Thursday, February 9, 2012

Do you Believe the FamilySearch Vision of the Future?

The most inspiring and visionary presentation at RootsTech 2012 was Jay Verkler's Keynote talk on "Inventing the Future, as a Community" on Thursday morning.  He laid out a vision for genealogy and family history in the year 2060.  I urge my readers to watch it if they haven't already (  It included these features:

*  Commonly available information, at low cost
*  Easy to use, intuitive, simple interfaces
*  Accurate information with a common data model
*  Includes facts, stories, photos, audio, video
*  Evidence based, with available documents and media.
*  Provides interactive timelines showing names, dates, places, events
*  works on every computer system.
*  It simply works!

It sounds so logical and simple, doesn't it?  But how do we get there?  Jay laid out two "big picture" charts that explain the process:

1)  The Genealogy Conclusion Diagram:

The Conclusion diagram includes for each person (6 billion people were born between 1750 and 1900, another 14 billion born since 1900, and another 6 billion to be born between now and 2060) :

*  Genealogy facts - vital, residence, occupation, education, military, immigration, social, etc.
*  Relationships of a person to parents, siblings, children, etc.
*  Stories, photographs, audio, video, etc. that display the life of the person
*  Sourced evidence in the form of documents for the life events

These need to be collected for all persons who previously lived and are currently living and preserved for future generations.

2)  The Community Framework diagram looks like this:

The different elements of this framework are:

*  Conclusion Sharing across platforms (family trees in software or online) - an updated GEDCOM
*  Permanent online links so that data can easily be found
*  Common Data Types and Vocabulary - standardize the terminology 
*  Provide Authorities - for names, dates, places, and events.  A user should be able to search for and find information about a person from family trees and historical records, with information about repositories, experts, knowledge bases and community sharing.
*  Structured Records - users need to view them digitally, linked to repositories, and linked to other researchers
*  Record Source Authorities - evidence backed by sources, with links to library catalogs, partners and/or repositories, and to community contributions.

Jay's vision is of an "Open" environment, wherein there is a Community effort to gather, connect and preserve records that define the lives of billions of persons.  Is such a Community effort possible?  At present, we have a mixed genealogy industry and community with not-for-profit companies, commercial companies, and volunteer organizations providing education, record collections, online family trees (isolated or inter-connected), and genealogy management software.  Will the commercial companies collaborate with the not-for-profits?  How will competition between organizations with similar products be handled?

Can all aspects of the genealogy industry work together as one big happy family?  I sincerely doubt that they can, or will in the near or distant future.  There will always be entrepreneurs with the next big, whiz-bang genealogy idea, many of whom will fail but some will succeed and thrive and challenge the existing large, but clumsy, organizations by being more nimble and innovative.  Our recent experience is that competition creates innovation, advances technology and brings products to market faster in every industry.  We saw this at RootsTech where about 80% of the attendees had a smart phone or tablet device for communication, collaboration and information!

Who will do all of this?  Who will fill up the online family trees with names, dates, places, events, sources, images,, etc.?  Why, "we" all will - each of us that does genealogy and family history research now and in the future, with the help of family papers, historical record collections, online family trees, genealogy management programs, technology and productivity tools, and much more.  However, we need the online family trees that can be filled up.

Jay's vision implies an inter-connected family tree where everyone collaborates with others and work toward a conclusion based tree based on sourced evidence.  That is not the format of many online family tree providers, namely, MyHeritage, and others.  Will they change?  Will FamilySearch succeed in getting their Family Tree into public view and will that tree be populated with persons and relationships based on sourced evidence?  The jury is really out on that, in my humble opinion.

What I am more sure of is that the genealogy/family history industry will not run out of historical records any time soon!   I heard at the RootsTech 2012 conference that FamilySearch would have all of the available microfilms and microfiche collections digitized in 8 to 10 years.  However, they would not be all indexed.  Even so, that leaves records at national and state archives, public and private libraries, local and regional genealogical/historical societies, vital record offices, etc. to be found, gathered, catalogued, digitized, and linked up.

Current estimates of "all of the genealogy records" that are currently digitized and available online (on some website) run in the 3% to 5% range.  What will the percentage be in, say, 2020?  My guess is somewhere in the 10% to 15% range.  How about 2060?  My guess is in the 30% to 50% range.  I may be wrong, of course!

FamilySearch thinks that they have "invented the future" here.  It is an appealing vision, yet also a disturbing vision (at least for me).  It is appealing to me that there is hope that "all" of the records for "every" person in recorded history might be found and catalogued and preserved so that I can "know" the history of my ancestral families.  It is disturbing to me because I absolutely hate the thought that my descendants might not know the thrill of the hunt, might not feel the excitement of genea-gasms when records or relationships are discovered, or might not diligently study the geography, history and culture of their ancestors.

I've prattled on here for several hours, and I doubt that many readers will read down to the bottom of the post.  What do you think?  Do you:

*  Agree with Jay Verkler's vision of genealogy in 2060?
*  If not, what is your vision of genealogy research in the year 2060?
*  What are the obstacles that must be overcome to achieve Jay's vision?
*  What about "open" vs. "proprietary" record collections?
*  What about "one big Mother of All Genealogy Family Trees" vs. "millions of isolated trees?"

Please tell me in comments, or write your own blog post about it!

The URL for this post is:

Copyright (c) Randall J. Seaver, 2012.


Anonymous said...


