Feb 23, 2011

US Census-Google Maps Mashup

It'll be a long, long time before the 2010 US Census is released in a format useful to genealogists. But that's not preventing some programmers from creating cool mashups of the demographic data already available. Two such mashups are described at the Google Maps Mania blog. This is much easier with recent census data, since its initial release is already a digital format. When the 1940 US Census is released next year (to the jubilation of genealogists everywhere), it'll still take some time to be indexed.

I'm working on a Google Maps mashup myself, to overcome problems encountered in my research. Trying to find historical places that either no longer exist or the borders around it have changed, is usually a multiple step process. My goal is to be able to search the map by place and year in one step. Right now, I don't plan to incorporate census data, but I may experiment with it once I have a working prototype. It mostly depends if I can get API-level access to a census index. FamilySearch has an API to their database, but I haven't had a chance to look into it yet.

Feb 22, 2011

"There is no purity of race; it doesn't exist"

The headline is a quote from Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr, in a speech he gave last week at Northwestern University. (I embedded a YouTube video with short excerpts after the jump.) I'm not going to comment much on the incident a couple years ago when he was arrested at his home, beyond the fact that lots of similar incidents happen every day in America. I think it's silly it made national news, and led to the so-called beer summit at the White House. That being said, I've read several articles by Gates in the past, and found him a thoughtful scholar, especially writing in a field where so many others spew vitriol and post-modernist mumbo-jumbo. Also in the speech, he debunked some myths about African American genealogy.

In the distant past, many so-called scientists conducted research with the likely purpose, and pre-ordained results, that Europeans, or a more specific ethnicity, were somehow racially superior to others. I bring this up only because the vast majority of our DNA, greater than 99%, is common to all humans. We're genetically far more alike than we are different.

I had my DNA tested at Family Tree DNA last year, which had some interesting results, but few matches so far. Then I read Megan Smolenyak and Ann Turner's book, Trace Your Roots with DNA, which explains the basic principles and how to apply it to genealogy. Since then, I've been reading (skimming mostly) lots of academic papers by geneticists and anthropologists. Many anthropologists and archaeologists do discuss racial characteristics they use to distinguish different groups, by investigating both skeletons and living people, but they're using race in a very clinical, scientific sense.

Unfortunately, however, race as it's used in popular culture is not that narrow. American culture–especially the media–seems to be obsessed with race. Gates has been doing good work, both academic and popular, which upends many pre-conceived notions of race. I agree with his thesis; I'd even extend it to say that ethnic, cultural, and language purity are also complete fiction, but I'll leave those for future posts. America truly is a melting-pot, and most of us are what I call mutts. (I'm not referring to anyone's looks, just our mixed heritage.)

My skin is about as white as could be (especially after the long Minnesota winter), but what does that have to do with being Caucasian? I have no known ancestors from the Caucasus region. Why are we still even using that term? At least the US Census has stopped. There was a recent article in the New York Times, on racial identification among young people of mixed-race. The 2000 US Census was the first one people could select multiple answers to the race question. I have my own solution to the problem. On question 9 of the 2010 US Census, I simply checked "Some other race," and wrote in Human.

Feb 19, 2011

RootsTech 2011 Review

As I mentioned in my first post, I recently returned from the inaugural RootsTech conference. Over the next few weeks, I intend to write several individual posts on the sessions I attended and what I learned from them, or the kind of ideas they gave me. But first, I want to give my broad impressions of the conference as a whole.

Stereotypical genealogist
Overall, RootsTech was a great success. Especially considering it was their first attempt bringing these two, seemingly disparate elements together for one conference. Genealogy and technology might appear strange bedfellows to some people. Stereotypes about genealogy brings to mind images of really old people, searching through musty books with a magnifying glass, trying to prove their lineage from an illustrious ancestor, so they can join some exclusive society.
Stereotypical technology workerOn the other hand, technology is often seen as the domain of young, male nerds who stare at computer screens all day at work, play video games all night, and speak to each other in Klingon or an Elvish language. While there are grains of truth in these descriptions, both fields are far more diverse than outsiders realize.

Both sides also happen to be long-standing hobbies of mine. I've worked in the technology industry in the past, and now I'm thinking of ways I might make a living at genealogy. Combining the two was perfectly logical, almost obvious, to my way of thinking. When I first heard about RootsTech, I knew I had to attend it. I've never been to an actual genealogy conference before, but I've attended a few meetings of state and local genealogical societies, and frequented several history and technology conferences. In my (admittedly limited) experience, most people who go to genealogy events in Minnesota are members of the "greatest generation," or close in age. I've been, by far, the youngest person at every meeting I've been to here (by probably 10 or 20 years if I had to guess). The demographic at RootsTech was quite different, with ages ranging from babies in strollers to a rumored centenarian attendee. There were even plenty of people younger than me. I think many of the techies at the conference were already interested in genealogy, and many of the genealogists were already tech-savvy. As in any large group of people, there was a broad range of knowledge on both topics. People who attend conferences like this are already interested, and the enthusiasm showed. The environment at the RootsTech was closer to big technology conferences I've been to. I like going to history conferences too, but they're usually more staid and "serious." I think the mix was just about right for exchanging ideas. It's been over for a week now, and the buzz still hasn't died down.

