RootsTech—2012 Building a Genealogical Community Framework through Technology

  By Heather Whittle Wrigley, Church News and Events

  • 17 February 2012

At RootsTech 2012, presenters suggested to thousands of genealogists the idea of working together as an industry to do more data definition and sharing.

“As technology creators and consumers, we need to continue to foster an environment where information can be made freely available and not held in closed boxes and systems.” —David Burggraaf, senior vice president of product engineering for FamilySearch

During his keynote address at the opening of RootsTech 2012 on February 2, Jay Verkler, former CEO of FamilySearch International, wove a story of what genealogy might look like in 2060:

When high school sophomore “Emma” is assigned to research eight generations of her family within the next week, she will have immediate access to stories, photos, audio, and video. Historic home movies will be catalogued and tagged with speech-to-text conversion for quick, full-text searching. Photos will be auto-organized by subject, event, place, and facial recognition. Dates and events will be displayed on interactive timelines. Conclusions will be backed by authoritative sources.

“In the best future, family history and genealogy is not only commonly available, it’s chic,” Brother Verkler predicted. “Interfaces are simple and intuitive. The data is accurate and easy to access, and everything simply works on a common data model across all systems.”

Then Brother Verkler said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

Inventing the Future

“What will the world look like in 2060?” Brother Verkler asked at the beginning of his 90-minute presentation. “What can we do in 2012 to make it a better world?”

Genealogy deals primarily with the 6 billion people born between 1750 and 1900. But by 2060, approximately 20 billion people will have been born since 1900, and many will have personal memories and documents that support genealogical research. Genealogists are also concerned with preserving records—names, dates, events, relationships, and media—from this period.

Because of this, David Burggraaf, senior vice president of product engineering for FamilySearch, underlined how vital better collaboration is to the future of family history.

“As technology creators and consumers, we need to continue to foster an environment where information can be made freely available and not held in closed boxes and systems,” he said. “In order to facilitate that we need industry standards that enable all these companies and entities to share information. It also has to be done in a way that continues to grow and develop the industry, not stifle it.”

The best way to preserve history, Brother Verkler said, involves a “community framework” in which the genealogy industry collaborates with the technological industry to package all the important facts about a person, along with the data and proof, in one place, accessible to all.

“Genealogy must be collaborative,” he emphasized.

A major element to accomplishing this, he said, is a new GEDCOM standard. (GEDCOM is a system the Church created in 1984 to allow the transfer of information between applications or computers.)

A new GEDCOM would enable exchanges between genealogical services, Brother Verkler said. It would allow links and embedded media, and it would include a standard model and standard semantics for different elements of data.

Attendee Heather Miller expressed her excitement at the idea of standardization. “It is marvelous—the idea of citations being common, the data sources all being common, and having companies buy in on this so we can transfer things back and forth,” she said, citing an instance where she tried to upload a family tree from one site to another. The result was scrambled information that required hundreds of hours to reorganize.

Brother Verkler then introduced Google representatives Dave Barney and Robert Gardner, who reviewed Google’s efforts to improve their products for genealogical research. Those efforts include developing a new collection of schemas, or HTML tags, which describe the data more accurately, making historical information more searchable.

“[Can you see] the idea of working together as an industry to do more of this definition of the data to help all the computing get a lot smarter about genealogy?” Brother Verkler asked the thousands in attendance.

Blogger Renee Zamora could see the vision, she said. “[I can see] all this technology being able to help my posterity know who I am and who their ancestors are through all my efforts, and it’s not just something that’s going to get thrown in the trash when I’m gone,” she said.

Brother Verkler also said links must become permanent so vital documents won't be lost over time. Right now, 50 percent of existing links will not last more than three years.

Additionally, Brother Verkler said, for the community framework to be successful, services must use common authorities—standardized ways to categorize data such as dates, names, places, and events, so it’s searchable across different companies.

One of the most important elements is to make the community framework open, as opposed to proprietary, he added.

Brightsolid CEO Chris van der Kuyl remarked during the presentation, “I believe more than anyone that the more we can collaborate . . . the more success we’ll have as a business and an organization, and [then] more people will find family history as a passion.”

Matthew Monahan, CEO of Inflection, agreed that collaboration between developers, users, and genealogists is a critical ingredient for success.

“There’s a decision we need to make as a community on how we’re going to build these standards,” Brother Verkler reminded those present in closing.