Technology and Genealogy: What Is Your Altimeter Reading?

Posted on 03/09/2011 in Guest Bloggers

Over the past few years, I’ve been closely tracking how the genealogy industry not just uses technology, but more importantly how it approaches and looks at technology. It is one thing to use a technology such as digital scanning; it is another thing to seek out, investigate and evaluate new technologies such as QR Codes or geo-location and see if they are a good “fit” with genealogy and family history.

Vision is the key to understanding what technologies could be embraced by those in the genealogy community. No amount of marketing or “crowdsourcing” the latest catch phrase will mean adoption by genealogists and family historians. But those companies and individuals with a keen vision and the ability to swoop in for a “close-up” view are able to quickly evaluate and understand what may well be “the next great technology” for the genealogy industry.

Just like an aerial photographer, it all depends on your altimeter reading and whether or not you are willing to risk flying in for a closer look at what technologies are available.

A Tech Fly-by

The genealogy industry has been slow to adopt and adapt to technology in general, as was discussed by many attendees at the RootsTech 2011 conference in Salt Lake City, Utah in mid-February. Most genealogists have some knowledge of social media, mobile or smart phone applications, digitization and similar newer technologies. However, much of that knowledge has been gleaned from simply skimming the surface or relying on information from a variety of sources including other genealogists. Such a quick “fly-by” view presents risks in how the technology is viewed:

  • Outdated Technology: Very often, unless the technology is investigated closely, the “chatter” you hear is likely outdated, meaning outdated information and outdated perceptions.
  • Consider the Source: Just as genealogists would lend more credibility to an original document, we should not rely on dubious sources for our information on technology. A 15 second sound bite on the evening news on the dangers of Facebook does not make for a credible source; a review on Facebook privacy settings at Mashable or another nationally known tech blog does.
  • Technology Changes, but Do Views Change Also? One of the challenges is to make certain our views are in line with technology as it changes (and the change is usually for the better). That scanner you looked at three years ago may have now made great advances so that it can be used by genealogists. But are you still set in your “ways” and utilizing outdated views towards that scanner? As genealogists and family historians we don’t often just do a “fly by” with records in our research even to quickly determine whether or not that record will be suitable for our efforts. What genealogist can resist taking a closer look at a set of records, perhaps even getting lost in them, in order to have a critical view of those records? So too, we must apply the same critical, in-depth view towards technology especially if the genealogy community is to be “out in front” of new technologies rather than lagging behind. A “fly by” just won’t do. We need to swoop in for the “close-up” view.

Genealogy: We’re Ready for Our Close-Up

If we as a genealogy community are committed to not only using newer technologies, but also educating the community members as to how they can be used, we should commit ourselves to that “close-up” view:

  • Use Good Sources. Follow tech sites and blogs such as Lifehacker, Mashable, MakeUseOf, TechCrunch and others. Subscribe via Google Reader and follow them on Twitter and Facebook. Look at every article and decide whether there is a possibility for that technology to work with genealogy.
  • Test and Report. Be willing to sign up for an account at a new website related to a new technology. Take it for a test drive. Report your findings even if only in a brief email to yourself or some genealogy colleagues. Ask For More Information. Many startups love to hear from potential customers, especially those that are not in their original business plan. I can’t tell you how many solid professional relationships I’ve been able to forge because I emailed the creator of a technology and told them how I could use it for genealogical purposes.
  • Get Community Input. If you feel you’ve stumbled on something of value in terms of technology, take the pulse of the genealogy community. Post to your blog (or ask to do a guest post at another genealogy blog), post to a genealogy-related mailing list or message board. You’ll be surprised at what other ideas and uses your colleagues come up with for that technology.

And the “close-up” works both ways: we also must be willing to have others such as technology vendors swoop in to take a closer look at what we do and how we do it. While my personal bias towards social media might be showing through, I believe we’ve done a good job through genealogy blogs–especially those that cover the genealogy industry and genealogy practices–in making it easier for non-genealogy companies and organizations to zoom in for a closer look at us.

The Vintage Aerial Example

When I first stumbled upon the Vintage Aerial website, my first reaction was, “This is neat but how can it be used in genealogy?” Well luckily that question was already asked and answered on the website which means someone at Vintage Aerial had taken the time to “swoop in for the close-up view.” With a collection of close to 25 million images, it would be easy to just off-load such holdings and sell them to someone like to create a database. But the minds behind Vintage Aerial have a definite “vision” as to what is possible with aerial images from over 43 states. Here is my “close-up vision” and evaluation for these photos:

  • Presentation Piece. If I wanted an image of my great-grandparents’ farm in upstate New York, I could locate an aerial image and have it mounted and framed to present to a family member who perhaps had memories of growing up there. This is already a product available on the Vintage Aerial website.
  • Research Record: What if I wanted to see how an ancestral location, like a farm or a house, had changed over time? What if there were important clues such as the construction of outbuildings like barns or when a road was constructed? An aerial image could help me determine certain facts about the property and perhaps ultimately about the family that owned the property.
  • One Place Study: A collection of vintage images would only help to expand the understanding of a small town or village. The forgotten memories of our hometown–as seen at street level–can be recalled through the help of an aerial view of the town, specific landmarks and roads.

So before simply dismissing aerial photographs–or any technology, for that matter–as unimportant to genealogy, take the time for that “close-up” and see what happens. Not every concept will be a fit for the genealogy community. In fact, a keen eye and good vision allows us to make that critical decision and decide to move on to other technologies.

Can you imagine what the first aerial balloonists thought when they looked out over Paris in 1783? And what about the first person to use a hot air balloon to take an overhead photograph of Boston? Why did James W. Black think having such an image was important? Would he ever realize what could be done with an aerial photograph? Being “out in front” of technology means taking chances and getting a good view of the technological landscape. It also means “zooming in” when necessary to gather good information. While not everyone can do this on their own, at the very least make it a point to follow those in the genealogical community who do. These “high flyers” are willing to check their technological altimeter setting, swoop in for the close-up and report back to all of us who are looking for ways to expand the genealogy experience.

© 2011, copyright Thomas MacEntee

Thomas MacEntee is a genealogist specializing in the use of technology and social media to improve genealogical research and as a means of interacting with others in the family history community. Utilizing over 25 years of experience in the information technology field, Thomas writes and lectures on the many ways in which blogs, Facebook and Twitter can be leveraged to add new dimensions to the genealogy experience. As the creator of he has organized and engaged a community of over 1,800 bloggers to document their own journeys in the search for ancestors. Through his business High-Definition Genealogy, Thomas is available for speaking engagements, workshops and other events. In addition, he can appear via virtual presentations for webinars and distance education events. High-Definition Genealogy also performs market research within the genealogy industry and has a proven track-record of mapping out the genealogy industry landscape for clients seeking to transact business and interact in the field.

Visitor Comments

So very cool. Thomas MacEntee and Vintage Aerial: Two great tastes that taste great together.

Great stuff. Tech and genealogy will continue merging together farther. Wonderful post.

Excellent and thought provoking post. Thank you Thomas. You really keep us thinking about new ways of approaching our subject. This has given me ideas for my non-genealogy history work as well. Thanks. Cheers, Jennifer

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