Archive for the ‘Genealogy Websites’ Category

Low-Cost, On-Demand Film Digitization and Online Delivery

Saturday, March 14th, 2009

I was excited to read the title for Matt Garners’s talk in the schedule for the BYU Family History Technology Workshop.  He’s from  His presentation focused on an inexpensive automated scanning system that would allow an individual to sponsor the digitization of an entire role of microfilm that they wanted to be able to search online.  Here’s his abstract:

Hundreds of millions of pages of microfilmed historical documents are not being digitized at this time due to insufficient individual demand to garner appropriate commercial attention and investment. This paper demonstrates that the cost of digitisation and online delivery can be lowered dramatically using a novel application of recent technological advancements in imaging, data processing and storage.  A business model is presented such that an on-demand service can be provided whereby an individual end user can afford to personally sponsor the digitisation and online delivery of an entire reel of film.

Understandably, I perceived this idea through the lens of our own startup. In effect, what we do is allow individuals to obtain low-cost, on-demand digitization and online delivery of individual documents — even if those documents haven’t yet been microfilmed. I’m grateful to Matt for giving me a new perspective on Genlighten’s value proposition. And for his work to develop an extremely cool scanner… in his garage!

GeneaTwits — A Twitter app for genealogists

Friday, January 2nd, 2009

Twitter logo

Randy Seaver posed the question yesterday on his blog:  Are any other genea-bloggers Twittering? One non-scientific indicator might be the number of new signups on the Twitter Family History Group, which has roughly doubled in size (from 20 to 40) since Randy’s post.  Or the number of tweets per day containing the word “genealogy”, which is about 28, according to Twitter Venn.  So it appears that the number of genealogists on Twitter is small but growing.

As Elizabeth O’Neal points out, that was true for Facebook as well “in the olden days” — i.e., early last year.  Could Twitter eventually grow to become a useful service for genealogists… the next trendy genealogy hangout spot on the web?  If so, then I have an idea to toss out to any similarly-inclined wannabe genealogy web entrepreneurs.

Suppose that all the genealogy enthusiasts out there in the Twitterverse — I’ll call them “genea-twits”, for lack of a better name — were to include the surnames they’re researching in their genealogy-related tweets, and use a special hashtag in front of them, say the ^ (caret) character.  For example, if I happened to make a noteworthy discovery on my Fillebrown line, I would put ^Fillebrown in my tweet celebrating that find.

Then, suppose someone were to build a web application which aggregated just the tweets in the Twitter-stream with those ^Surname hashtags.  The site could create a ranking of surnames and their popularity, offer a list of recommended genea-twits to follow, perhaps even allow for a simple form of social networking based around specific surnames, localities, or research techniques.  The result would be a site that aggregated real-time research efforts of genealogists across the globe, and connected them with all the immediacy and spontaneity of a 140-character Twitter post.

Imagine if you were at your nearby family history center cranking away on a microfilm reader, and you were struggling to parse a name on a microfilm image.  You could snap a picture using your iPhone and post a tweet with the image and the ^-tag for the related surname.  Fellow genea-twits could then look at your image and — in quasi-real-time — offer their insights and suggestions.

Or what if you were pounding away at census records on Ancestry at two in the morning, and had an idea about a connection you hadn’t considered before.  You could dash off a genea-tweet with your hypothesis, and let your “followers” who happened to also do genealogy at odd hours take a crack at it.

The model for this service would be, a site that aggregates stock-related tweets using the $-hashtag (e.g., $AAPL, $GOOG, etc.)

Here at Genlighten, we’re too busy getting our own website up and running to devote serious time to building  But if someone else would like to tackle it, I’d be happy to offer advice and encouragement.  Heck, I’ll even spring for the domain name!

Will new Pro Accounts help Geni become profitable?

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

Geni logo

It doesn’t appear to be mentioned on the Geni blog yet, but I received a Twitter update this morning from Geni announcing the introduction of “Geni Pro Accounts”.  For $4.95 per month, Geni Pro users can get a higher level of functionality and support options from the site than is available to non-paying users.  At their forum, you can read the following:

“Today we released the initial Geni Pro Account offering which includes these features:

  • Forest GEDCOM Exports – Export your family tree and all connected trees into a single GEDCOM file (up to 100,000 total individual and family records) with one click.
  • Priority Support – Geni Pro users receive faster response from a dedicated Priority Support queue.
  • Geni Pro Badge – Identify yourself as a Geni Pro to family members and genealogists.

