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

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Why is Genealogical Accuracy Such a Problem?

I ran into the above list of research errors on the Family Tree recently and started thinking about why this kind of situation occurs. These errors arise from the following entry:

Of course, there are no sources supporting (or correcting) any of this information. I referred to this particular person in another post where I pointed out that the dates and places also don't match. I continued to investigate the Jacob Morgan and find that there are, at least, 11 Member Trees with similar information and some or all of the children.

You might note that the first child is supposedly born when his father was three years old. The latest addition to the Family Tree was within the last few months and added a child who was born when the father was only 11 years old. Apparently, adding another child with the same inaccurate information as reflected by the two older children does not raise any concerns on the part of the contributors, including the red exclamation point warnings from FamilySearch.

How does this happen? The person added, John Morgan (Doctor), also has no supporting sources and is also reported as being born in "Shepardstown, Berkley, Virginia" in 1734. As I have previously pointed out, Shepherdstown, now in West Virginia, was founded 1762 and Berkeley County, wasn't organized until 1772. So not only is there a total disconnect here chronologically, but geographically as well.

All except two of the children listed are said to be born in Shepherdstown, Berkeley, Virginia or to be "of Shepherdstown, Berkeley, Virginia." The two children who are the exception are Rachel Morgan, born about 1730 (when her father was seven years old) in "of Virginia, USA" and Mary Augusta Morgan born in Fairfax, Virginia in 1825 when her father was a hundred and two years old.

To clean up these entries, we have to start with approximately five generations earlier where we have descendant Garrard Morgan II, who is supposedly married in Carlisle, Nicholas, Kentucky in 1794 and born in Goochland, Colony of Virginia, British Colonial America in 1772. Nicholas County, Kentucky was not established until 1794 and Carlisle was founded in 1816. So we have a few generations to clean up before we can even begin to unravel the issues with Jacob Morgan. This cleanup work is taking a considerable amount of time because the research is not easy.

So how do these tangled messes come about? Why is there a consistent lack of awareness of the dates and places involved in this particular family. Oh, I might point out that the information on Garrard Morgan is in 17 Public Member Family Trees.

Besides the apparent inability to do simple addition, the real problems here are with locations. None of those incorporating this information in their family records has bothered to verify that information either by checking original record sources or by checking the dates associated with the geographic locations. This is widespread and very persistent problem with family compiled genealogical records. Someone makes the initial assumptions based on tradition or speculation and no one bothers to check the original family records passed down for generations. My own records reflect the family tradition records that were originally obtained from family group records submitted to the Genealogical Society of Utah. Age adds credence. It is not at all unusual for me to find that the traditional records I inherited, in a sense, from my ancestors are proving to be inaccurate and incomplete.

As I grow older and acquire more resources and knowledge, I am getting less and less tolerant of inexcusable errors. It is only today, when the errors are so much "in your face" and when we have the tools to do something about the problems that we have begun to make some headway.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Wikipedia and Genealogy: Always a surprise

Whatever your opinion about the huge, online reference work called, unless you are using its vast resources to supplement your genealogical research, your work is not as accurate or complete as it could be.

Of course, you could do something simple, like look up the names of your ancestors and all their iterations in Google and you might find that one or more of those ancestors were the focus of a Wikipedia article. Such as this article on my Great-grandfather.

But if you are thinking of Wikipedia in that fashion, you are probably missing the bulk of the useful articles. As a genealogist, you should be aware that Wikipedia is likely the most complete gazetteer for information about the world and it's populated places that exists. Here is an example.

One of my family lines, in fact the Morgan line, has a whole string of entries where the family, parents and all the children, were supposedly born in Shepherdstown, Berkeley, Virginia in the early to mid-1700s. Here is one of the entries from the Family Tree:

This entry seems to be as complete as it might be under the circumstances. It might help to note that there are no sources noted, other than personal records, that support this information. So, a quick check to about Shepherdstown and Berkeley County.

