can also be a positive experience for a ward to learn how many relatively close cousins there are.” —Tom Sederberg, a leader of Relative Finder 

PROVO, UTAH

When doing family history research, people often get excited when they discover that a relative or ancestor is someone famous. It’s also interesting to find out a coworker, spouse, or member of the ward is a relative too. The challenge is having enough time and knowledge to devote to research, but a 15-year project at BYU makes this type of relative finding a whole lot easier.

A BYU-developed website called Relative Finder enables users to find out how closely related they are to not only historical figures but also friends, neighbors, spouses, or even the mail carrier. “This website allows you, in three minutes of time and effort, to discover how you are related to all these people,” said computer science professor Tom Sederberg, a leader of the project. “It is fun and informative and can stimulate interest in family history work.”

In 2011, Relative Finder launched as a Facebook app that limited data to members of the Church only. Today, the website is certified by FamilySearch, and the Family Tree database contains almost ten times as much information, making the search results more thorough and entertaining.

“We have heard several stories of how Relative Finder has stimulated interest in family history,” said Brother Sederberg. “Many people who have never logged in to FamilySearch are motivated to do so in order to find out who they are related to. Many other people have expressed astonishment and delight at finding they are related to General Authorities. It can also be a positive experience for a ward to learn how many relatively close cousins there are.”

The best way to find the website online is to type “Relative Finder” in Google’s search engine. To access the program, users will need to log in to an account with FamilySearch. Church members can sign in with their membership number, and others must have previously completed some genealogy on the website. Once a person is logged into FamilySearch and Relative Finder, the user can start finding relatives among more than 30 groups, including U.S. presidents, European royalty, U.S. Constitution signers, and famous Latter-day Saints.

Current student Todd Wakefield (in color) poses with Brigham Young Academy’s faculty of 1888. Seated, left to right: Joseph B. Keeler, Ottilie Maeser, Karl G. Maeser, Laura Foote, N. L. Nelson; standing: E. B. Isgreen, A. L. Booth, Hyrum Anderson. Original photo from the Harold B. Lee Library. Photo courtesy of BYU Photo.

“Relative Finder can really change the dynamic of a ward or office,” Brother Sederberg said. “People are often astonished to learn that they are closely related to someone they live near or work with. Suddenly they are ‘family,’ and they look at each other a little differently, knowing that they share some heritage.”

Brother Sederberg and another BYU professor, William Barrett, oversee about a dozen undergraduate students in BYU’s Family History Technology Lab. These student developers work to improve Relative Finder and create other family history tools. The program engine has been improved over the past decade.

One of the recent improvements with the program is its mobile accessibility. In fact, 37 percent of the app’s traffic comes from mobile devices. The website is mobile-friendly and displays results easily on a mobile device. “Over the past month, 97 percent of our users were from America (including 47 percent from Utah, nine percent from California, six percent from Idaho and Arizona, and four percent from Texas and Washington). Thirty-seven percent of our users accessed Relative Finder from a mobile device,” said Brother Sederberg.

Being able to connect with users through mobile devices opens up a large demographic with the youth of the world. Brother Sederberg said that recently, FamilySearch hired a business strategy company to take a look at the use of family history technology from a business standpoint. The research indicated that to get more people involved and interested in family history, there would need to be an effort to appeal to a younger audience.

Student developers in the Family History Technology Lab have created additional programs and interactive apps to attract youth into the world of family history. For example, there is a 2048-style game called “Ancestral Squares,” a virtual pedigree, and “Grandma’s Pie,” which shows a person their ancestry using percentages and pie charts.

“What we really want is for these apps to serve as sort of a gateway into family history,” Brother Sederberg said. “If we can just introduce people to family history, they might get more excited and be more willing to go out and do more of it on their own.”

Gathering around 4,000 new users a week, Brother Sederberg and his students continue to expand their work by improving the Relative Finder website. Some of their goals for the near future include a Bluetooth function that lets users find relatives in the same room, an Android app, and an iOS app.

The BYU Family History Technology Lab has several other projects that can assist people in their family history work. To find out more go to fhtl.byu.edu.