You can sign up for a Pro Account for $4.95 a month. There are a number of features which we plan to add to Pro Accounts in the following months. As a subscriber, you will receive instant access to additional Pro Accounts features as soon as we add them.”

I’m excited about this for several reasons:

  • This move signals Geni’s transition to a “Freemium” business model, which may allow them to sustain their service for the long-term (if enough users sign up).  37Signals, a highly-respected software development firm, is perhaps the most frequently-cited successful practioner of this model.
  • To justify the “Pro” label, Geni is likely to roll out features such as support for source documentation, which would make the site much more attractive to me as “the place” for my genealogical data.
  • The Geni customers who sign up for Pro Accounts stand a good chance of being interested in obtaining genealogical source documents, which would make them potential Genlighten customers (yay!)

Of course the big questions here are:

  • What proportion of the users who’ve been attracted to Geni by its zero-cost offering will be willing to pay for the ‘Pro’ features?”
  • Will that fraction be large enough and loyal enough to help make Geni profitable over the long term?

I certainly hope that this new strategy proves successful for Geni.

What features would Geni need to add to get you to pay them $4.95/month?  Please let me know in the comments.  I’m currently preparing a presentation for the South Davis Family History Fair (to be held next March in Bountiful, Utah) in which I’ll compare the various web-based family tree sites like Geni, so your input would be greatly appreciated.

“Facebook Connect” to link your activity on Geni to your Facebook Profile

Monday, December 1st, 2008

Geni logoFacebook logo

According to an article in yesterday’s New York Times, users of the family-tree-based social networking site Geni will soon be able to share their genealogy activities with their “friends” on Facebook.  The new initiative, dubbed Facebook Connect, will let Facebook members tie their online profiles and activity feeds with their accounts on Geni.  This would potentially lead to Facebook activity feed updates such as “Dean Richardson added new ancestor data to his tree on Geni”, for example.  Similarly, when logging into Geni, users might be able to access their Facebook friends’ family trees, depending on their friends’ privacy settings.

For Facebook, allowing its members to bring their friends with them to other popular web sites offers the promise of enhanced advertising revenue.  That might work in the following manner.  You visit a travel site such as and login using your Facebook ID.  You view ads on those sites, click on the ads and spend money with the ads’ sponsors.  TripAdvisor receives ad revenue from your clicks, and a portion of that revenue is shared with Facebook.  Multiply that scenario by Facebook’s hundreds of millions of users, and you can see why the idea is an attractive one both to Facebook and its partners.

The impact of the partnership for a site like Geni, which famously lacks a robust revenue model, is less clear.  Does Geni’s participation in Facebook Connect mean we’ll start to see banner advertising next to our family trees and profile pages?  Or will Geni instead monetize its users in a more indirect fashion, perhaps by sending them to pay-oriented sites via Facebook?  Perhaps Geni simply views its participation in Facebook Connect as a way to attract more users, leaving the monetization strategy still to be determined.

Whatever the business-oriented implications of this initiative, it’s exciting to see Geni executing successfully on its objectives of making it easy and fun for everyone — even the “Facebook Generation” — to learn about and preserve their family history.

[Hat tip:  itgeniaus (via twitter) and Social Media]

We’re Related climbs Facebook application leaderboard

Monday, November 17th, 2008

Congratulations to the folks at FamilyLink!  Their We’re Related application on Facebook shows up as the eighth most popular on a ranking generated by AppData, a Facebook analytics site.  We’re Related even beats out Texas Hold’Em Poker, which is evidently saying quite a lot.  Here’s AppData’s leaderboard:

Ranking of Facebook Applications by number of users

FamilyLink CEO Paul Allen has been telling us for a while now about his “Facebook Strategy”.  It looks like it’s really working!  Now I’m even more curious to know how We’re Related is doing from a monetization standpoint.

