Technology

52 Weeks to Better Genealogy – Week 22 (Part II) – Find-A-Grave

In my last post, I expressed my desire for a Find-A-Grave app for my smartphone and outlined several specific features I wished to see in the app.  After posting and sharing the link, I learned from Thomas that there was an ongoing discussion on the Find-A-Grave forums, and then someone posted a link to a beta version of an app in the Android Market. Sweet! I have an Android phone.

Eager to see how it works, I quickly installed it.   The app’s page has several screenshots that will allow you to see how it currently works and I see much promise.   It was released May 11, 2010 so is a very early version.  So far, it provides basic access to the data at the Find-A-Grave website, but it does not have any of the 7 functions I listed in my post.  To be fair though, it is clear from the current menus that many of these are planned, and I am excited!

Overall, the usability of the site is aligned with what I envisioned. It is fast, easy to use and instructions are clear.  I believe the developer is definitely heading in the right direction.  Now I just need to figure out a way to let the developer know of my blog post!

52 Weeks To Better Genealogy – Week 22 (Find-A-Grave)

A couple of months ago I read an article about a Vanderbilt Engineering student named Ben Gotow and his work developing iPhone apps.  He developed an iPhone app for artists that has sold more than 20,000 units to date, an app for a Vanderbilt informatics group that allows anesthesiologists to view what’s going on in various operating rooms from their iPhones, and considered another app that immediately caught my attention and sparked my thoughts on the topic of this blog post.  It’ s a blog post I’ve been bouncing around for a couple of months and this week’s prompt for Find-A-Grave gives me the perfect opportunity to present the idea.

What was that other app? The app that was mentioned that particularly caught my eye was described in the following manner in the article I read about him

Gotow hopes to develop an app that would allow users to point their phones at a building anywhere on Vanderbilt’s campus and receive information about what is going on inside as well as the building’s history.

When I read this sentence, I had an immediate realization at how cool something like this could be for a genealogical/historical researcher! Not only for Vanderbilt buildings, but if it were crowdsourced somehow or drew from Wikipedia for use from any location.  Wouldn’t that be cool?  Then, as I thought about its potential for use from any location, I realized that something like this could be useful for Find-A-Grave.  Imaging pointing your smartphone towards any cemetery and getting information about that cemetery?

I’m tweaking the original 52 Weeks to Better Genealogy prompt’s objective, but here are my thoughts on how a FindAGrave app could work:

  • it would use GPS coordinates and map data to show you what cemeteries are near you (a la FourSquare)
  • from the app, you’d retrieve the list of burials as noted in Find-A-Grave an easy-to-visualize method of knowing which ones have pictures or not.  The Find-A-Grave site uses a tombstone marker image to designate the availability of a tombstone photo so this could be the case as well for the app.
  • if there is not a tombstone marker for the grave it would allow you to click on a camera icon to launch your smartphone camera, take a picture and upload that pic to FindAGrave right away.   Find-A-Grave currently has a photo size restriction so ideally, the app would resize your photo since it will probably be much larger than the maximum image allowed
  • if there is not an entry for that burial, have a simple version of the form to add a new entry and then as above, add the picture of the tombstone.
  • Sign-in should be required to use the app so then it could keep track of the graves you added and/or took photos for so you can go back and enhance the data later if needed (ideally,  it would work in tandem w/ the Find-A-Grave website so you could manage the info online)
  • integration w/ other social sites — wouldn’t it be fun if you were in a cemetery and could tweet/Facebook  something like, “I just found my great-grandmother’s tombstone @ XYZ Cemetery!”  along w/ the picture?
  • a “check-in” feature (again, a la FourSquare or Waymarking) that would let you know what other people may have visited the cemetery (and or grave)?  this could possibly lead to connecting with other researchers with familial ties?
  • in June 2009 I posted my wish-list for the Find-A-Grave website — maybe the app could incorporate some of them?

