Modern Software Experience

2010-07-13

genealogy and computers

USA census

Few genealogists are aware that genealogy and automated computing go way back. It were the tabulating machines created by Herman Hollerith that allowed the U.S.A. Census Office to tabulate the 1890 census in just one year. In 1896, Hollerith formed the Tabulating Machine Company and he did good business with census bureaus and insurance companies. In 1911, the Tabulating Machine Company merged with several other companies to form the Computing Tabulating Recording Corporation (CTR). In 1924, company president Thomas J. Watson decided to rename it International Business Machines (IBM).

Today, many civil registrations are entirely electronic, without any paper backup.

computers

Throughout the 20th century, census were done with increasingly sophisticated machinery. After the Second World War, many governments, banks and big companies started to use IBM mainframes. As computers got smaller, more powerful, faster and cheaper, mainframes got competition from minicomputers that smaller organisations could afford.

Major archives started to replace their paper indexes with electronics ones. National and local governments started to switch their civil registration from handwritten and typed paper cards to computer tapes. Today, many civil registrations are entirely electronic, without any paper backup. The Netherlands combines the civil registration with other sources to perform a virtual census.

microcomputers

In their turn, minicomputers got competition from microcomputers that small businesses and hobbyists could afford. Several such computers became very popular, most notably the TRS-80, the Apple II and the Commodore 64. The first Apple Macintosh and IBM PC both stood out as expensive, yet both came to define desktop computing for decades.

Applications for those early microcomputers were severely constrained by the limited hardware they ran on, but before the end of the 20th century, PCs with a multi-megahertz 32-bit processor, a few megabytes of RAM, a few hundred gigabyte hard disk and a full colour gigapixel display had become unremarkable commodities.
As local area networks of sufficiently capable computers became affordable, archives replaced their microfiches and -films with databases that containing digital scans.

genealogy software

The 1979 September issue of Personal Computing Magazine featured the first genealogy application, Genealogy: Compiling Roots and Branches by John J. Armstrong on its cover. It was a BASIC program for the TRS-80 home computer. CommSoft released Roots89 for the Heathkit H-89 in April of 1981 at the West Computer Fair in San Francisco. They later released Roots/M for CP/M and Roots II for MS-DOS. More genealogy applications followed in rapid succession.
Today, the GenSoftReviews site lists more than 500 genealogy applications and utilities.

Internet

Computer networks evolved along with computers and their growing user base. For more than two decades, the Internet remained a largely academic affair. Early microcomputers users did not have access to Internet. Hobbyists outside academics had FidoNet, a network of bulletin board systems, and France had Minitel. The USA had several closed commercial bulletin board system such as AOL, CompuServe and Prodigy catering to non-technical users. Genealogist used bulletin boards to obtain updates, exchange data and news about events.
The 1991 creation of the World-Wide Web on top of the Internet was the catalyst for growth of the Internet to become the world-wide network. Today, many cafés offer free wireless Internet access.

Many Internet users rely on cloud services to share data and stay touch with other. Today, most genealogical vendors have pages offering free trial and updates. Many genealogists publish their family tree on the web and online family trees have millions of users.
Governments and commercial organisations are now offering web access to indexes, transcriptions and scans of digitised civil registrations, census, newspapers, obituaries, phone books, photographs and many other historical documents.

mobile computing

Mobile computers have become ubiquitous. A modern car is a computer network on wheels. Laptops and netbooks are commodities and vendors are trying to sell slate computers. Pagers, regular mobile phones, personal digital assistants, portable radios and music players, point-and-shoot cameras, compasses and GPS receivers are being replaced by multi-function smartphones with Internet access.

Genealogy is mobile. Laptops run the same genealogy applications as desktops and some desktop applications have been designed to be carried on an USB stick. PDAs and smartphones have notepads, to-do lists and e-book readers. Smartphones with built-in GPS record the location of an ancestral home or a grave along with the photograph you make of it. Genealogy software created for mobile platforms allows you to carry your genealogy database in your pocket, complete with sources. Some allow you to edit your data on your mobile device and sync back to your desktop application, others store all data in the cloud.

DNA

DNA research and genealogy are becoming increasingly relevant to each other. DNA tests are becoming more affordable, and several companies are targeting their marketing efforts at genealogists. People are discovering their birth parents through DNA tests. Genographic databases are used to determine deep ancestry and migration patterns.  Some companies are already targeting consumers with medical advice based on full-genome sequencing.

Today’s genealogists live in an exciting and bountiful time, a time of discovery and sharing enabled by information and communication technology.

today

Today’s genealogists live in an exciting and bountiful time, a time of discovery and sharing enabled by information and communication technology.

We don’t need to bring a laptop, because the archive already has enough of them. We do need to bring our an USB drive with our data on it, because we can store our data in the cloud and access it anywhere. We don’t need to carry our data around, but let it follow us wherever we go. Alas, you may still need to bring an USB stick containing your favourite applications.