Let me repeat. has a page for almost every populated place in the world. I immediately notice that Shepherdstown is "one of the oldest town in the state, chartered in 1762 by Colonial Virginia's General Assembly." It is now in West Virginia but before West Virginia became a state in 1863, it was part of Virginia. Hmm. So the entry here shown above and many of the other references to Shepherdstown are not at all accurate. The town did not exist in 1723.

But how accurate is Wikipedia? Can I believe what is written? The date cited in the Wikipedia article has a source citation:

Price, Jim. "History of Shepherdstown". Archived from the original on October 1, 2000. Retrieved April 3, 2015.
The links go to a webpage. Here is a screenshot.

Here is a copy of the part about the founding of Shepherdstown:
Colonial settlers began their migration into the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley in the early 1700's. The Colony of Virginia started issuing Valley land grants in the 1730s. In 1734, Thomas Shepherd was granted 222 acres, on the south side of the "Potomack" river. From that tract, he selected fifty acres and laid out a town. He named his town Mecklenburg and petitioned the Virginia Assembly for a charter. It was granted in 1762 and was located in Frederick County. Thomas Shepherd was the sole trustee. He owned the town and had the responsibility to conduct its government.
Here is another issue. Shepherdstown is in Jefferson County not Berkeley County. Was it in Berkeley County back in the 1700s? That question calls for another Wikipedia search. Here is what the article from the Wikipedia: Berkeley County, West Virginia has to say.
Berkeley is the second oldest county in West Virginia. The county was created by an act of the House of Burgesses in February 1772 from the northern third of Frederick County (Virginia). At the time of the county's formation it also consisted of the areas that make up the present-dayJefferson and Morgan counties.
With this very brief search, I am able to determine that my ancestor Jacob Morgan was not born in Shepherdstown, Berkeley, Virginia. I do not yet know where he was born, but I do know that more research is needed on his birth. Since this entry for Jacob Morgan has the following notices from FamilySearch, it is probably not too surprising that the places named for him and his family members may also be wrong. 

 I routinely check the accuracy of the entries in the Family Tree against those from Wikipedia. Where necessary, I go back to the originally cited material.

If you are wondering why these entries haven't been researched and checked, as I have stated recently in another post, we are working on this line and all of these people may not be related to us at all.

So, use Wikipedia as an initial place to check the facts for any unsubstantiated entries in the Family Tree or any other family three out there. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Don't Compliment My Blog!

I constantly get saccharine, overblown spam comments about my wonderful blog posts. The problem of course is that these "comments" have nothing to do with the content of the post and always contain a link to some commentator's personal business or blog. They are pernicious and I uniformly delete them. If you happen to post online, you should be aware of this undercurrent of unsolicited and sometimes dangerous practice of sending out blanket, generic comments with a link. In most cases, the existence of the link will not be obvious.

In the worst case scenario, these links could well be phishing expeditions with the links designed to download malware to your computer. But even if the links are genuine, the purpose for sending the links is to increase the visibility of a website. One of criteria for measuring the reach of a website is the number of "links" it generates. These spammers have not read your blog post nor do they care about your content, they are merely trying to increase the links to their own websites to try to force the websites up in the search engine scanning process. These tactics, along with a long list of others, are collectively referred to as "Search Engine Optimization" or SEO.

There are thousands of websites online that are directed at SEO with tag lines such as the following;

  • simple
  • do it yourself
  • beginner's
  • starter
  • step-by-step
  • online marketing

There is a publication from Google entitled, "Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide." On page 22 of Google's Guide it explains what this problem entails. If you are interested in preventing commentator's spam and avoiding earning a reputation as a spammy website, you should review this page of the Guide. The simple solution is the one I have chosen and that is to moderate all comments. So, if you want to compliment my blog, be very specific and don't copy portions of a post or use effusive language. If you do, I will simply delete your comment.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Is there a problem for which voice recognition is the solution?