Using an app like this while surveying, viewing a cemetery would be interesting.  It may extend the time needed to survey a cemetery, but with all the steps combined of taking a picture and uploading it to the site, it may in the end save time.  I’d love to try something like this out.   The argument could be made that since smartphones can render websites, the regular Find-A-Grave site could be used, but I personally find usability issues when using the regular site on my Android.  Either a specifically designed mobile version of the site or an app would be better from a  usability perspective.  It is time like these that I wish I were a programmer, or at least had enough money to hire a programmer.

Thanks for the inspiration Ben! Maybe I can get someone at Find-A-Grave, or someone with programming expertise to take this on.  I’d need a Droid version though.  🙂

Update 5/31 — Thomas tweeted a link to a forum discussion on an iPhone app for Find-A-Grave and I posted a comment there.  Also, I had another idea. Here’s the scenario:

Today I am visiting family in Indiana and I’m planning to go visit a cemetery.  Maybe a potential function of the app would be to provide me a % of tombstones photographed at cemeteries around me. I could target some of the cemeteries with fewer percentage of tombstones photographed to start with.  Recognizing that there may not be headstones for everyone listed at a particular cemetery, it would still be an interesting way to know how to best focus my efforts to help contribute to the site.

I also learned that there is a beta version of the app that was just released a couple of weeks ago. The site to learn more about it is here and you can see comments here.  I will do a blog post about it later.

Welcome to the e-conference

Back in October, I posted about my desire to see more genealogy societies and organizations leveraging webconference technology.   For those of us that may be interested in attending but aren’t able to physically make it, I wondered if there would be a push from any group to do this kind of e-conference activity.   I come back to this topic b/c I want to share an example of how my professional organization is handling this approach.

I am a medical librarian/information specialist by profession, and our professional group is the Medical Library Association.  New to the annual meeting this year in DC is the e-conference; the ability to register to “attend” the conference virtually and get online access to several elements of the conference –  audio of sessions with electronic content, streaming video of keynote & plenary sessions,  posters & various 5-minute presentations.  The e-conference fee for association members is only $100 (compared to $460 for physical registration).

There is also an interactive online portal planned to accompany the e-conference.   This e-conference concept is brand new to our association this year.  Last year,  online access to posters was experimented with and that must have gone well.  I am glad to see the organizers try to provide access for those that can’t attend.  The other major component of the meeting, the paper presentation sessions, are not included in the e-conference this year, but maybe they will expand to include that next year if the experiment goes well.   I am looking forward to seeing MLA’s after-meeting assessment of how well this approach works.

Wouldn’t an approach like this be wonderful for genealogy conferences?

Portable Hand Scanner

I have an idea.  I’m always on the lookout for something that will help me capture information most effectively for my genealogical research and I like to experiment.  This morning, I’ve seen a product that I’m interested in trying out – a hand wand portable scanner.

This portable hand scanner allows you to scan books, newspapers, receipts, etc to an SD card and then download the images to a computer.  Why do I want one? If this were to work successfully for me, it would mean that I could save money on photocopies when I visit research libraries.  This particular model is by VuPoint and I’ve used another one of their products before; a slide scanner.  While the slide scanner ended up not working out for me it was not because of the product, but more the fact that it wasn’t designed for how I wanted to use it. 

I’m particularly anxious to try out this hand scanner and will be looking for a source to purchase it.  I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Home Microfilm Digitization

I know I shouldn’t be shopping for me, but, an opportunity presented itself to me this afternoon and I could not say no.

Background: Last week I emailed a co-worker of mine who has years of photography experience to ask a question. I wanted to know how I could rig a set-up like this.

PhotoMicrofilm

so that I could capture my own digital images of the microfilm of old newspapers I’ve purchased in the past few years.  The picture you see is the setup that a gentleman named Joel Weintraub. Joel shared the details of this setup in the comments section of a blog post by Dick Eastman on the ST-Genie Microfilm Converter.  I’ve been interested in the type of converter Dick posted about for awhile now, but the cost has been greatly prohibitive for me ($1000+).  Over the past few years, I’ve been transcribing old newspaper issues and creating online indices/blogs for them for wider dissemination but b/c of the expense of digitizing them, I only have about 8 rolls total of microfilm.

