RootsTech Conference brings technology and family history together
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Bringing together family history enthusiasts and the producers of the technological gadgetry that aids them was the goal behind RootsTech, a unique conference that convened Feb. 10-12 in Salt Lake City, sponsored by the Church's FamilySearch, the largest genealogical organization in the world.
With 3,000 attendees, it was the largest genealogical conference ever to take place in Utah, said Paul M. Nauta, FamilySearch public relations manager. By comparision, the prestigious National Genealogical Society convention last year in Salt Lake City drew about 2,700.
Participants from far-flung locales flocked to the Salt Palace Convention Center for presentations, exhibits and brainstorming aimed at helping genealogists keep pace with the rapid gallop of technology.
Thursday's opening keynote session was in line with that goal, with the stage being shared by Shane R. Robison, executive vice president and chief strategy and technology officer of Hewlett Packard Co., and Jay L. Verkler, FamilySearch CEO.
"There's never ever been a more exciting time in technology and in the world of information than right now," Mr. Robison declared. "It's stunning, the pace and the magnitude of the changes that are happening around us."
Until recently, information technology — popularly known by the abbreviation IT — has been primarily technology focused, he said. "The shift is to the 'I' in 'IT'; more and more it's about the information."
He added, "That is being driven by dramatic changes in everything we touch and use as we participate in this 'I' emphasis of 'IT.'"
By 2020, he projected, there will be 25 million "apps," or computer software applications for consumers, and he thinks that number may be low. There will be 4 billion people on line, he added.
While productivity has historically been a major use of computer technology, "today most of the new innovations are in communication and collaboration as opposed to productivity," Mr. Robison said.
That, of course, has direct implications for family history, in which collaboration with relatives is integral to success in locating ancestors and defining one's family tree.
It's all about making connections, Brother Verkler said in his address — connections between friends, between supposedly unrelated concepts, between problems and solutions, between technology producers and consumers. When the "friction" and "filtering" between those connections is diminished, innovation occurs, he said.
He identified trends that are driving the innovation, including "consumerization" of the computer industry and the portability of technology.
A "cornucopia of devices" such as today's smartphones and tablet computers "will get us to think in very different ways," he said. "They're very light weight; they look like paper. We will be able to share applications. When I want to share something — a constellation or a genealogy family tree — I will be able to hand you this [tablet computer] like I hand you a piece of paper."
The field of genealogy is ideal for the application of technology, Brother Verkler said. He cited information search retrieval, geographic context, relationship graphs, information taxonomies, social media as applied to families, digital preservation of records and handwriting recognition as ways in which technology can be applied.
"The notion is that if we can reduce friction and start making these connections, we might be able to see some really interesting innovation," he said, hence, the RootsTech Conference to bring technology and genealogy together. Brother Verkler said he hoped technology creators at the conference would share ideas with one another and that technology users would pick up a view of what is possible.
Organizers identified these challenges to be explored:
How can websites make useful information accessible to patrons by "cooperating" with one another?
How can people be encouraged to uniformly share the sources used to make conclusions in their family trees databases?
How do you get people to help improve online access to local cemetery records?
How do you define a "person" so his or her digital estate and assets pass to beneficiaries, just as physical assets do?
How do you prevent a loss of data when switching between family history applications?
Expected to be an annual event, RootsTech is an outgrowth of an effort BYU began several years ago with its Conference on Computerized Family History and Genealogy. BYU is now a key partner in the RootsTech Conference.
Though the conference appealed largely to a secular as well as an LDS audience, a component of special interest to Church members was training for ward family history consultants presented Thursday and repeated on Saturday. Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve led a panel discussion attended by family history consultants who came to the Saturday training sessions.