I have had Siri, the Apple voice recognition program, on my iPhone for some time now and with the upgrade to Mac OS Sierra, I now have Siri on my iMac. From time to time I try to figure out some question or command that might help me speed up my work or solve some problem by using Siri. So far, I haven't been successful. Almost everything I can think of that might help, gets the same or similar response from Siri that you can read in the image above. When I do think of something the Siri recognizes, it turns out that I could do the same thing faster by not having to activate Siri, speak my command and wait for the response to happen.

As I have written periodically in reporting my progress or the lack thereof with voice recognition, even though the concept has been around for over 50 years now, the execution of the concept still seems to be in the developmental stage. Granted, the voice recognition systems we have available today are tremendously more accurate and responsive than they were just a few years ago, but over all, there are still a lot of unresolved issues.

The star of the voice recognition show is the Nuance Software program, Dragon Naturally Speaking for Windows and the Mac version of the same program called Dragon Dictate. The problem I have run into with the program is the cost of upgrades. When the last Mac operating system came out, my version of Dragon Dictate effectively stopped working. The upgrade was very pricey. Now, I am two operating system upgrades past where the program stopped working and I considered upgrading my Dragon Dictate program again. I quickly discovered that the upgrade had almost doubled in price.

As a result of the high price of the program and its constant expensive upgrades, I seriously investigated the Apple Voice Recognition program built into the Mac OS. It seemed to work extremely well, until I discovered that the software designers had unfortunately omitted to include some vital editing tools like correcting a wrong word or sentence. They expect the users to do the corrections manually. Perhaps there is a work around, but I haven't discovered it yet. What is the purpose of using a voice recognition program that can't correct mistakes?

So I looked to the voice recognition program built into the Google Docs program. It had a lot of the features omitted by Apple, but lacked some of the other features that made it a completely useful program. It appears that if I want to have a viable voice recognition program I will have to cough up the high price for Dragon Dictate. Unfortunately, presently, the specifications for the program do not indicate that it is compatible with the new Sierra OS.

If I were unable to use a keyboard or trackpad effectively, I would be forced to pay the high price for an upgrade that might not work at all. But since I can still type very fast and use the computer trackpad faster than I can give voice commands, I am taking a hiatus from voice recognition for a while until the technology starts to work for me again. Oh, by the way, it doesn't matter to me, but the latest version of Dragon Naturally Speaking 13 Home, does not list Windows 10 as one of the systems it supports.

Who knows? Maybe I will find a use for Siri.

Using Smart Technology to Jump-Start Your Genealogical Research: Part Twelve

A multitude of devices from digital cameras to smartphones, tablets and other computer devices can take images of documents for research and store them or share them with your other devices

With the release of the latest round of smartphones, we can see that one of the most rapidly advancing technologies is the incorporation of high resolution digital cameras into phones, tablets and other mobile devices. The image produced by these new devices rival expensive, professional level cameras. From the standpoint of a genealogical researcher, the new devices enable us to make high resolution images of our documents and other research and share them instantly with other researchers or attach the images as sources to our documentation.

Many of the large online, genealogical database programs such as,, and all have ways to upload and share digital images of your ancestors and other records. Some of the programs, such as the Memories add the aiblity to upload audio files and enables users to add video files.

Using your tablet or smartphone to add a photo to your online family tree is as easy as snapping a photo. For example, when I found a book for my research in England, rather than take the time to copy the information by hand or even take the book to a copy machine and pay for a copy, I simply pulled out my iPhone and took a photo of the few pages I needed for reference.

Of course, there are copyright issues if the images are used improperly and any further use, rather than for research, should be done in accordance with the laws of the country where you live or where the book was published. This almost universal ability of people around the world to take instantaneous photos and share them over the Internet in programs such as Instagram or Snapchat, has revolutionized communication and will have the same impact on research. While at the same time, the copyright issues and the ability of copyright holders to protect their rights have become overwhelmingly complicated.