When I shared this with my coworker, he offered another, cheaper suggestion — try  a gadget that converts slides & 35mm negatives to digital format.  Hmm.. I guess I am working with 35mm microfilm after all? He sent me several different types and I’d planned to do some further research until I could learn more about them.  Well, today, while at Bed, Bath & Beyond of all places, I just happened to see this device from VuPoint Solutions:

VuPoint Converter

VuPoint Converter

The converter offers two resolutions for image capture – 1800dpi and 3600dpi.  At 1800dpi, I can take more than 6400 images and store them on my 4GB SD card.  This resolution works okay from what I can tell, I’m not sure yet if I need to go up to 3600.

As you can see from the picture, it is designed to be used for slides and 35mm negatives, and that tray didn’t look like it would be too easy for microfilm to work well, but I bought it anyway just to experiment.  And, experiment I have. The microfilm is thin enough that it does slide around well in the slide tray.  So far, it seems the biggest problem I have is that the dimension of the image capture area is not quite big enough for each frame of microfilm.  So, I’m having to rotate the image and take two pictures for each frame.  I appreciate having the viewfinder, so I can at least see how it lays out on the screen, but I cannot see the detail of the newspaper issue.

For items in the paper, such as advertisements, I’m pretty much okay with the quality.  Here is an example of an ad from G.S. Waters & Sons of Newbern, Craven County, North Carolina for their buggy business.

waters

The newspaper article text is another story.  The quality I’ve captured so far is not good enough for posting the actual image, but it is good enough for me to read, transcribe and enter into my databases.  Here is an article from the August 3, 1912 issue of the Kinston Free Press about a man named Henry T. King from Greenville that mentions his work to write a history of Pitt county.

king

Yes, the process will probably be tedious, for after capturing the images, I then need to collate the images into newspaper issues, but I rather like working hands on with the images.  If I were to send the roll out for digitization by a commercial entity, it would cost me anywhere from $70-$100 per roll and ultimately, that probably does save me time in the long run.  However, I’m not in this for volume, but rather to enjoy the experience and reading through these old newspapers, so we’ll see how I adjust over time.  This particular converter was $100 and the SD card was $40.

I can’t wait to go to work tomorrow and thank my coworker for providing me with this suggestion!  If you’ve used one of these, I’d love to hear your experience.

Smartphone Compatible

Oooh – this is the ultimate of cool.  Okay, so I spent my Thanksgiving night in complete geekdom, but I’m loving it! Tonight, I made one of my websites smartphone compatible!

One of my genea-duties (is that a word?) is serving as the webmaster for the NCGenWeb project.  I became webmaster in July and have really enjoyed it and come to know so much more about the state since beginning.  Tonight, as I worked on various web tasks for our project, I had a thought — I should see if I can make the site compatible for a smartphone.  I thought about this as I was playing with my own new smartphone, a Motorola Droid that I got the day it came out on November 6th – that thing is just downright sexy.   🙂

So, I looked for a plugin since I have the site in WordPress, quickly found one, and in 5 minutes had made the site iPhone, Droid, Palm Pre, etc. compatible.  How many times can I say that I just love WordPress!  Check out the video clip I made on what it looks like.

I can’t wait to make all my other WordPress sites mobile compatible as well, including this one!  Tell me, do you use smartphones for genealogy? Tell me in this survey!

Video Conferencing & Genealogy Societies

Some random thoughts from me as I’ve pondered this over the past several weeks.  Are there any genealogy societies out there that Skype in (or use other videoconferencing apps) to the meeting people who wish to participate but are not able to physically be there?