Footnote’s Presentation at TechCrunch50

Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

OK, my quick reactions to Footnote’s pitch to the TechCrunch50 event today:

  • Starting off with a personal vignette about attending a funeral… a good idea?  Worked for Arcade Fire, I guess.
  • Note to self… make sure that personal experiences I relate about deceased friends or relatives help my audience associate warm, positive feelings with our website.
  • Yikes… do VCs/serial entrepreneurs get the  genealogy space?  Another reason not to go looking for VC funding, perhaps.
  • Loic Le Meur’s concerns are likely shared by quite a few… among his points:
  • “Honestly, I find it disturbing.. i wouldn’t like to have my family exposed, can I opt out for my family?”
  • “I would hate to see a blank profile with my father’s name when he (and I) can’t control it.”
  • “Monetizing my family… I have a problem with that.”
  • Give the Footnote team credit for rolling with the punches.  They seemed confident, at ease, not defensive.  If I were them, I would have found the “you’re just like Ancestry” comment annoying… I thought they turned that one around well.

Footnote a TechCrunch50 Finalist

Monday, September 8th, 2008

TechCrunch50Footnote Logo

Congratulations to for being selected as a TechCrunch50 Finalist.  TechCrunch is a hugely influential website that spotlights the most promising up-and-coming Internet startups.  Each year they hold a highly-anticipated conference event where company founders pitch their business ideas to venture capitalists and the tech media.  Last year’s best presenting company was, a personal finance startup that has gone on to secure $16.7M in Series A and B investments from Shasta Ventures and Benchmark Capital, among others.

Footnote will be making their TechCrunch50 presentation in San Francisco this Wednesday as part of a session entitled “Vertical Social Networking”.  They’ll go up against social networks for bird watchers, fashionistas, those looking to support social causes, and online gamers.

When I mention my involvement in a genealogy-related startup to potential investors, many are quick to dismiss the field as too “niche” to merit serious (i.e., venture-scale) investment.  To some extent, that reflects their own lack of familiarity with the field, but it also represents a fairly realistic assessment of what’s happened in the genealogy market to this point.  By choosing to showcase Footnote at their yearly “coming-out” party for startups, TechCrunch has signaled their view that Footnote could break out of the relatively narrow genealogy market vertical, garner mainstream customer traction and attract serious new investors.

In my view, this is great news for the genealogy community.  It should embolden entrepreneurs trying to bring innovative new family history products to market.  This in turn will help insure that the field doesn’t continue to be dominated by a few large players.  And of course, here at Genlighten, we hope it translates into accelerating growth in the market for Internet-enabled genealogy services.

Again, congratulations to the Footnote team!

FamilySearch Family Tree

Monday, July 21st, 2008

A reader of this blog commented on my post comparing collaborative genealogy websites and reminded me that FamilySearch had been working hard on its own flash-based family tree navigation interface, similar to’s. I’d completely forgotten about it when writing my review, and I was glad for the chance to catch up on the progress the folks at FamilySearch have made recently.

Basic Look and Feel

NFS Family Tree

Here’s a screen shot using the same example data I used in the earlier post. As you can see, there are several obvious similarities to Geni’s flash-enabled interface. The compass rose and magnify/minify slider are both there, for example. You can navigate throughout the tree by simply grabbing the tree image with the mouse and sliding it back and forth on the screen, which I really like. Not all of Geni’s bells and whistles are implemented, but the sense of easy and fun exploration has been reproduced well.

NFS’s Family Tree isn’t a shameless knock-off either. Reviewing the FSLabs blog archive, it appears to have been introduced in about December of 2007, about 12 months after Geni first came online. Right from the start, Family Tree was designed around the traditional left-to-right pedigree chart, rather than Geni’s bottom-to-top chronological flow. Though I can’t explain why (other than habit and experience) I think I prefer NFS’ approach, at least so far. The inclusion of the right-hand panel highlighting a particular member of the tree is also a distinctive feature in Family Tree, achieved at the sacrifice of smaller font sizes for the tree itself.

