Posts Tagged ‘FamilySearch’

Footnote, FamilySearch and the Power of APIs

Saturday, February 13th, 2010

fs_api_diagramI had the chance to visit with leaders of two of the most influential players in the online genealogy market today, and I was struck by the completely different attitudes they each take toward APIs. FamilySearch has at least four distinct APIs that I know about, including ones for:

  • Family tree data
  • “Authorities” (standardized dates, places, and names)
  • “Record Search” bibligraphic metadata
  • “Research Wiki” page content

Footnote, by comparison, doesn’t have any (that they’ve made public, at least.)

API => Startup; No API => Old-media dinosaur

At first glance, this seems backward and counter-intuitive. APIs tend to be the preferred mode of growth and communication used by successful startups like Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare. By granting access to their data in a format that can readily be consumed by other services, these companies create platforms on which others can build — entrepreneurial ecosystems that nourish other startups (think Facebook or Twitter application developers) — and generate income by applying ad-based monetization approaches or revenue-sharing arrangements.

So-called old-media “dinosaurs” like the New York Times and News Corporation, on the other hand, have tended to throw up paywalls and to resist calls to make their content available via APIs. For them, the mantra of the free content movement: “information wants to be free” has been an anathema to be fought with all the weapons at their disposal.

Before today, I would have tended to tag FamilySearch with the “old media dinosaur” label while filing Footnote under the “startups that get new media” category. So it should be Footnote touting its APIs to the developer community, while FamilySearch stays closed and protective of its data. But instead it’s the reverse. What’s going on here?

False Dichotomies and “New” Old Media

What’s going on here is that both print and online media are undergoing a period of radical disruption, in which old assumptions are overturned or abandoned and previously valid dichotomies are rendered false, or useless, or both.

Prime example: the New York Times has introduced its own set of APIs, while simultaneously rolling out a new consumption-limiting paywall.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that genealogy “content providers” are grappling with the same issues and evolving their business models in response.

Business Model Differences Shape Policies Towards Content

One obvious explanation for FamilySearch’s API-centric strategy lies in its non-profit status. As a Church-sponsored entity whose mission is to facilitate and accelerate genealogy (and temple) work throughout the world, it would be self-defeating if FamilySearch treated its content as scarce and proprietary. Footnote, on the other hand, relies on a subscription model that can only succeed if the majority of their most desirable content is kept behind a paywall. [As a small, nimble startup, Footnote is also constrained in how much development in can do with its scarce resources -- robust APIs are not easy or cheap to develop and maintain.]

Consider the Possibilities

But what if Footnote (or Ancestry for that matter) tried to become more of a research platform and less of a “walled garden” of content? In a prescient 2008 essay, VC Fred Wilson makes this prediction about the promise of “Content” APIs:

Content is data, but it’s a bit different. Content is unstructured data with the benefits of a lot of context, semantics, relationships. Once the vast databases of content that exist inside the big media companies start becoming available via APIs, we can start to do some amazing things.

What kind of “amazing things” could for-profit “big media” genealogy companies do if they opened the spigots on their content using APIs? And if they did so, could they still make enough money to continue to fund the record digitization efforts that have so greatly benefited genealogists? I believe they can.

A Modest Proposal

I haven’t fully baked this idea yet, but I’m going to toss it out there anyway. I propose that genealogy content providers develop a two-tier model. The first tier would include popular, entry-level content such as the crucial censuses, family tree data and “Google Books”-type content such as published family histories, county histories, and the like. This data would be offered for free, but with an “as is” consumer-beware caveat regarding the accuracy and reliability of the facts and details included.

The second tier would include vital records, church records, land records and other more “primary” source material, including (naturally, since this is the Genlighten blog) offline documents. These records would be accompanied by some sort of “provenance”, perhaps tied to the reputation of the researcher who had uncovered them or the repository that held them. That reputation would be dynamically determined by a combination of authoritative genealogy luminaries and the crowdsourced ratings of clients and users. Those interested in such records would be asked to pay for:

  • Indexed online access
  • Record provenance, detailed source citation information and a community-determined “reliability score”
  • On-demand retrieval, digitization, transcription and/or translation of records not yet available online, particularly “long tail” records
  • The help of skilled and experienced researchers in interpreting the records and acting on their implications

Both sets of records would be made available via APIs, but the second-tier data would have a monetization mechanism attached,  allowing content providers, researchers and digitizers to be compensated for the value they added.

