RootsTech 2012: High-tech family history
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An ambitious sketch of what the future might look like if the family history enthusiasts and purveyors of technology can work together today was the basis of Jay Verkler's keynote address beginning the RootsTech 2012 conference on Feb. 2.
After 10 years as president and CEO of FamilySearch International, Brother Verkler at the beginning of the year turned over the reins of that Church-sponsored organization to Elder Dennis C. Brimhall, an Area Seventy (please see separate article about Elder Brimhall).
"Let's pick a time, say 2060," Brother Verkler said. "What will the world look like in 2060? What can we do in 2012 to make it a better world?"
He noted that the primary domain of genealogy is the 6 billion or so people who were born between 1750 and 1900, as records for that time period are most accessible. On the other hand, he said, by 2060 some 20 billion people will probably have been born since 1900, and thus the other concern of genealogists is preserving records of them, including not just names and dates but also relationships with family members, important photos and stories.
"How do we pull all of that data together, preserve it and package it and allow it to be [accesssed] in 2060?"
To answer, he drew a comparison to "Timeline" a new kind of profile on Facebook that allows users to highlight photos, posts and life events that help tell their life story.
"Can you see that notion of capturing someone's life in important documents and so forth and then having that preserved, perhaps, for 2060?" he asked.
Brother Verkler spoke of building a "community framework" whereby the genealogy industry works together with computer and Internet technology wizards to bring that about.
One of the elements, he said, is a new version of GEDCOM, the system the Church invented in 1987 to aid the transfer of computerized genealogical information from one computer to another.
"It has some limitations, in part because it is so old," he said. A new form of GEDCOM would allow such things as linked information; embedded media such as photos and audio or video files; and a uniform model for names, dates and other information, he added.
He introduced Robert Gardner and David Barney, software engineers from the Internet search engine Google, who spoke of their work developing standards for computerized genealogical data and documents that make them more easily searchable on the Internet.
Brother Verkler also told of the importance of preserving links in Internet documents, noting that a link under today's circumstances typically only lasts two or three years. "About 50 percent of the links on a website today won't be there in three years," he observed. But, he said, people in the world of archives today are working on solutions to bring about the perpetuation of links so that vital photos and other documents won't be lost in the march of time.
Another element of the community framework is to imbue records themselves with "intelligence" that allows them to correlate themselves with other records, inform the user of who else is accessing the record at any given time and to give authoritative sources for the information in the records.
It is important, Brother Verkler said, to make the community framework "open" as opposed to "proprietary." This would allow access for collaboration among the various users.
To dramatize the vision of the community framework, Brother Verkler and some of his associates presented a skit whereby a genealogist, Eric Larson, has done about all he can in the United States to research his ancestor, Karl Olson. A Sven Gustafsson in Sweden notes from Internet sharing that Eric has been looking for information on their common ancestor, Karl Olson. Sven gets in touch with Eric and offers help in reading Swedish records, hoping that Eric in turn can help Sven with research on Swedish posterity in the United States.
Meanwhile, Ann Nordstrom, a Facebook user in the United States who up to now has had no interest in genealogy, logs on to her "newsfeed." Something comes up about her ancestor. "How do they know my family's from Sweden, and who is Karl Olson?" she asks. She becomes intrigued, goes to her father's house and retrieves a box of photos. She finds one of Karl Olson and uploads it to Facebook."
"So here you see three characters — Eric, Sven and Ann — who didn't even know each other, are now collaborating on the same family history across the world," Brother Verkler remarked.
But yet another character, Emma, doesn't come on the scene until 2060, he says. She has an assignment in her advanced-placement history class in high school to research eight generations of her genealogy. On the Internet she immediately finds rich information, thanks to the efforts of her great-grandfather Eric Larson and his collaborators.
"In the future, family history and genealogy is not only commonly available, it's cheap," said a narrator on a video displayed during Brother Verkler's presentation. "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. Emma's family history is packaged with stories, photos, audio and video. Home movies are catalogued and tagged with speech-to-text conversion for quick full-text searching. Photos are auto-organized by subject, events, places and facial recognition. Dates and events display on interactive timelines that include media and other artifacts. This is Emma's first real experience with her personal family history, and after exploring, watching, listening and reading about her heritage, she's hooked."
Brother Verkler concluded his presentation with a quotation from researcher Alan Kay: "The best way to predict the future is to invent it."