The only major complaint I had about RootsTech was the session schedule. I had difficulty figuring out what many of the sessions were really about from the vague titles on the website. Most conferences I've attended posted schedules long beforehand, with either detailed descriptions for each session, or at least enough information from context so you can figure out what it's about. But I'm not going to dwell on this. It was one of the top comments to the organizers; I'm sure they'll fix it before next year's RootsTech.

I can't help but make a few comparisons to one of my favorite conferences, the International Congress on Medieval Studies. It's the largest gathering of medievalists in the world, held annually in Kalamazoo, Michigan, for the last 45 years. Although it has a large head start, the average attendance was equaled by RootsTech in its first year! Admittedly, the audience and focus are very different, it's strictly an academic conference, and the topics must all be related to the Middle Ages. But I can't help but think many of the attendees from either conference would thoroughly enjoy the other. Another complaint I have is much more frivolous. Once I received the detailed schedule, there were too many sessions that sounded interesting. During most time slots, I had a hard time choosing between them.

I also want to say a little bit about Salt Lake City. I've driven across Utah in the past, but this was my first visit to its capital. I must say the weather was nice. When I left Minnesota, it was -5˚ F, so it was already 40˚ warmer as soon as I stepped off the plane. Getting from the airport to downtown wasn't fun, since the hotel I stayed at doesn't offer airport shuttle service, and I didn't feel like paying for a taxi. I ended up riding the bus, without knowing exactly where it goes, or where I needed to get off. I ended up dragging my luggage several blocks around downtown searching for my hotel. It looks like they're constructing more rails in the direction of the airport. Based on <SARCASM>extensive research</SARCASM>: they're extending the train to the airport, with an estimated completion of 2012 or 2013. Alas, probably not soon enough for next year.

There's more I'd like to say, but I'm going to leave it there for now. I've already been working on this post for a few days, and there are another half dozen posts in draft, about individual sessions and such. If I wait until I'm completely satisfied with the content and writing of my posts, I'd never publish them. I'm sort of a perfectionist like that.

Feb 16, 2011

Initial RootsTech 2011 Reaction

I've been reading other bloggers thoughts on RootsTech, and ran across this interesting post: Beyond Genealogy: RootsTech 2011: Was it a Smashing Success? He proposes a few metrics how the influence of RootsTech can be measured going forward:
First, RootsTech has clearly created a buzz in the genealogy industry. On Sunday, I googled "rootstech" and there were 29,600 hits. This morning, I repeated the search and there were 35,400 hits. Right now (3:00 PM EST), there are 37,700 hits. And the amount of chatter on Facebook and Twitter is also remarkable. For RootsTech to be considered a "success", this needs to last for more than a week or so.
That's pretty amazing the hits are increasing so fast, but it may just be how Google's crawler is finding and indexing the pages. I know exactly what he means about the duration of excitement though. Gathering large groups of people in one place, with a shared passion, can be intoxicating. But as soon as everyone gets home, and real life hits them on the head, enthusiasm starts to fade.
I'd like to challenge everyone who attended RootsTech 2011 to make a list of the ideas generated by your attendance at the conference and/or whenever you release a new feature/product/service in the next twelve months, be sure to mention that it resulted from a conversation(s) held at the show.
I plan on doing exactly that. Some of my ideas pre-date RootsTech, but I've further fleshed them out based on sessions I attended and people I talked with. As I make progress, I'll be sure to post about them here.
It would be interesting if someone at FamilySearch was charged with the task of tracking every new blog (as announced by Thomas MacEntee on Geneabloggers) to see if the blog creator had attended RootsTech 2011. The result would be a very tangible indicator of RootsTech's influence on the blogging sector.
Count me among the newly inspired bloggers. I've hemmed and hawed for years about starting my own blog, but one concern or another triggered my natural inclination towards procrastination. I'm committed to posting regularly, and I already have lots of ideas to write about. Later, I'll post my overall review of the conference, then get into the details.

Feb 15, 2011


Welcome to my genealogy blog. I'm a single, male, thirty-something genealogist in Minnesota. To be honest, I hate writing about myself. It's much easier to write in the third person, and not have to start every other sentence with 'I' or 'my.' I'd rather write about almost anything substantive, than about me. But I guess an introduction post is almost considered obligatory.

I've been interested in genealogy for over 20 years, and started seriously researching my family tree in about 1995. It's one of the many hobbies I've indulged, off and on, since then. Recently, I've been employed only part-time, so I've found myself spending inordinate amounts of time researching my family history.

I just returned from the inaugural RootsTech conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, and decided I had lots to write about. Initially, I'm going to use this blog to process everything I learned, or got ideas from, at RootsTech. It'll also serve as a sort of research log, which up to this point I haven't been keeping. I'll periodically review other events, books, software, etc., and write about any other random issues I encounter in my research.

I've contemplated starting my own blog for some time, but never had the gumption until now. There are several blogs on a variety of subjects I frequently read, and occasionally comment on. My other interests range widely, so a single blog concerning them all would seem scatterbrained, or even schizophrenic. My posts here may go off on tangents from time to time, but they'll all be related to genealogy, somehow.

One final note: I hope the name I've chosen for my blog doesn't seem presumptuous. I'm not trying to claim any degree of sanction for or by the state of Minnesota. It's just a convenient description of who and what I am, and nobody else had taken the name yet. :) Besides, I wasn't creative enough to come up with something original. My immediate ancestors have lived in Minnesota for at least the past four generations, and some lines have been here for six. However, like most Americans, all my ancestors immigrated here from somewhere else, so the area of my research and topics of my posts will be much wider.