Search Capability

NFS Family Tree search results

Of course, the most distinctive and powerful advantage offered by NFS’ Family Tree lies in the modest -looking “Search” tab. Here you can access the LDS Church’s massive database of genealogical data and potentially tie in new individuals or ancestral lines. Of course, this information will only be truly valuable if it’s well-sourced and documented. As I mentioned in my previous post, it remains to be seen how diligent NFS users will be in entering research notes and source citations. Here’s hoping that many are able to catch that vision.


The still-under-development Family Tree capability greatly enhances my opinion of NFS as a fun, friendly site to use for managing my genealogy data online. Thanks to Gary for commenting on my earlier post and pointing me in this direction. I assume Gary is the same one who posts regularly on the FamilySearch Labs blog.

I will be following NFS’ efforts closely in the coming months and I plan to report on my own progress using the site in future posts. If there’s anything you’d particularly like me to try out, just let me know in the comments.

Comparing three collaborative genealogy websites

Monday, July 14th, 2008

A poster on the APG message board last week mentioned that a client was looking for a web-based collaborative genealogy service and asked for recommendations. Requirements included the ability to

  • store contact info for living relatives
  • produce print-outs displaying relationships, and
  • let collaborators edit stored info.

One respondent suggested Darin Lythgoe’s The Next Generation of Genealogy Sitebuilding (TNG). I recommended Geni. Several others discussed the merits of WeRelate. It occurred to me today that neither the LDS Church’s New FamilySearch nor Ancestry’s Family Tree had come up at all in the discussion, though both seemed relevant to the requirements listed in the original post.

I can’t claim to be an expert user of any of these web-based services. I’ve explored Geni in some detail and I like what I’ve seen so far. I’ve also begun transferring my own genealogy data from PAF to New FamilySearch. But because I’m trying to be more diligent than I have been in the past in documenting each individual I enter, that process is proceeding quite slowly.

I’ve decided not to let my lack of expertise prevent me from blogging on the subject. I’m interested in all of these services, and I’ll use this post as an excuse to explore them a bit further.


First, Geni bills itself as a free family tree online. The site has received a lot of praise (well-deserved, I believe) for its simple and intuitive user interface. The initial screen for first-time users presents a minimalist pedigree chart and asks you to enter your own name and e-mail address. You’re then guided to enter your parents (and their e-mail addresses). The emphasis here is not so much on dates and places but on e-mail connections to living relatives. The idea is to let relatives know via e-mail that you’re working on your family tree. They can jump in and contribute additional details and connections themselves.

This is the core of the service, but Geni offers a rich variety of additional features. You can share family photos and add them to detailed profile pages for each person in your tree. Gedcom files can be imported if you’ve already collected a lot of info. Geni will map the location of each of your relatives and ancestors, and create a timeline of events in their lives. You can send virtual gifts, reminders and birthday greetings to living members of your tree. Though the interface has become a bit more cluttered as new features have been added, the site remains pleasant and satisfying to use. What’s more, the site is completely free and has no annoying ads. (The business model may evolve over time.)

The printing capability is basic but produces great-looking results. I’ve heard Geni plans to eventually offer poster-size or frameable print-outs as a possible revenue source. I suspect they’ll do an excellent job when they get that going.

Experienced genealogists won’t find the research and documentation tools at that they expect and need, though those capabilities may be offered later.

Geni shines as a particularly fun and simple way for beginners to get started with building their family trees. The site is optimized to make genealogy a tool for social connections among family members. It also offers helpful support forums and a vibrant user community.

Margaret Jordan pedigree on

Ancestry Family Tree

Ancestry has long allowed users to enter their family tree data on their site without the need to pay for a subscription. In its current incarnation, the tree builder utility is set up to prompt users with ‘shaking leaves’ if Ancestry thinks it has info relevant to a particular ancestor. This strikes me as a cute feature that could potentially grow annoying over time, particularly if I wasn’t looking to become a subscriber anytime soon. Ancestry also offers the ability to share information you enter and discover with others, who can sign up to view the site after an e-mail invitation from you. The interface lacks some of the Flash-based bells and whistles that Geni offers, but is nonetheless quite usable.