A Starting Point

I hope to develop these ideas further, and I’d appreciate your help in doing so. I know there are plenty of smart people in the genealogy community who are already pondering these issues (Thomas MacEntee, for one) and I’d love to hear from as many of you as possible.

Thanks to Gordon Clarke and his FSDN team members, and to Justin Schroepfer at Footnote, for meeting with me today and stimulating my thought processes.

Follow Friday: FamilySearch Labs Blog

Friday, January 29th, 2010


Like many genealogists, I’m anxious for the LDS Church to  open up New FamilySearch (or whatever it’s eventually going to be called) to a broader (i.e., non-LDS) audience. In the meantime, I’m eager to hear the latest from their development team: new features, new records collections, opportunities to get involved or give feedback… you get the idea.

An Inside Source

One place I can go to get this info is the FamilySearch Labs Blog. Here, various members of the group developing NFS cover the latest progress they’ve made. The most common post author is Senior Project Manager Dan Lawyer, but Grant Skousen and several others also contribute from time to time. They don’t post every day, and they don’t offer tons of specifics, but at least I can get a feel for the major milestones they’re hitting, even if the news is mostly after-the-fact.

A Thought-Provoking Post

One recent post that caught my attention was entitled Obstacles in the Genealogical Workflow by Dan. Though extremely low-key, I thought it hit on a crucial point that genealogy software needs to address but seldom does: recognizing the chaotic thought processes most researchers experience  and trying to tame them to allow greater productivity. Ideally, genealogy software wouldn’t just store records or offer them up for searching… it would accompany us on our genealogical journey and offer coaching, support, and encouragement at just the right times. Here’s the key workflow diagram’s from Dan’s post:


I’m sure it’s pretty obvious why I liked this diagram: notice that box in the lower right corner. It indicates that gathering and searching for genealogical records involves three stages: tapping personal knowledge, mining online records, and finally, retrieving offline records. Naturally, we think Genlighten can become a huge help in the offline record retrieval stage of the genealogical workflow process.

Its Continuing Mission

I look forward to hearing about the NFS rollout to Southeast Asia, and about NFS’  eventual availability to those without a membership number and a confirmation date. Sure, the Ancestry Insider will probably be all over that news when it comes, but I suspect Dan and his team will offer a perspective on those accomplishments that won’t be available anywhere else. I encourage you to include their blog in your RSS feed subscription list.

How long before “It’s not all online” isn’t true anymore?

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

Courtesy California Genealogical Society and Library

David Rencher, FamilySearch’s “Chief Genealogical Officer” stopped by the Genlighten booth at NGS in North Carolina last year and we had a pleasant chat together. He asked a question that I’ve thought about often but never come up with a perfect answer to:

How will Genlighten’s business model stay viable over the long term as more and more records become available online?

As you already know if you’ve been reading this blog for long or if you’re one of our users, Genlighten’s unique selling proposition is that we help you find offline genealogy records — the ones that are only accessible in libraries, archives, courthouses, historical societies, etc.. In fact, when a provider signs up and offers to do lookups solely using their Ancestry or Footnote subscriptions, we ask them to modify those offerings to utilize an offline source instead.

Beneath the Tip of the Iceberg

Our unspoken assumption here is that many more records are available offline than online. Or as the marvelous image shown here depicts it, the biggest part of the iceberg is below the surface. I stand confidently behind that assumption, despite the fact that I can’t back it up with any meaningful data or statistics.

David’s question implied that he foresees a time when the statement “Most genealogy records aren’t online” won’t hold true anymore. And in fact, he’s in charge of an organization — FamilySearch — that is working hard to digitize and index every single reel in its vast collection of microfilmed records. Whether it takes five years or ten, they will eventually achieve their goal. Whither offline genealogy research (and our business model) then?