Over the past few months, I’ve seen some interesting articles on various genealogy blogs describing some interesting approaches to running a genealogy society meeting.  Dean described presenting at the Elgin Genealogical Society meeting in July and his very positive impressions of how the meeting was run and their venue in the public library.  Dick Eastman posted in September about a genealogy meeting he attended at a Massachusetts Public Library where the number of people who showed up was far higher than his initial anticipation.   Randy Seaver posts a synopsis of the meetings of the Chula Vista Genealogical Society’s Research Group meeting over on their blog that I always find interesting due to their format of sharing their latest research efforts and how guidance is often provided to each other.  As I read posts like these, I feel like I am missing out tremendously.

I would love to be able to join in on genealogy meetings but often am just not able to get to them.  For example:

– the genealogy society in my grandmother’s home area, Washington County, North Carolina is having a meeting October 21st that I would have loved to be able to attend

– the Chula Vista group had a speaker on Sept 30 who spoke about cemeteries of San Diego. I’ve got absolutely no research interests in that area of the country, but I would have paid to be able to listen in to the speaker as I love cemeteries.

– I received a flyer in the mail just on Saturday from the Middle Tennessee Genealogy Society of a meeting they are having in a couple of weekends.  Even though it is being held here in the city where I live, I won’t be able to attend in person.  I would though, pay to be able to listen in virtually.  That would save me the hassle of trying to find a sitter for the children.

– Over Halloween weekend, there is going to be the International Black Genealogy Summit held in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Again, I can’t go, but I’d pay to be able to listen in to the presentations or even be happy if select presentations were available for videoconferencing.  I bet there are a lot of other genealogists who are in my same position.  Unless I’m missing it though, I don’t see any hints of this feature on their site.  I’ve not seen this on any other major genealogy meetings either.

There really are numerous talks, presentations, etc. that I get to learn about through my online reading, yet I only wish I could participate in more.   Are any organizations making efforts to experiment with allowing people to pay to attend lectures/conferences virtually?  I know that Ancestry has their webinars, and GenealogyWise dose a chat series – both ideas that I think are great, but this is not exactly quite what I’m looking for.

Elyse had a great post in July about the need for genealogy societies to look towards the future and more fully engage & embrace Web 2.0 applications — I would love to see this also expand to include videoconferencing techniques.   Denise also had a post in July describing how the American Legion offered members to join by videoconference and she too mentions that it would be great if more genealogy organizations offered this ability.

I wonder who’s going to be the first to systematically do this?  For those of you that present frequently (see Geneabloggers Speakers Bureau and Dick Eastman too), why not get set up so the rest of us can participate too!

My Week

This week I have not been very involved with my own family genealogy.  I started classes again this week, so during the week I am very busy with them.  However, this weekend, I did spend some time working on various genealogy related projects. 

On Saturday, I worked some more on a resource I’m putting together on historical newspapers. Since it is slow going, there’s not much to say about it at this point except that I’m trying to figure out the best approach.  I will share more as I get my ideas more fully developed because I would love input form everyone. 

Last night I worked on the Vanderbilt family genealogy some for my Vanderiblt Family Genealogy site.  They are always interesting. 

Earlier this week, I went to a local used bookstore and while there picked up a couple of good gems I think.  One of them was a book from the Images of America series about Chattanooga.  I love these books, but I lament the fact that they don’t have indexes.  For the ones that I have so far, they have been indexed by Google, so I can just search them. However, this one on Chattanooga is not included in Google, so today I created an index.  In light of this, I went ahead and created a Special Projects tab on my blog to house things such as this that I work on.  I am using Scribd to house a PDF version of the index and I plan to share it with the Hamilton County TNGenWeb coordinator and on the listserv. I hope Chattanooga area researchers will find it of use. 

Oh, and thanks to Denise’ s post on Jing, I downloaded that today and tried it out some. I like it so far and it meets a need I have sometimes for easy ways to highlight screenshots. Thanks Denise.

That’s been my week.  Now, one of my cousins will be in town this week, so I will see her and maybe we can talk genealogy more and talk about family history!

Day 2 – Genea-Blogger Games

At the close of Day 2, I’ve marked off two additional tasks in my list of goals.