Where Ancestry’s service particularly shines is in the multi-media elements you can add to enhance your family tree. Photo uploading is supported, as with Geni, but the site also offers a unique audio storytelling service that I find particularly appealing. Basically, you can preserve stories from your living relatives (by interviewing them, even via telephone) or from deceased relatives, by recording them online. I haven’t yet tried it, but this strikes me as a compelling and worthwhile feature. I might be more likely to actually make audio recordings then I would videos (which Ancestry also supports.)

For more serious researchers, the site allows you to enter research notes. But it doesn’t offer a convenient way to organize or annotate source documents in digitized form, which I would find extremely useful.

All-in-all, Ancestry’s offering is full-featured, well-thought out, and provides a convenient (if slightly annoying) gateway to their fee-based research and publishing offerings. For those interested, a much more thorough review than mine was published by Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal back in 2006.

Margaret Jordan pedigree on

New FamilySearch (NFS)

It’s probably a little early to review this site, since it’s still very much under development and is currently only available to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). It will eventually be made available to the public however, and I’m beginning to use it more and more, so it makes at least some sense for me to consider it here.

NFS’s interface at this point feels substantially heavier and more cluttered than that offered by either Geni or Ancestry. It clearly aims to make a large amount of data and navigation options available on a single page. Whereas with Geni the user can navigate their entire tree almost effortlessly by simply dragging their mouse, NFS requires extensive clicks and page loads to accomplish the same task. Of course, the comparison is somewhat unfair, since NFS’ mandate is considerably more extensive than simply allowing collaborative online family tree management, and its feature set reflects that mandate.

NFS’s ambitious aims include:

  • permitting different users to submit conflicting data on the same unique individual
  • tapping into the LDS Church’s extensive online databases of genealogical information to allow duplicate entries for the same individual to be combined (and disputed).

As a consequence of this approach, NFS does not create a private “online shoebox” into which users can deposit their personal genealogy data, isolated from that of all other users. Instead, NFS provides a single set of scaffolding intended to potentially encompass the family tree of every individual who has lived. Users affix their data to that scaffolding, then work to address the conflicts that inevitably arise in the process. In this respect, NFS resembles Wikipedia more than it does a traditional genealogy program. It’s entirely possible for you to visit your tree one day, enter data on a new individual you’ve identified, and go back the next day to find that someone you don’t know has combined your entry with a similar but nonetheless different one. Other users can’t edit your submissions, but they can add their own to go right alongside yours. This takes some getting used to.

At this point, NFS does not allow for any multimedia content to be uploaded, though that capability is planned for the future. Simple mapping and timeline displays are offered, though they’re not particularly sophisticated. Extensive source documentation and research notes are supported, however. This feature should gradually become more and more valuable as a tool in resolving disputes that arise over key genealogical details between contributors.

From what I’ve seen so far, NFS’s print capability is fairly rudimentary, enabling only basic reports and charts with few options for customization. This likely reflects FamilySearch’s strategy of relying on third-party software developers (e.g. Ohana Software and Generation Maps) to enhance and build on NFS’ functionality through their compatible offerings.

Unlike Geni, which brings interactions with living relatives front and center, NFS treats living individuals primarily as a bridge to one’s ancestors. Connections with other researchers pursuing your same lines can in theory be made via e-mail, but so far most of the contributors I’ve come across are not accessible in this manner.

NFS offers extensive online tutorials and a great deal of context-sensitive on-screen help. Phone support is also available, though it’s definitely a work in progress.

In summary, NFS aspires to become much more than either Geni, Ancestry, or their competitors. As a result, it lacks their nimble, agile feel, and the resulting user experience seems a little more like work than fun. However, because it will eventually become a key access portal for the LDS Church’s extensive (some would say indispensable) genealogical holdings, it is likely to evolve a great deal over the coming years and will likely improve substantially with time.

