Technology vs. Accuracy… it is not a zero-sum game!

My second year at RootsTech was just as fascinating as the first. The conference is an energetic mix of the major genealogy companies, independent technology developers, and of course, consumers.   I am excited to see all the resources that are going into making family history available to all.  The LDS church's theological mandate to gather data on ancestors has played an indescribably important role in historical records preservation, and they continue to be leaders in innovative ways to make data readily accessible.  That being said, the emphasis -- at least in public -- was to dumb down family history in order to capture the attention of those who might not be dedicated researchers.

So my first impression of the conference this year was disappointing.  Conference goers were told that family history is EASY and FUN -- sort of like playing Tetris on your computer.  Classes focused on how to interview family members to gather their stories, or how to use social media to connect with cousins.  

Barriers to entry for new users were described only in terms of time, or ability to keep track of data.  I didn't hear much about the critical need to accurately record the sources of your data… and forget about having some understanding of history and the reasons various records were created in the first place.  We live in an age of instant gratification, and to focus on those aspects of genealogy that require rigor and discipline might certainly be a significant barrier to entry for many people.

Things improved on the second day of the conference, and I felt so much better after hearing The Legal Genealogist, Judy Russell's, keynote speech.  Her talk was brilliant, centering on the idea that oral history is lost in just three generations.  She reminded us of how little we actually know about our own parents and grandparents (do YOU know what your mother's first illness as a child was, or what was your paternal grandfather's favorite toy?)  While the topic of family stories resonated with the wider audience, the more important message was that these stories need to be purposefully and accurately documented so they are not lost to future generations.

Collaboration was another major theme of the keynote speeches:  but what was meant by this term was finding more ways to connect with one another via FaceBook-esque user interfaces, or by making more records available by crowd-sourcing indexing efforts, not by improving the reliability of research collaboration.  

Collaboration was also discussed in terms of creating partnerships to share expertise and resources between the major commercial firms and smaller entities such as local genealogical societies or independent software developers.  All this will presumably help their respective bottom lines, but I am looking for a community of serious, like-minded researchers!  I love technology and all the connectivity it brings, but unless you come together with a common purpose -- accuracy -- it is just fluff.  And fluff won't stand the test of time.

A final theme that was emphasized this year was the need to get DNA tests performed on as many family members as you can afford to test.  The quality of autosomal DNA data continues to improve as the data set grows, and they estimate that it won't be long before there will be enough information to tell you what your 6th great-grandfather looked like, not to mention how many of his descendants are out there, waiting to find you so you can collaborate on finding the paper trail connecting you!

My favorite lectures of the entire conference were both by Dr. Thomas Jones, co-editor of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly and author of Mastering Genealogical Proof.  He said that future generations will benefit tremendously from the advances in technology that we are learning about now.  All the records we spend so much time and energy to find today will be easily available online.  Dr. Jones suggests that unless we are willing to put in the time and effort to document our sources and study the history of our ancestors' lives, our energy might be better spent on accurately and completely capturing all the data we have on our own lives -- and that includes our DNA.

I went to RootsTech from the perspective of a committed genealogist.  I want my research to be thorough, well-documented, and accurate.  I intend to create a reliable product that will stand the test of time.  Simultaneously, I recognize that technology helps us satisfy the basic human need for community and connectivity.  Technology also encourages new interest in genealogy, and that can only add to the overall knowledge base.  Furthermore, we have a right to interesting family stories that engage us at a human level -- as Todd Hansen said in his keynote speech, every single one of us has a fascinating story locked up inside.  

So why can't we have both accuracy and an open, interconnected world?