Category 4: Write, Write, Write
Task: Participate in a genealogy or family history related blog carnival.
Accomplishment: I contributed a post for the 4th edition of Smile for the Camera.  When I saw that one of the options was to do a scrapbook page, I knew that would be how I would share my favorite photo of myself.  I enjoy digi-scrapping, though I don’t do much of it.

Category 5 : Reach Out & Perform Genealogical Acts of Kindness
Task: Join another genea-blogger’s blog network on Facebook Blog Networks
Accomplishment: I joined more than one, I joined 8 of them (Megan Roots World, Genealogy Reviews Online, Eastman’s, Eastern Washington Genealogical Society, Ancestories, Facebook Bootcamp for Genea-Bloggers, Forensic Genealogy Blog, & Kinnexions) and then started my own! I’ve not really used the Blog Networks application in Facebook, and after this experience, I think I can say that I’m not likely to use it much more. I guess I just don’t find the utility in it beyond just sharing blogs that you read with others on Facebook. I find it rather ineffective for even coming close to being a sufficient feed reader, Google Reader and BlogLines work much better for that. And, I keep track of too many blogs to even try to do a thorough list of favorites in a location outside of my feed reader. But, you don’t know these things unless you experiment right?

Here is the screenshot of my Facebook activity this evening:

Tomorrow, I think I will start looking at the Cite Your Sources category and buckle down and figure out the proper format I should be using.

WorldCat.org adds “Lists”

Being a librarian, I have been using a resource called WorldCat for about 10 years now, since I was in library school.  In the past few years, the company that provides WorldCat has made it more open and available online for anyone to search and find out which libraries hold a book of particular interest.

Since getting into genealogy, I’ve realized how useful WorldCat can be for other genealogists and I try to promote it as much as possible and I use it myself quite extensively for this reason too.  I was using it last week and noticed they added a new feature, called “Lists.”  I was excited about this feature – it can be of great help for tracking collections.  I currently use DabbleDB  to keep track of some of the books I want to keep my eye on, but I am also experimenting with this.

To use WorldCat Lists, you must register for the site.  After you do a search for a book and bring up its record, there is an option to Save It.  You then have a drop down box to create a name for the list, or to add it to  pre-exisitng list. Pretty neat!

You could create a list to keep track of resources at

  • a specific library
  • a specific family surname
  • a specific library
  • a specific state

I use DabbleDB to do each of these options.  Currently, you can only add a book to a list one at a time, but you can add a book to multiple lists. It would be nice if you could add a book to more than one list at once and if there was some type of indication when looking at a WorldCat record if that item is already on one of your lists.

As an example of the feature, the book in the screenshot below was written by a descendant of Commodore Vanderbilt that I found while working on my Vanderbilt genealogy research.  In addition to adding this to my list of books for the Vanderbilt surname and I also added it to my list of books available here at Vanderbilt’s main library.

Once part of your list, you can go to that list and do quite a bit —

You can

  • get the URL to share the list with others
  • an RSS feed is available so others can keep track of what you are adding to your list
  • lists can be made public or private
  • can export to a spreadsheet
  • can print in a printer-friendly format
  • choose from multiple views to look at the items in your list, whether it be by the Worldcat record display, by book covers, or by citation view
  • can export reference list in one of five formats — as HTML, RSS, or in three different formats recognized by bibliographic management software
  • the format of the citation can be changed via a drop-down box to one of four formats – APA, MLA, Turabian, Chicago, or Harvard

As part of your “lists,”  WorldCat provides 3 already established ones – Things to Check Out, Things I Recommend, and Things I Own.  If there a way as I mentioned above to look at a record and see who put it on their “Things I Own” list, this would be a great way for genealogists to see what others have and possibly help with Look-ups.  Methinks I will be writing to WorldCat about that! 🙂

WorldCat has a number of other social features that are worth checking out too. They also have profiles, so I think I will go in and update mine.  You can also add a WorldCat app to your Facebook profile or to the Firefox browser. As a registered user of WorldCat, you can also add reviews to any book.

If you are interested in keeping up with all that WorldCat is doing, you can subscribe to their blog.