Millions of records are available online already. Several organisations are offering millions of digitised books. All USA census are being digitised. Crowd-sourced indexing projects are making large collections searchable. Digitised records are being geo-coded with the location of the original. Virtual maps with high-resolution satellite pictures allow you to explore ancestral places you’ve never been before.

new problems and solutions

The ease with which data can be shared creates problems and provides solutions.
Proliferation of junk genealogy, the uncritical presentation of unsourced guesses as if they were solid facts, has led to an increased emphasis on the importance of citing your sources. The online availability of original sources makes it easy to find and cite the most authoritive sources.

Genealogists are using email, blogs and social sites to keep in touch with family and each other. Genealogists are using digital records and communication technologies for ad-hoc international collaborations. Genealogy matching algorithms that compare genealogies to each other are helping us discover others who are researching the same families.

Desktop genealogy applications allow including multimedia and DNA results, help you make professional citations, support geocoding your records and mapping your ancestry.

Genealogy is social, and genealogists will continue to share research and ideas with each other, using any technology that helps them do so.

near future

The near future is easy to predict. There will be new and cheaper devices, new and improved software, more and better databases. There will be plenty of horrible devices, pathetic software and awful databases, but overall things will continue to improve.

The move from physical formats to digital media will continue. Publishers and societies that do no adapt to the reality of a digital world will marginalise themselves out of existence while those that embrace it will find a much wider audience than before.

Bandwidth will continue to get more plentiful and cheaper. More official certificates, census, newspapers and other documents will be digitised, transcribed and indexed for easy access. Digitisation of major record collections will continue, fuelled by the demand of customers willing to pay. As digitisation continues to get cheaper and easier, more organisations will join in digitising their collections, contributing to a torrent of freshly digitised content.

Genealogists are not reluctant to share, but many remain reluctant to give their data away to commercial or religious organisations. Genealogy is social, and genealogists will continue to share research and ideas with each other, using any technology that helps them do so.

A quick DNA tests will become standard protocol for newborns.

DNA

DNA tests will continue to get cheaper and become medical routine. DNA tests will not just become genealogical routine, but not doing such tests will be regarded as short-sightedly clingingly to official records or passed-down family lore while avoiding the knowledge that DNA tests may provide.

Affordable tests coupled with large databases will help break through many a genealogical brick wall, but the large DNA databases that enable this will raise privacy concerns.
A quick DNA test will become standard protocol for newborns. As the price of personal genomics continues to drop, DNA tests for just a few markers will be overshadowed by full-genome sequencing becoming the standard practice. Increasingly informative and accurate analysis of health risk will lead to full-genome sequence being covered by most health plans and mandated by some, simply because preventing a condition is likely to be cheaper than treating that condition.

The eventual future is that all vital sources will be online, and that’s vitally different.

eventual future

The near future is more of the same, the eventual future is much more of the same. The eventual future is that all vital sources will be online, and that’s vitally different.

public

Today some countries still allow access to digitised sources to be controlled by commercial and religious organisations. Growing public pressure on this issue and cost considerations will make these governments take their responsibility and provide all vital sources through their national archives or other public archives as they should.
That does not imply that today’s big genealogy players will disappear, merely that their market and their offerings will change. Public archives will provide the vital and civil records, the big players will provide the rest. For example, several companies are already boasting millions of family snapshots connected to family trees.

DNA

Genealogical databases will not only contain DNA information for those whose DNA was sampled, but even DNA for earlier ancestors inferred from the DNA of their descendants. Doctors will have access to multi-generation ancestral charts and the associated medical information before a child is born. New knowledge and techniques will provide arguments for debates about the role of medicine in family planning.

Eventually, all genealogical research that can be done will have been done.

done

All sources will be online and have been used in the construction of genealogies. New events will be added as they occur. The eventual future is that all genealogies will have been done, verified against records, and amended through DNA research.

For a while researchers will try to fill in gaps and extend genealogies by locating information in unlikely sources not consulted before. Some genetic genealogy detectives will use DNA to try and solve challenging cases caused by a lack of reliable records, but their research will be replaced by automated techniques that calculate the probabilities for various possibilities.
Similar techniques will be used to extend existing genealogies a few more generations back into the past, using DNA to infer relations for which there are no records. Eventually, all genealogical research that can be done will have been done.

Genealogy is doomed, long live genealogy.

genealogy forever

Genealogy is doomed, long live genealogy. Genealogy will not become obsolete, but pervasive. Our descendants will have well-documented ancestries even before they are born.
That does not imply that the thrill of discovery will be gone. With the vital but bare genealogical facts laid out, the discovery will not be about who your ancestors are, but about exploring who they were.

updates

2010-09-23

Ancestry has acquired Footnote, see Ancestry.com Buying Spree.

2011-08-18 Footnote renamed Fold3

Ancestry has renamed Footnote to Fold3, see Ancestry renames Footnote to Fold3. The Footnote blog link has been updated.

links