Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Sunday, September 7, 2014

BYU's Family History Technology Lab

One of the more interesting things about being more closely associated with a large university is the chance to meet and talk to people who are working on interesting genealogy projects. This past week, my wife and I had such a meeting with the Family History Technology Lab at Brigham Young University (BYU). This particular Lab develops new software with the purpose of advancing genealogical technology. It is staffed by mostly under-graduate students and the things they are accomplishing are truly amazing. It made me wish that something like that had existed when I was going to school (but not enough to make me want to go back to school).

I met with Dr. Bill Barrett. Dr. Barrett is perhaps best known for his landmark research with interactive segmentation tools, namely Intelligent Scissors, introduced in 1995. Intelligent Scissors was adopted into Adobe Photoshop™ as Magnetic Lasso and is used by millions of people throughout the world. Recent follow-on work to this, titled Live Surface, has also received international attention. He has also been working on the compression, recognition, and extraction of information contained in digitized microfilm for Family History research.

Sometimes we speak about being on the cutting edge of technology, but this is where they make the tools that cut the edge. Back in 2005, Dr. Barrett was awarded the Eliza R. Snow Fellowship to help work on taking the 2.3 million rolls of microfilm stored in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Granite Mountain Vault, and will scan, extract, store and make accessible via the internet these records. So we have access to the records on, partially as a result of Dr. Barrett's work. Just think about the opportunity to talk with someone like this for a while!

Why don't we hear about all this as genealogists? Well, partially because most genealogists really aren't interested in new technology. In fact, if my own experience were any indication, most genealogists resent the changes in technology rather than welcome them. I notice from the news that Apple is about to introduce yet another iteration of the iPhone. How many genealogists do you think will be lined up at the stores to buy the new phone the day it comes out?

I also think there is a tendency for private commercial enterprises to be rather close about their activities and this carries over to FamilySearch and even universities even when it is in their interest to publicize their new developments.

The Family History Technology Lab at BYU presently lists three projects; the Relative Finder (beta), the Virtual Pedigree (pre-release) and Intelligent Indexing Research with downloads. I would characterize these projects as being in the concept and design stage. But each of them are very interesting and could lead to some substantially important developments in genealogical software. These programs are not so much standalone applications, although they could be, as they are adjuncts or features to other already-in-use programs. I decided that I would write a blog post about each of them with comments about how the programs move genealogy forward. This will give me three shots at the topic.

Sometimes we reflect on the choices we made in the past that put us where we are today. In some ways, I regret making decisions that put me on the path away from technology. On the other hand, now that I am old and gray, I am getting a chance to rub shoulders with the tech world. You never know what might happen.

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