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Thursday, August 25, 2011

"Relative Finder", Using FamilySearch.org, Shows the Future of Social Genealogy

Family History, or Genealogy as it is also known, is one of the most popular hobbies in the world. There's something fascinating about learning whom your ancestors are and where you come from. In a way, we all want to figure out how we're linked together as a world. Imagine if you could index the entire, living, human family tree. If a new app on Facebook gets its way, you may just see this some time in the near future. The Facebook App, "Relative Finder", seeks to do just that by searching family tree data provided by a new beta of FamilySearch.org (owned by my employer), and find out which of your Facebook friends are related to you based on the family trees of those individuals.

The new FamilySearch.org beta is currently limited to congregations of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and some select test audiences, but allows for individuals to type in simple information of their immediate relatives, and if a tree exists for those individuals it automatically links your existing family tree with that of other people in the database. So in essence, much of the family history research for many of your friends, and yourself, is already done, and will be available to everyone on the site to use in due time, according to the what FamilySearch says on their site.

Relative Finder, written by a group of BYU Computer Science students working on a class project, takes advantage of this data, and uses your social graph on Facebook to scan your friend list and go into the family trees of each on FamilySearch.org, identifying the relatives found in the FamilySearch database. It then gives you a list of your friends that are related to you, and tells you how far you are related. For me, most of my friends were between 7th and 10th cousins, but I found out very quickly a couple of my Facebook friends that were actually 3rd and 4th cousins. The great thing is, unlike apps like Geni or FamilyLink or others that rely that you manually upload your data to match living relatives, all of this happens automatically because of the data provided by FamilySearch!

Right now Relative Finder requires each of your friends on Facebook to authorize Relative Finder through Facebook before it identifies them as relatives (as far as I can tell). I'm unsure though why they require this (maybe for load balancing purposes?). If they wanted, with Facebook API they could retrieve the same data about your friends by just authorizing you, and not requiring your friends to authorize. If they did it that way, then I could find out how many of all of my friends I am related to, instead of just those that authorize the app and have a FamilySearch.org beta account. Regardless, this is truly revolutionary, and shows the tremendous potential for indexing the entire family tree of every living individual on this earth. Can you imagine the world-changing potential to find out how we are all related?

At the moment only members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for the most part, will be able to use this app due to the limitations of the new FamilySearch. However, as soon as the new FamilySearch.org beta opens up to the public (it says "look for a future announcement" on the website), everyone should be able to use this feature. Once we do, can you imagine how fast an app like this will grow?

To me, the future of Genealogy is social. In many ways, the future of Social is genealogy. In the end this is all about finding out how we're all related, what our common connections are, and how we can work together better as a society based on those common connections. My hope is that other sites, like Facebook and Google+ also realize this connection, and can find ways to integrate technologies like this into their own platforms so we can all learn more about each other, and share through common connections (I'm happy to make introductions if anyone at either company is interested).

Relative Finder has really exposed the tip of the iceberg in what social genealogy could look like. I really love this app, and can't wait for everyone in the world to be able to start using it. I'll include some screen shots below.

Disclosure: FamilySearch.org is owned by my employer, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While I don't work directly with them I do occasionally talk to them. I have not talked to them or consulted with them specifically about this though, nor have I had any participation with Relative Finder, produced by a group of BYU students (BYU also owned by the Church). This is just really cool technology that, no matter where it came from, I thought needed to be shared!












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