New Technology Makes Family History Easier, Even Fun

Contributed by  By Ryan Morgenegg, Church News staff writer

  • 22 March 2013

Family Tree is a new free online program from the Church that helps people collaborate together in building family trees. Member may also submit the information for temple work.  Source: IRI

Article Highlights

  • RootsTech highlights advances in technology that made accurate indexing faster and easier, plus added millions of digitized records.
  • The Church and several businesses are offering unique technologies to assist in family history work.
  • A new online Facebook game called Family Village attracts young people to do family research.

“With the new technology available, I can contact my sister in Iowa and ask her to work together on a particular line that needs to be completed.” —Paul Nauta, public relations manager for the Church

Nowhere is technology more important and prevalent than in the current deluge of family history and genealogy work going on inside and outside of the Church.

According to FamilySearch, it took 80 years for volunteers to index the first billion records completed around 2006. In six short years volunteers have completed the second billion. Why? Advances in technology have removed the roadblocks that used to hinder rapid and accurate indexing. What’s interesting is that the industry is just getting started.

The RootsTech 2013 conference in Salt Lake City proved to be a great place to find the current technologies that will help family historians. The yearly conference hosted by the Church had a record 6,700 participants from 49 states and 17 countries. Last year there were about 4,000 attendees. The Church and several businesses from around the country are offering their own unique technologies to assist in family history work.

From the Church, the most recent offering is Family Tree. This free online program allows members and others to collaborate in building family trees. “With the new technology available, I can contact my sister in Iowa and ask her to work together on a particular line that needs to be completed,” said Paul Nauta, manager of public relations for the Church's family history efforts. “In the near future, users will be able to add photos and stories.”

Another technological advance is the sheer number of new records being digitized every day. Because of the incredible work of volunteers, the Church adds 400 million new records each year. That’s an average of more than 1 million new records every day. Josh Taylor, a professional genealogist, author, and keynote speaker at RootsTech 2013, said, “The most amazing development for 2012 in family history and genealogy was the release of the 1940 census records.”

An interesting development in family history research is the use of DNA testing to discover one’s ethnicity. John Pereira, senior vice president of DNA research at Ancestry.com, explained, “One of the most common questions we get asked all the time is, ‘What’s my ethnicity?’ or ‘Where am I from?’ It turns out that the answer is in your DNA. It’s the key to discovering where your family is from and learning all about the places and cultures that make you who you are.” By comparing their unique DNA signature with DNA from others around the world, people can find out what matches exist to further define who they are and where their ancestors came from.

An obituary in the April 6, 1909 edition of the Deseret News. Newspapers can be a great source to find out stories about ancestors. Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick, Deseret News

Once a person finds an ancestor, the personal stories about that individual become of great interest. One tool for family history researchers to find stories about their ancestors is a newspaper archive. With emerging technology, more and more birth records, obituaries, photos, classified ads, passenger lists, and military records are now available. These records help historians begin to build stories about their ancestors. For example, RootsTech 2013 keynote speaker Josh Taylor researched newspaper articles and found out that one of his ancestors was a world-traveling circus performer. A variety of companies provide access to newspaper archives for family history research.

DNA Testing caption: DNA can be sequenced to discover your ethnicity for use in family history work. Photo by Scott Winterton, Deseret News

One of the most unique uses of technology in family history work at RootsTech 2013 was from a Salt Lake company called Stories in Stone. For a fee, a person receives a QR-coded piece of porcelain, aluminum, glass, or vinyl that can be attached to a headstone at the cemetery. With a mobile device and scanning software, an individual can visit a grave and scan the QR code to look at an obituary, video, music, photo, or story about the deceased. In an instant family history is available in a new and interactive way.

QR barcode on a grave headstone allows an obituary, video, music, photo, or story about the deceased to be scanned with a smart phone. Photo by Mike Anderson, Deseret News

Another focus of the conference was attracting young people to do family research. The key is technology. Jeff Wells, CEO of Funium in Lehi, Utah, created an online Facebook game similar to Farmville called Family Village. The characters in the game are one’s ancestors, who inhabit a make-believe city. A virtual museum in the city houses documents, photos, and information about each real ancestor. By playing the game, participants earn awards that bring real documents such as newspaper articles, yearbook photos, and census and marriage records into the game. “Our goal is to create not only entertaining social games but also to make playing social games worthwhile,” said the game’s creator.

What about the future? What technologies might people enjoy for family history work in the not-too-distant future? A panel of experts at RootsTech 2013 discussed the future of technology and genealogy. The consensus was that the future lies in mobile devices.

“We have worked so hard as genealogists to be able to do family history work ... at home; mobile [products] make it so we can turn around and go right back outside the door,” said Lisa Louise Cooke, a professional genealogist and panel member. Mobile devices allow family historians to do research on the go, outside the house, and in person. Indexing, interviews, video, photos, and research can be done by something that can be carried in a purse or pocket.

Family Village is a Facebook game that lets you build your own town populated by your family. As your village grows, the program works behind the scenes to find real documents about your heritage. Photo courtesy of Funium, LLC.