From the standpoint of the researcher, the ability to gather information, when allowed, has been increased exponentially. Some of the most profound effects of this developing ability to gather genealogically significant images are the huge online cemetery imaging programs such as and  With, the GPS information collected by the device, such as a smartphone, is automatically attached to the photo of a grave marker and the program then plots the location of the grave marker on a digital map that can be used by anyone to find the grave with great accuracy. I have used this technology several times to find graves in large cemeteries and have been able to drive or walk directly to the grave marker I was searching for.

On many occasions when visiting relatives, we find that they have documents or photos to share. Because we now have a camera in our smartphones, we don't have to lose these opportunities to preserve the records even if the relatives do not want to part with the originals. We can simply take digital images and thereby preserve the documents for further use and reference. This works very well with scrapbooks and larger photos and paintings. You can also preserve images of keepsakes and other memorabilia.

If you use an online or cloud-based storage program like, you can upload the images immediately and make them available on your other devices or share them with other relatives. All of these technological advances require a degree of learning and some sophistication in the use of the devices, but there are a huge number of online resources that illustrate how this can be done. Sharing the images online requires the sender and the recipient to have the same programs on their devices. For example, if you want to share a photo using, both you and the person who receives the image need to have the program on their own device; smartphone, tablet or desktop computer.

Here are the previous posts in this series.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Confronting the complication of genealogy online

Genealogy is a complex subject and when you add the complexity of the Internet, you may despair of ever understanding even the basics depending on whether your strengths lie in the area of genealogical research or computer and Internet technology or both. An interesting study, recently released by the Pew Research Center entitled, "Digital Readiness Gaps" addressed the following issues:
The analysis shows there are several distinct groups of Americans who fall along a spectrum of digital readiness from relatively more prepared to relatively hesitant. Those who tend to be hesitant about embracing technology in learning are below average on the measures of readiness, such as needing help with new electronic gadgets or having difficulty determining whether online information is trustworthy. Those whose profiles indicate a higher level of preparedness for using tech in learning are collectively above average on measures of digital readiness.
The study classifies 52% of the population of the United States as "Relatively Hesitant" and 48% as "Relatively more prepared." Only 17% of the population constitute the "Digitally Ready" who are confident in using digital tools to pursue learning. The study focused on "online learning." What makes this study relevant to online genealogy is that the entire subject of genealogy involves nearly constant learning and much of that is available today online as opposed to more traditional methods.

It is also significant that the demographics shown in the study of the "Unprepared" with relatively lower levels of technological adoption focused on women, 50 years and older, who make up the majority of the genealogical demographic. There is also a direct correlation between a person's level of education and their digital readiness. The most digitally ready group and those with higher income and education who are in their 30s and 40s. This is group is not the mainstay of genealogy.

The Pew Research Center study makes the following interesting observation about digital readiness:
More recently, as the internet and smartphones have spread through the population, adoption across population segments has been uneven. Pew Research Center recently reported that some users are unable to make the internet and mobile devices function adequately for key activities like looking for jobs. Communities face similar issues. Though the use of technology in schools has unfolded well in some places, problems have arisen where insufficient planning failed to take into account whether there was acceptance of new technology by all parts of the educational ecosystem. 
These examples underscore two points about how new technology works its way through society: First, different people and institutions have varying levels of preparedness for using next-generation technologies. Second, this reality can result in varying levels of usage of new technologies as they diffuse in society. These differences can, in turn, ultimately raise the possibility that uneven adoption and use of technology could have negative consequences for those whose are not facile and comfortable technology users.
Assumptions that any one segment of our society is either digitally advanced or inhibited depends more on the person's individual educational level and the person's degree of trust of online sources than it does a person's access to technology. These conclusions directly correspond to my own personal observations.

