Teamwork in family history

New software helping stake members collaborate on common ancestral lines

SANDY, Utah — Many hands make light work, and that is no truer than in the work of identifying deceased ancestors for temple work. Family history enthusiasts no doubt will attest to this if they have worked with relatives to achieve breakthroughs that would not have been possible otherwise.

Now, a new software developed by North Face University in South Jordan, Utah, is facilitating such pooling of efforts in a way that heretofore has not been possible.

Founded three years ago with an emphasis on granting degrees in software engineering, the university has teamed with the Sandy Utah Crescent Stake in an ongoing project to identify ancestral relationships between stake members with a goal of having lineally related members work together on their family history.

To that end, the stake on Nov. 11 held a "Who's Related to Whom" event for stake members.

"I've been planning an event like this for four years, but never envisioned how technology and friends within the stake would converge to make such a spectacular technology tour-de force," said Rick Bennett a stake high councilor overseeing the event and coordinating the project with North Face.

The connection with the university comes from the fact that two of its officers — CEO Scott McKinley and chief technology officer Marlow Einelund — live in the stake. The stake's goal of promoting family history converges with the university's objective of having its students work on a real-world project.

What has resulted is Genos, a non-commercial software program that identifies groups of people within a population such as the stake who have common ancestry. "Since the North Face software will all be open source (meaning available to the community at large, not proprietary), there is no reason why this could not be scaled to every stake in the Church interested in creating collaboration groups within their boundaries," Brother Bennett said.

Preparatory to the Nov. 11 event stake members submitted computer files of their genealogical information. A data base was compiled from the information, and, using the Genos software, it was determined that more than half the people in the stake are related, said Rick Votaw a stake member who explained the project in a Power Point presentation to stake members at the Nov. 11 meeting.

Brother Votaw noted that 151 computer — or GEDCOM — files flowed in from the stake members, containing 2.8 million names in 1.3 million families. Of that number, some 226,000 people are in more than one family tree in the stake; 46,000 names are in more than 10 family trees, of which 10,000 names are in 50 or more family trees, Brother Votaw said.

To illustrate why this information is useful, Brother Votaw told of his wife, Karrie, finding through Internet research that a certain man had submitted many names for temple work of ancestors to whom she was related. After some detective work, she found that the man, a distant cousin, was still alive and living in the neighboring city of Draper. As a result, they contacted and met with him to computerize family history information and take scans of photos that he had. "And this has made a huge difference in the relevance of Karrie's genealogy work," Brother Votaw said.

"Now, you can do it the hard way, like we did, or you can have Genos tell you automatically who in the stake is related to the same people you are," he said.

Brother Votaw explained that the software is created around a model called Data Integration in Social History (going by the acronym DISH) which is based on information about people, places (such as Nauvoo, Ill., or Salt Lake City) and events (such as the trek from Nauvoo to Salt Lake City). These elements are then integrated through Genos to provide a visual representation through time lines of related individuals with common events, such as a marriage or the birth of a child. The program can even plot points on a map where ancestral events occurred, showing dramatically in some cases a cluster of events around a certain geographical region.

At the "Who's Related to Whom" meeting, attenders were invited to gather around computers linked to the North Face data base server and to ask the following questions: Who are my ancestors that others in the stake share with me? What other people in the stake have a given ancestor? What does this ancestor's family tree look like? What information do others have that I don't? And, what does the time line look like for my family?

"Our goal is to produce collaboration groups of five and six families with recent common ancestors, whom we will then give a mechanism for sharing and advancing research and research efforts," Brother Bennett said.

The project is mutually beneficial for the stake and the university, said Brother Einelund, in that it is "exposing students to real-world situations that will actually help them" more so than theoretical instruction or conventional university lab work. Such practical academic experience could only come in "a domain (such as family history) where there is not much commercial interest."

"You cannot really go to a financial services institution and say, 'We would like to mess around with all your bank accounts,' " he quipped.

Brother McKinley added: "There is nothing better that we've found than the people, places and events phenomenon which is known as family history or genealogy. Why? It's among the most complex domains. It has all these users, 20 million some have estimated, around the world who want to understand more about their families. And it's not about the profit motive, and we aren't either as a university. We're doing it for instructional purposes."

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