Looking Back on RootsTech 2012

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

While I attend national genealogical conferences regularly, February 2012 was my first visit to a RootsTech conference – and one that I will repeat.

As I entered the door of the opening session room on the first day of the conference, the pulsing beat of  rock music filled the space, announcing that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore (and definitely not at a traditional genealogical or library conference)! The room was immense, and although a podium was placed front and center, there were also four huge screens such that no matter where I sat in the room, I felt as if I had a close-up relationship with the speaker. The atmosphere felt charged with energy, one that permeated the entire three days of the conference for its more than 4,200 attendees.

The stereotypical image of a genealogists and technology experts might not suggest that they would be the likeliest of conference companions. If you consider the past few years of innovations in genealogical research, however, you will realize the extent to which technology is a perfect – and essential – partner to our work.

The conference practiced what it preached. The Salt Lake City Salt Palace Convention Center halls provided monitors with conference scheduling information; a smart phone app made schedules, exhibit hall information, venue maps, news, and syllabus documents easily accessible. (This mobile model is one that will benefit all conferences.) In addition, several conference bloggers kept those attending, as well as those at home, involved in conference activities. An even more exciting innovation was the streaming video for sessions, making them available to those at home. Daily session videos will soon be available at the RootsTech web site. Individual session handouts can be viewed and/or downloaded, as can the full conference syllabus (but at 82 MBs, you may not want to download to your mobile device).

At the opening session, Jay Verkler, former CEO and President of FamilySearch, shared his long range view of the future of genealogy. Between 1750 and 1900, six billion people were born. Few, if any, privacy concerns existed in this time frame and research focuses on genealogical record memory. There have been, however, fourteen billion people born since 1900, and, because we will have known many of our family members born since that date, the role of personal memory will be significant in our future research. In addition, with a projected three percent growth rate in online searching, by 2060 there could be seven billion people online. The nature of the genealogical problem will not change a lot in the next fifty years. The nature of our work, however, will focus on increasingly collaborative ways to collect facts, relationships, stories, photographs and documents which then we will need to aggregate and package in a manner that will make them easily accessible to others. This “package” represents a holistic approach to a person, a life sketch if you will. Such an approach requires a community framework for “conclusion sharing” with a new form of Gedcom to allow for multiple uses; a common vocabulary; persistent link development; standard authorities to categorize objects; structured records for those that are “digitally born,” allowing us to correlate evidence into our family tree, know who’s using the tree in what manner, and link to records in institutions; and record source authority information. Collaboration will be the key to our work in the future.

At the closing session, Tim Sullivan, CEO and President of Ancestry.com, and a panel of experts from his staff, presented a fascinating “back room” look into Ancestry.com. Currently 1.7 million individuals around the world are Ancestry.com subscribers and it takes innovation and revolution to deploy technology to meet their needs. Mobile usage is increasing exponentially, with two million downloads of mobile applications, primarily during the last year; two million hints accepted over mobile connections, and one million photos uploaded. Sixty percent of those who download have just registered for the first time, and twelve percent of all visits are from mobile devises. In understanding its individual user groups, Ancestry.com is moving to develop for mobile applications first, followed by its more traditional service delivery methods. Three hundred engineers (with an additional eighty to be hired this year) focus on presenting the user a “frictionless” experience. For example, Ancestry began working in October to ensure that the site would remain stable and accessible during the first episode of NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are, aired on Friday evening during the conference. Ancestry.com engineers are also looking into the immediate future to offer an interactive 1930 U.S. and 1911 British census experience. Looking further ahead, Ancestry executives speculated about possibilities that could include cracking the code on handwriting recognition and integrating DNA into records. Collaboration is key, but the essential message was that developers need to “get technology out of the way” so that the user can have a successful experience.

In between the opening and closing sessions, I attended several interesting lectures on such topics as the use of Cloud technology, Evernote, WordPress, podcasts, genealogical apps for iPads, and one-step web pages (Steve Morse). A full schedule can be found on the RootsTech site.

The exhibit hall was a mixture of some of the familiar faces as well as many new companies and products (and if they were developers, I was sometimes clueless!). Flip-pal mobile scanners flew into buyer’s hands (and for those of us who are candidates for an office-supply-buying-twelve-step-plan, there were great carrying cases in several colors, including purple!). Demonstrations, both formal and improvised, introduced visitors to new products and new technologies.

New to the American genealogical market, was brightsolid, the UK-based provider of such major sites as Findmypast, Scotlandspeople, and the British Newspaper Archives, who has just announced its entry into the United States market. The company plans to provide access to the 1790-1940 censuses on either a pay-as-you-go or subscription basis.

New to me was Mocavo, a genealogy search engine. According to their handout, the “difference between Mocavo and Google is that instead of crawling fresh and new content (like Google is designed to do), Mocavo only crawls genealogy-specific blogs and websites, which often times do not have fresh or new content on them.” The free version offers a basic search (one search field), but searches the same data as Mocavo Plus (fee-based on a monthly or annual basis), which offers multiple search fields “for specific queries, such as first names, last names, birth dates, death dates, etc., and has the knowledge to differentiate them all to bring you the best possible results.” I searched for “Barclay” on the free site and got no matches (!), but received 60,537 for a “Barkley” search in .02 seconds. Once I subscribed, I found that the advanced search option provided much more flexibility in developing a detailed search strategy. However, in order to compare “apples to apples,” I resubmitted my “Barclay” surname search and this time received 71,935 matches. A “sounds like” search option is also helpful. I have subscribed to Mocavo Plus and will definitely be using it for online searching.

Finally, be on the lookout for the ResearchTies, available soon in Beta version. This product is described as an “innovative new online research log” that will formulate objectives and record research in one place and will “improve research analysis by quickly locating and opening electronic documents for immediate onscreen comparison.” Each search can be tied to an objective, an individual or family, locality, source description, repository and document image. In addition, ResearchTies will tie together your genealogical data (from major genealogical software or online family tree database), research logs and electronic documents. You can sign up at ResearchTies if you would like to be notified when the Beta version is available.

This conference was thoroughly enjoyable and has added immeasurably to my understanding of the technological side of genealogy and how it can assist me in my research. I have returned home with several iPad apps to explore, new confidence in using both new and more familiar formats, and plans to attend in 2013.

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