Although the study did not address younger Americans, my own observations are that blankly considering the "youth" as being both digitally prepared and able to absorb complex subjects online is a mistake.  For example, I have been teaching classes and doing presentations on genealogical subjects now for many years. From my observations, the number of people under the age of 20 who have attended any of my classes is so small as to be nonexistent and in reality, those under about the age of 50 are relatively rare. I have no way to know how many really young people read blogs or watch webinars, but I suspect that the number reflects their physical presence in classes.

So, until we can start helping the older members of the genealogical community to have a greater acceptance of learning online, particularly about genealogy, and the sooner we can help the youth learn about genealogy, the better off the entire community will become. Until both of these happen, we will maintain our marginal percentages of real participation in genealogical research.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Record Hints vs. Manual Searching: Which wins?

All four (,, and, or five, if we include of the big, online genealogy databases provide algorithmic, programmed record hints. However, most genealogists, especially those with advanced technical savvy, rely more upon manual searches than they do the automated ones. Of course, in order to use the record hints, the genealogist must have a substantial family tree in each of the five programs and in my experience, even genealogists with considerable research experience balk at the idea of maintaining four or five separate databases, even assuming that the researcher does not have a separate, off-line database. Since the record hinting software uses the information contained in a family tree, those without family trees in each program do not benefit from the advanced technology.

What is interesting to me is that even if the researchers have their family trees in one or more of the programs, they still focus on manual searching even when those searches are not overly productive. I guess my question is what makes the researchers think they can out perform the automated record hints with manual searches on the same program. Commonly, I observe researchers who are manually searching one of the large database programs when they have a long list of waiting record hints to process.

Before getting further into this issue, it seems to me to be a good idea to examine the limitations of both manual and automated searches. First the limitations they have in common, some of which are pretty obvious.

Limitations on both manual and automated searches:
  • All database searches are limited to the content of the records in the database. This may seem elementary, but how many times do you check to make sure that the website has the type of record you are looking for before you make your search and of course, if the records are not in the database no automated process will make them appear. This could also be a controlling factor in choosing to put a family tree on a website.
  • The accuracy of the initial assumptions made by the researcher about the identity of family members, i.e. if you input the wrong parents, the program will not know this and will look for what it is told to look for.
  • The assumptions made by the algorithms programmed into the automated searches and the manual searches. 
  • The detail contained in the record sources. If the records contain little data about the target individuals, the searches will produce more false positives.
  • The accuracy of the indexing done to the original records.
Limitations on manual searches:
  • A manual search is usually limited to the information known and input by the researcher.
  • The searchers ability to formulate search terms. This is one of the primary issues. 
  • The time spent by the searcher.
  • The number of false positives returned by the search. Many searchers give up when the search engine begins producing long lists of obviously inappropriate responses.
Limitations on automated searches:
  • The program must rely on the accuracy of the information the user enters into the target family tree.
  • The depth of the information considered by the searches. This is one of the main factors limiting the first iterations of automated searches. Innovations in the past few years have increased the search depth and thereby increased the accuracy of the searches. 
  • The number of records included in the automated record hint program. 
  • The input from the user in the form of accepting or validating the record hints provided. In some cases, the user declines a valid record hint that will then inhibit the ability of the program to provide future hints.
  • Inability to distinguish between very close, but wrong, matches.
From the researcher's standpoint, the automated record hints are a bonus. They provide information that would have cost the researcher time and effort. Maintaining the family tree on the website is the unavoidable overhead to obtaining adequate record hints.

I have written down some of the limitations, but what about advantages. From my own perspective, I find the record hints to be highly useful in accelerating my ability to fill in routine-type research. I regret all the hours I spent searching through U.S. Census records for example. Now, I get Census input from almost all of the programs. I think it is an amazing development and I am grateful for all the work that has gone into developing such a useful technology. I think that any researcher that doesn't take advantage of the technology is basically wasting their time.