Friday, April 30, 2010

The Future of Genealogy Collaboration?

I attended the 8 a.m. presentation of "Doing Research in Real Time - An Exhilarating Collaboration" with David Rencher, Alan Mann, Robert Raymond and Dean Hunter. These guys work together at FamilySearch. David was the moderator, and Alan, Robert and Dean manned the computers to bring records and documents to life.

The premise here is that people in different parts of the world can work together for a common good. It could be in real time (a day and hour - say weekly) or it could be any time. They can use free communication, organization and aggregation tools to keep the process flowing.

In the presentation, the team had an aggregator who would take records found by the other team members and would put them on Footnote Pages for the subject persons (note that Footnote Pages are FREE for anyone to access and use, and media items (images, audio, video) can be uploaded to them).

The team had virtual assistants in Lowndes and Greene Counties, Alabama and in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. They were tasked with finding tombstones in cemeteries (and taking pictures of them) and finding records on microfilm to support the project. They all communicated by email or mobile device and transmitted images to the team for posting on footnote pages.

Go look at the Footnote Pages for Peyton C. Clements, Quincy E. Clements and Angelina Clements Goldsmith. The syllabus pages are online at

This process could be used by any person or group to do collaborative research - a surname group, descendants of a common ancestor, a research club or group at a local society, etc.

Communication within the group could use email, a blog, Skype, online message boards, online forums, Ancestry Member Trees, the wiki, a Facebook Group or Page, a GenealogyWise group, or any other free and accessible tool. It would probably be better to have an ongoing online discussion so that the conversation trail is clear. Documents (lists, spreadsheets, analysis, etc.) could be shared on Google Docs or some other editable and shared location.

While this presentation was done in real time at a certain date/time, it could easily be done at any time a team member has the time and resources to do tasks and analysis. If a team had a person with an membership, that person could search for records on, capture them to their computer and contribute the document, properly sourced, to the group effort. If one of the group resided near the Family History Library (or any other major repository) they might be tasked with obtaining records at that repository.

How could genealogy groups (an existing society, or an impromptu genealogy "clubs" with a common interest - say the "Descendants of Robert Seaver") take advantage of this methodology to help their members?

It seems to me that the Ancestry/Rootsweb message boards and the Genforum message boards are already set up for almost all surnames, and all states/counties and countries - they might be the best place to put group discussions in hopes that others with the same interest could read them and participate and reap the collaborative benefit.

I really like the idea of a Footnote Page for the results of a collaborative effort. That's what they were designed for, and are quite capable of providing a free platform for the in-work and finished product. The wiki might be an ideal place to put the whole collaboration and aggregation process in action also. The New FamilySearch Family Tree is supposed to have this collaborative capability and may be the preferred platform for many users (of course, non-LDS members cannot use it right now).

What the genealogy community needs to do is to test out these ideas and promote them. The "best solution" will probably rise to the surface quickly.

This was an interesting and challenging presentation - the audience was really energized by the possibilities. This is truly "Genealogy in the Cloud."

Thank you David, Robert, Alan and Dean for the fun start to Friday morning!

What do you think? How can these concepts be improved and used?


Terry Thornton said...

Randy, Thanks so much for your analysis of "The Future of Genealogy Collaboration" --- most interesting concept.

There are many avenues by which collaborative work can be done thanks to the never-ending list of options provided by the Internet. Let me tell about my experience in an on-going collaborative group using emails and digital exchange of info.

A group of eight family researchers with interest in Monroe County Mississippi the MONROE COUNTY MISSISSIPPI DISCUSSION GROUP about four years ago. We all set up a group mailing in our email accounts and we all learned to press "Reply All" when sending messages back and forth. On occasion we would include additional members as guests --- but the core group has remained at eight individuals scattered across two states (only four of the group actually live in Monroe County).

The problems I've encountered using the collaborative work is that on a "hot" topic so much material is generated that it is difficult to keep pace or to keep good records of it all. I've several CDs full of excellent materials difficult to sort, search, and use. I think that if we were staring over, the MOCO MS DISCUSSION GROUP would have more specific instructions about tagging information and about using multiple subject lines. Further it would have helped tremendously if up front we had standardized the documentation format to be used --- and even appointed one member of the group to be the official keeper of the records.

Of course the group often veered off topic and the ensuing discussions ranged far and wide with sometimes surprising results. But those off-topic "fishing" trips are all listed under the original "tag" of the Subject line of the beginning query! LOL!

So think ahead when setting up such a collaborative group and start off with a good set of guidelines.

The only criticism I've received against our local collaborative group is some regular users of the county's GenForum complained that we, the Discussion Group, were attempting to circumvent the GenForum with a small exclusive group. It was difficult to explain that the group was small on purpose to keep it easy to handle; small on purpose so that all of the eight would feel free to state their positions on a topic without it being published for all to read; and that the way the group was set up enabled us to exchange images and digital information not available using the GenForum.

The Monroe County Discussion Group has sponsored several "field trips" with numerous assorted guests --- and we've helped many individuals outside the group to research some "sticky" problems in family history without having those issues aired on the GenForum. But most of our work has been to help each other with research problems --- not only have we individually benefited by the collaborative efforts but the larger community has also benefited as most of our projects have been refined and published in one form or another.

I strongly recommend that like-minded groups of individuals establish collaborative AND cooperative efforts in genealogy. The results can be most rewarding.

Terry Thornton
Monroe County Mississippi Discussion Group

Martin said...

I have been trying to collaborate with others for nearly 20 years. In most of my experiences, I've done 99% of the heavy lifting. I've done the real research, spent the real money, and finally published the results. I wish I could say I enjoyed the process, but I didn't and it has soured genealogy for me in some profound ways.

However, during the last year, I have collaborated with someone who has been very helpful. So, I'm sure it can be done. As with any successful collaboration, you need to work together. The problem with virtual meetings, is that it takes time to get to know people. Often it is too late to realize that your co-workers are not up to snuff.

Donna Hansen Peterson said...

I am currently working with a group of descendants of three siblings who are pooling their knowledge and resources. We communicate by e-mail whenever anyone has something to add. It is a great help to have others see things with fresh eyes. A cousin discovered an error in my research and now I have the chance to correct the information. Another place to use is You can up-load trees, photos, etc.and share the information with others at your invitation.

Ginger Smith said...

I have been working with a family group helping them research their ancestor. I tried to suggest very specific research "tasks" for them to carry out, however no one wanted to take them on. I thought it was awesome to have someone tell you exactly what to do. So I did all the work myself and emailed the results to everyone. I then shifted my focus on evaluating the DNA results but again, that seemed to have been over their heads.
We tried to use Facebook but that didn't work out because I could not figure out a way to get FB to notify subscribers when new content was posted. There may be new ways to do this now, if anyone knows how to do this, please let me know.
I use Google docs for school, but it is really hard to get people to learn how to do anything beyond hitting the "reply to all" button or to change the subject line when the subject changes.
Wikis are nice to use but are not very friendly to those who have never used one or seen one before. I'm in school, so we do everything via "blackboard" which is basically a discussion board / wiki, so I am familiar with it. I have not used WeRelate. I currently use My family really likes the social network feel to it.
I am just now getting my genealogical society learning how to use the blog feature of our new website. I thought it was a good sign when I saw many of our retirees accessing the site via their iphones!