Margaret Jordan pedigree on NFS


Geni — Strengths

  • Appealing, intuitive, flash-based interface — simple and fun to use
  • Strong social-networking capabilities for keeping in touch with living relatives
  • Supports photo uploading (video coming soon)
  • Dynamic and helpful user forum
  • Completely free and no ads

Geni — Weaknesses

  • Lacks support for research notes, documentation, or source tracking
  • Limited printing options (though this is likely to improve soon)
  • No convenient access to research databases, images, or other resources

Ancestry Family Tree — Strengths

  • Straightforward, familiar interface
  • Excellent multimedia capabilities (images, audio, video)
  • Support for basic research notes
  • Convenient (though expensive) access to extensive research resources and publishing options

Ancestry Family Tree — Weaknesses

  • No easy way to organize or annotate research results or documentation
  • Though it’s “free” users are constantly offered not-so-free options

New FamilySearch — Strengths

  • Collaboration is at the core of the site, not just an add-on feature
  • Free integrated access to extensive FamilySearch databases and other resources
  • Allows for detailed research notes and source information
  • Extensive context-sensitive online help and phone support

New FamilySearch — Weaknesses

  • Dense, static feel to pages; link-heavy navigation
  • Limited printing capability (though 3rd-party software will provide enhancements)
  • No multimedia support (this is planned for a later iteration)
  • Collaborative aspects feel more adversarial than supportive; difficult to contact other contributors

This has been a fairly superficial overview based on my admittedly limited experience with these services. Feel free to let me know in the comments what I’ve overlooked or misunderstood. Also, please let me know of your experiences with other comparable sites. Thanks!

Cook County Vital Records Online — Another Viewpoint

Monday, July 7th, 2008

There’s been a lot of excitement surrounding the release of Cook County Illinois vital records online last week. Leland Meitzler tried the site and initially found the images to be of poor quality, but quickly discovered that when downloaded and brought into Photoshop they were quite clear. A firestorm of comments have appeared on Dick Eastman‘s blog, most complaining about the index, the cost, the site functionality, or all three (and that’s not to mention the usual conspiracy theories.) I thought I’d offer a somewhat different perspective.

For the last four years or so, my wife has been providing lookups of Cook County vital records from the FHL microfilm copies available at our local Family History Center. The FHL microfilmed records don’t cover the full range of years offered by the new Cook County site. But they are of similar image quality. Here’s a side-by-side (or top and bottom) comparison of the same death certificate from two sources. The first image is the one downloaded by Leland (which I screengrabbed from his blog) and the second one is an image that my wife scanned from the corresponding FHL microfilm.

Image Leland Meitzler downloaded

Same certificate scanned from FHL film

Superficially, as you’d expect, the images are quite similar. Both contain the same information. Both are quite legible. But there are some subtle differences. The FHL image has a smudge in the lower left (present on the film). More interesting, however, is the additional handwritten “9/a” in the upper right-hand corner of the FHL version. Does this imply that there were multiple sets of paper records, and that different versions were microfilmed by the two projects? Or is there some alternate explanation? Please feel free to speculate in the comments. [I have no idea myself.]

As for alternative sources to check if you can’t find the record you want at the Cook County vital records site, I’ll suggest four. [There are several others, as have been pointed out in the comments to Dick's post and elsewhere.]

  1. Check the indexes at the Illinois Secretary of State’s office and proceed to order the appropriate Chicago or Cook County films from the FHL. (This is not always a straightforward process — Chicago and Cook County records are on separate sets of films.)
  2. Visit either Molly Kennedy’s site or and follow the instructions given at these respective sites. [Note: if you use, I will benefit financially.]
  3. For 1916-1947 Cook County death certificates, you can try the Illinois State Genealogical Society’s service.
  4. For marriage licenses up to 1900 and Cook County Death Certificates (outside the City of Chicago) 1878-1909, contact the Illinois Research Archives Depository (IRAD) at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU): 773-442-4506.

None of these options is free, though all will cost you less than the $15 charged by Cook County. What these options won’t do is give you the “instant gratification” that the new Cook County site can potentially deliver. For all the complaints I’ve read about their new service, I think it’s important to remember a few key points:

  • This is the first week the site has been up and running officially. No website is ever perfect right away. [Counter-examples welcome.] Please consider cutting the county some slack here!
  • As of a week ago, you would have had to wait 2-3 weeks for these records. You can now receive them immediately, at the same cost as before. That’s a big improvement if you’re in a hurry!
  • At a time when many government agencies have chosen to make access to vital records less convenient (or more costly, or both), Cook County has headed in a genealogy-friendly direction. To me that merits more kudos than complaints.