I'm going to be quite blunt...
one of the most overused words at RootsTech was collaborate. We heard it from every vendor every day.

Yes- each of them want the community to collaborate with them but seems totally unwilling to collaborate with each other.

The end users, the professionals, the different societies, and in particular the blogging community should make it very clear and very public that they will *NOT* collaborate with any of them until they start collaborating with each other and give the entire community what we have been asking for for years- ONE UNIFIED STANDARD that each of them will agree to use and abide by.

Until that happens- a pox on ALL their houses.

The motto of the genealogy community should be:


JL said...

I was quite excited by Ron Tanner's description of the new family tree at It seems much simpler than the present version. However, I wonder how many people will be willing to put their genealogy there. It will take many to reach the vision of the 'whole genealogy of Mankind'. And even then ...

I don't think the next generations will suffer for lack of records to search for. Either there will still be plenty left or the expectations will be so different people won't care.

I relish the idea of being able to send my non-techy relatives to FamilySearch to look at their history instead of struggling on my own with how to organize it/publish it in some fascinating way to capture their interest. If they want it, there it will be. Do you think Henry Ford thought about how sad it would be if people of the future didn't have to walk for hundreds of miles hauling their belongings through the dust?

Judy G. Russell said...

My problem with this is the underlying data. When family group sheets submitted in the far distant past are accepted as "evidence," the end result is simple: garbage in, garbage out.

Unknown said...

Hi Randy, How do was handle those folks (and there are quite a few of them) who have absolutely no interest in sharing their research even with living relatives, let alone online with the whole world to see?

My only question for Jay would be, "is FamilySearch going to foot the entire bill for this?" Cause I don't see much of a commercial industry left 5 years from now when FamilySearch has made a majority of the (most desired) data available for free.

Celia Lewis said...

I agree that expecting commercial entities to "collaborate" with each other is utopian...
At the same time, I simply do NOT understand the desire to "merge" everybody into one big tree of womankind. Plus there are so many errors in trees (may I say, in FS family group sheets etc.), that it is, as Judy says, "garbage in, garbage out". I just want to share my tree (yup, got mytreeitis) with my cousins, kids, and other relatives, and have it as sourced as I can make it. Very good questions, Randy.

David Newton said...

I also watched Ron Tanner's presentation from the UK. It is a potential very exciting vision. However whilst some people suffer from mytree-itis for no good reason, some people suffer from it for a very good reason: their version of things is better than any other out there.

There is so much junk genealogy out there that any vision of a glorious future of a single tree must present a credible plan for doing two things:

1. Stopping more junk genealogy accumulating, or at least slowing down its accumulation considerably.
2. Dealing with the nonsense that has already accumulated in such vast quantities.

During Tanner's presentation it sounded like Familysearch are aware of number 1 and taking steps to deal with it. He specifically mentioned making it harder to alter conclusions with a well-sourced person than altering conclusions for a poorly-sourced person. What they also need to do is to stop the mass-uploading of data into online systems. GEDCOM uploads are appealing in terms of numbers, but produce duplicates and very poorly sourced people for the most part. It should be harder than it is at the moment to create a great many new people in online trees.

It also appears that they are aware of and taking some steps about 2. Tanner also mentioned that a lot of mass-uploaded things that are currently in New Familysearch are going to be separated out again into a personal family tree area for each person that uploaded them. That should deal with a lot of the pre-existing nonsense.

After those two things are dealt with another thing that such a vision must offer is an easy to use source citation system. This has a two-fold purpose. Tanner made reference to the somewhat infamous problem of persons of unusual size in the Familysearch database that have been created by over-merging etc. In an email I sent him just after his presentation I made reference to what I referred to as "sources of a massive number of duplications".

What I meant by that was the creation of tens, dozens, scores or even hundreds of source templates in a database system for something where there really should be a single source template that is cited a myriad of times. Take censuses for example. The US federal census should have a single source template for each decennial census, and that should be it. If a particular index is being cited for that census then the structure should be the use of the single original record template with the addition of a section to cite the index. That should allow Evidence Explained types of citations to be constructed whilst at the same time stopping the growth of a vast forest of unnecessary extra source templates. Doing that will mean that it will also be easier to find source templates, thus rendering the system easier to use. I use WeRelate and one of the problems I find with that particular system is that there are often so many source templates kicking around that it is very difficult to find the one you actually want.

So in summary for this vision to come true the accumulation of junk genealogy in it must be stopped or slowed considerably, the existing junk genealogy must be purged from the system and source citations must be consistent, easy to find and easy to use.

Unknown said...

Randy, along these lines I have always supported both individual and merged trees, where in merged trees users retain control over items of personal content such as comments, images, living person profiles, etc.

I support supporting multiple entries for all claims types, and certainty assessments for each claim where those with better assessments (better sourced) peculate up making them more relevant.

I also support source categorization so that proper certainty assessments can be made.

Lastly, and what's likely to be the most contentious, I support social voting where users can vote on certainty assessments. Theoretically, the more voters, the better the assessments, because the wingnuts get filtered out.

Jewish Genealogy said...

I imagine one google-like "mother" family tree automatically connecting small family trees. The tree will be deeply integrated with the www sphere - e.g. blogs of your ancestors, their internet activity (posts on forums, comments like this one).
Access to general genealogical tree will be for free, however:
- any user will be able to set different privacy levels for the data uploaded by him.
- research on early sources will be still paid.