RootsTech: Technology Finds a Niche in Genealogy 2

[Editor's Note: Genealogist, Tech-Head, and IDG Contributor Michael Maglio continues today in his series of tech-related blog posts from RootsTech 2013. For the first in the series, read "Is RootsTech More Roots Than Tech?"]


One of the most disconcerting things I heard today is that genealogy should wait for technology to come along and just ride on its coattails.  I may be paraphrasing a bit.  Genealogy has been waiting for the right tech to come along, that’s true, but should it?  Because we wait, we adopt slowly and we adapt to tools that were not meant specifically for genealogy.


Michael Maglio of Origin Hunters at RootsTech 2013


I talked to a ton of folks today about products, applications and websites.  There are many companies out there trying hard to provide more records.  Let’s call them the ‘big guys’.  Four out of five of them have subscription models.  It appears that the subscription dollars are going towards more records and not into innovation.  They are all providing essentially the same service.

That leaves innovation to the ‘little guys’.  The ‘little guys’ are carving out niches and adapting old or current technology to fit genealogy.  They are doing a terrific job by providing solutions that take the focus away from the record and putting the focus on the story or event.  Unfortunately the ‘little guys’ don’t always last very long.

There was quite a bit of talk about engaging the next generation.  How do we make it exciting for them?  How do we make it a ‘game’?  I don’t think the ‘game’ model is right.  It lacks a certain amount of seriousness.  Try to remember what got you interested in genealogy the first time.  I love solving the mysteries in my family.  My experience is that the next generation wants to hear about those mysteries and the juicy stories of their ancestors.  Who’s going to start writing the applications that generate the stories directly from the records or present the data in a mystery solving interface?

I do think that developers should design with genealogists in mind, adapt the software and applications to us.  I keep looking for ‘new’ and ‘wow’.  Here is the closest definition that I have to what I’m looking for – imagine a combination of Facebook, Wikipedia, Blogger, FamilySearch or Ancestry [you fill in the blank], Twitter, Instagram and Google Maps.  Yes, I want all of that in one application.  As a genealogist, I live in all those apps and it’s a lot of jumping around.

Picture for a second that you are creating a record for your great-great-grandparents.  As you enter their marriage (a record that was readily available digitally), you want to know more about the town where the marriage took place.  Click – encyclopedic data about the town is at your fingertips and it is date context sensitive – images and facts from the date they were married.  Another click and you are joining a conversation about events that took place in that location.  Click on a map and you can see your ancestors journey across time and location.  Every record has tons of metadata, every photo is cross referenced with dates, locations and the people in them.  I want the application to not only tell me there are new records for me to review, but also to tell me that two or more of my ancestors lived in the same town or fought in the same war or moved to Missouri because it is geographically similar to living along the Rhine.   Our family histories are incredibly interconnected, our genealogy applications should be also.

Is anyone writing this kind of genealogy application?  No.  Am I holding my breath?  No.  I am satisfied knowing that most of the tools needed to create a rich family history are out there.  They are being provided by the ‘big guys’ and the ‘little guys’.  You will also find a great cross section of this technology at RootsTech 2013.


Michael Maglio

About Michael Maglio

Michael Maglio is a professional genealogist, writer, and speaker. He graduated from Northeastern University with a B.S. in Engineering and has spent his career developing collaborative technologies. As a genetic genealogist, Mike advises on the use of DNA as a tool for genealogy. His focus combines science and history to unravel ancestral genetic migrations. Find more to read at Mike is the author of IDG’s monthly column, Deep Into DNA.

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2 thoughts on “RootsTech: Technology Finds a Niche in Genealogy

  • Mariann Regan

    Thank you for all the thought and care that went into this post! All those intersecting apps that you describe (or perhaps one large App) sound very exciting. It would be so cool to factor in all those bits of data and metadata at once. I like that vision.

    But the following sentence I can’t really agree with: “Who’s going to start writing the applications that generate the stories directly from the records or present the data in a mystery solving interface?”

    Apps can only generate canned sentences, or formulaic plots. That one little gal or one little guy — that’s who has to create the story, in the end. Good storytelling takes imagination, one’s own life experience, the ability to craft a good sentence, make believable dialogue, search for the surprising but true metaphor . . . and that’s just for a start. A friend of mine just published a family history from University of Nebraska press, and she calls her work a “non-fiction novel.” Take a look on amazon if you want — Opa Nobody, by Sonya Huber.

    Writing stories is making meaning, and I believe that only people can turn facts into meaning. Not that I want to start an argument with you, heaven knows! I’m just “another country heard from,” as Joseph Heller might say. : ))

    • caelm

      Never underestimate the power of what a computer can do in the future. These applications exist today. How good are they? I don’t know. But I’m not talking about fiction. I believe that an app could present a interesting account of a persons life – it depends on the expert behind the software and their ability to convert storytelling to program code. It doesn’t even have to be perfect. The next generation is used to ‘good enough’.

      My point in the article is that the next generation wants to engage with family history via the story. We, the older generation, can write the stories, but we would taking away an element of discovery. The story has to unfold as the next generation digs deeper. The interface needs to craft the story based on the direction of the users interest. It needs to be dynamic.

      You won’t get an argument from me. I love to write. I would hate to be displaced by software, but it happens. Technology will at some point impact every profession.