The Power of Family Search Indexing

This point hit home particularly hard for me this last December. I visited the Massachusetts State Archives just outside of Boston, mostly to see what kinds of records Genlighten providers could retrieve there, but also to do some of my own research. I was excited to see how many records were available on microfilm and could be scanned at low cost. Within minutes, I easily found the marriage certificate for my Walter Ferdinand Knapp and Rosamond Guilford.

A local Boston provider, I reasoned, (or one with access to the corresponding FHL film) could just as easily provide Massachusetts marriage record lookups for a reasonable fee and still be well-compensated for their forty-minute trip on the Red Line. Cool! Now I just needed to recruit the right providers and help them take advantage of the opportunities available.

Just as I was about to tweet or blog about this discovery, though, what should appear in my Twitterstream but a link to a post about Massachusetts marriage records becoming available on the FamilySearch Record Search Pilot. I tried the site out, and lo and behold, in seconds I had the image of the very same marriage record I had just finished printing out. Thanks to FamilySearch indexing, that was one lookup opportunity that no longer seemed as attractive. Massachusetts Births and Death records still weren’t available online, but for how long?

A Prediction

longtail2I don’t know how FamilySearch decides which records to digitize and index next, but I can guess. They must know which FHL film sets are ordered most, and I suspect those ones get bumped up in priority. So in the short term, we should expect that films of records towards the left end of the long tail will become available online. FamilySearch and other organizations will gradually work their way down the long tail, digitizing and indexing as they go. Over time, more and more long tail records will become available at low or no cost online, just as obscure bands’ music can now be found on iTunes and films that only a few thousand people even know about are now available on Netflix.

Another Prediction

So Genlighten has four, maybe five years before its business model begins to evaporate? I can’t be sure, but I suspect not. At least, not due to a lack of offline records. I will go out on a limb and predict that for many years to come, as fast as old records are brought online, “new” old records will be discovered. In other words, the entire curve will rise.

Where will these new records come from? Diaries, generic government agency paperwork, medical records (despite HIPAA regulations), legal proceedings, SEC filings… I bet you can think of many more. The types of offline records that Genlighten providers will be asked to look up will change, but there will still be plenty of them to perform lookups for.

Of course in five to ten years paper, microfilm, and even electronic data storage as we know it may have been completely superseded by some grand and glorious new medium. Or Google may simply have achieved by then their goal to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” In which case, they’ll hopefully have already acquired us!

You can now order Family History Library microfilm copies online

Saturday, January 16th, 2010


Well, if you live in Australia or New Zealand you can, anyway. Thanks to @CaroleRiley on Twitter for pointing out that researchers “down under” can now submit orders online for microfilm from the Family History Library.

As part of the ordering process, patrons select a local Family History Center to which the film will be shipped. Online registration is required; payment is via credit card. A User’s Guide explains the procedure in detail. One cool feature: you’ll be able to check the status of your film order online too.

The obvious question: when will this service be available in the US, Canada, and elsewhere?

What to make of the Ancestry Insider’s move to FamilySearch?

Thursday, July 3rd, 2008

aisThe Ancestry Insider posted a somewhat cryptic note on his blog today indicating that he would be leaving Ancestry on July 11th and starting work at FamilySearch on July 28th. That could simply reflect an innocuous move forward along a pre-planned career path. But it’s natural to speculate otherwise. Did his sometimes critical musings on Ancestry’s strategy or the site’s functionality eventually drive a wedge between him and his co-workers/supervisors? Did FamilySearch officials get a sense of his insight and domain expertise from his blog, and recruit him away?

All else being equal, the best employees tend to move from companies whose level of innovation and excitement is fading towards those with momentum, “buzz”, or a more entrepreneurial culture. [Witness the many former Ancestry employees now making an impact at Footnote, for example.] Is that pattern at work here? If so, it says something eye-openingly positive about the working atmosphere at FamilySearch.

I for one am eager to learn more about the Insider’s rationale for the move and whether it says as much about the two companies involved as it does about the Insider himself.  Do tell!