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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Examples of Attempts at Name Standardization

In a comment to my recent post on standardization of place names, Tony Proctor made the following comment, "I don't know which software you're using, or which computer programmers have offended you James, but I'm afraid there are some rather large generalisations here." He is right. I purposefully avoided naming names and pointing fingers. But the point is well taken, perhaps a few examples would help to explain exactly what I am talking about. As another commentator pointed out, one program, Legacy Family Tree, actually informs you if you try to enter a county that was not in existence at the time of the event.

Both spelling correction and autofill commands are ubiquitous in current programs both online and locally resident. My Apple computer has a built-in spelling checker program that works anytime I am typing either into a program or online. From the standpoint of someone who writes constantly, this type of program is more useful than it is a bother. I am used to ignoring the suggested spellings if they are for the wrong word or if my spelling is preferred. You may notice that Tony's spelling of "generalisations" in the above quote, differs from the one commonly suggested in U.S. based spell checkers.

If the suggested standardized place names were nothing more or less than a spell checker, there probably would not a be a problem. But here, the use of the term "standardized" becomes an important factor. There is an implication from the use of the term alone that suggests that a change to the standard place should be made.

I am not going to give an exhaustive list of every program that suggests a standard place name, but a few examples, as Tony points out, might help with explaining the idea.

Who should I pick on first? Well, is a big company and can probably take the heat. If you are using's online Public Member Family Trees, you will run into the suggested "standard" place names anytime you enter a place into the program. Interesting, without the full suggested name, the program sometimes cannot find the place at all. Here is an example.

My relative was a resident of Salt Lake City, Salt Lake, Utah in 1930 according to the U.S. Census. Here is a screen shot of the residence information from

You will note that the location entry is exact and accurate. However, if I try to find this location by clicking on's mapping program I see the following error:

You may have to click on the image to see the words, but essentially, the program cannot find an entry for Salt Lake City, Salt Lake, Utah. When I try to edit the entry, the program suggests the standardized place name, "Salt Lake City, Salt Lake, Utah, USA." In effect, any time I add a place to, the program makes the standard suggestions. However, and interesting, even with the standardized place name,'s map cannot find the city. Here is another screen shot showing just the error message:

Oh yeah, I can now find the place, assuming that Salt Lake City, UT is the same place.

It is not that is forcing me to use a standardized place name, but in suggesting the standard place every time I make an edit, if I didn't know better, it would be very easy to use the program just like a spell checker and accept the standard place name as the rule despite exceptions.

I could go on to list other programs with similar quirks, such as, but I think the one example is enough. The problem where's map does not recognize its own standardized place name is really interesting.


  1. Based on the place you entered in to the residence field, I can't think of a program off my head, that would understand it. The comma you put at the end is what messed it up. If you had stopped at Utah, or added USA it would of worked fine.

  2. Ahhh, the right hand didn't know what the left hand was doing, eh? I've run into the exact problem in the past, and do my mapping off of Ancestry or other programs. It is definitely challenging and also somewhat surprising.

  3. It's especially problematic when using places in other countries.

    Ontario, for example, has Lennox @ Addington County. But Ancestry's place maker won't recognize it, and tries to suggest Addington County or Lennox County, both of which are inaccurate. And its even worse when you get to England, where it can't find hardly anything that isn't in London or one of the other major cities.

    And then, to add to that, if you use the Dutch place names from New Netherlands, you get told that place doesn't exist in their list, and you should use New York! New York didn't exist for a long time after that! And it can't find exact addresses, it can't find anything that's not spelled how it prefers...and it contradicts FTM, which likes its entries listed one way, while Ancestry online suggests another. Its very frustrating!

    Sorry for the rant, you've just hit upon an issue that really bothers me. Its part of why trees are so messed up and many have part old place names and part new, because some people remember to put the old name and hit ignore on the errors, and others just go with what Ancestry says.