Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, LDS)

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Big Data and the FamilySearch Family Tree: How Accurate Can It Be?

The term "Big Data" is used to describe extremely large data sets that may be analyzed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behavior and interactions. If you think about this definition, especially the references to associations and interactions, you might think that the unified Family Tree falls into the definition. Here are some statistics that would give you the impression that working with the website and in particular, the Family Tree,  has crossed into the realm of Big Data. These statistics come from a recent presentation by FamilySearch and are as of March 2019.
  • Number of Searchable names in the Historical Records   7.01 Billion
  • Digital images published in FamilySearch's Historic Collections online  1.37 Billion
  • Digital Images published only in the FamilySearch Catalog online  1.014 Billion
  • Number of searchable records  4.66 Billion
  • Registered FamilySearch users  12.4 million
Usually, we think of Big Data in terms of information currently being generated and stored. However, in the case of FamilySearch, the information being accumulated is both current and historical. Much of the concern about Big Data is its accuracy and likewise, a significant amount of concern has been expressed over the years about the accuracy of online family trees in general and in particular the accuracy of the FamilySearch Family Tree.

Because the Family Tree is a wiki, I have always maintained that over time, the Family Tree will become more accurate. This works in specific areas, but how will it continue to work if as the Family Tree continues to grow and the number of sources and Memories added continue to grow rapidly? Some of the challenges faced by the Family Tree are hardware issues that relate to the cost and complexity of maintaining a huge online database. But more fundamentally from the standpoint of the users, the issue of accuracy in the data faces the development of significant accuracy and consistency issues. For users, the issues of accuracy and duplication of entries are paramount.

From a software engineering and database management standpoint, accuracy and error management focus almost exclusively on the hardware and the programming. This is sometimes referred to as "fault tolerance." Fault Tolerance is the ability of the infrastructure to continue providing service to underlying applications even after the failure of one or more component pieces in any layer.  See "What is fault-tolerance in cloud computing?" The actual structure of the Family Tree and the rest of the website is actually robust and well developed. The distinguishing factor of the Family Tree is that unlike the usual Big Data operation where the accuracy of the content is analyzed statistically, the tolerance for a margin of error in the Family Tree should not be measured assuming an analyzed standard margin of error that is acceptable.

Because the Family Tree is a wiki, no margin of error is in a sense acceptable. We have fundamental religious beliefs supported by scripture that admonish us to work towards not only personal perfection but also perfection in record keeping. Of course, we are forced to rely on imperfect and incomplete historical records, but the idea of working towards perfection should be ingrained into everything that pertains to the Family Tree. Notwithstanding this religious motivational standard, the Family Tree is still Big Data and prone to some of the same issues as other collections of Big Data. In the world of Big Data, these issues are identified under the heading of Data Quality.

If we look at the Family Tree as a formal data system, we should recognize that it has a very specific internal structure, something that is not present in most very large data sets. Everything in the Family Tree has an assigned virtual location i.e. every individual who has been born or will be born has a specific virtual location within the Family Tree. The wiki format allows the Family Tree to grow exponentially and still maintain the same structure. Granted, some component data parts of the Family Tree are not connected together but that problem is not the fault of the structure, it is the fault of the accuracy and completeness of the data. Over time and with extensive upgrading of software systems that detect duplication and provide improved and reliable record matching capabilities, the Family Tree can increase its overall accuracy. This process can be prodded along by enhancements in the software that detect common errors and suggest more accurate responses.

The accuracy of the entire structure of the Family Tree depends solely upon the accuracy of each entry for each individual. The process of "adding names" should never override the need for accuracy. There are currently some developments that are affecting genealogy and thereby affecting the entries in the Family Tree. One of these is the spread of individual DNA tests. Another is the increasing availability of digitized source documents. With respect to DNA tests, the reliability of the initial entries in the Family Tree such as the first four generations could be measurably helpful in increasing the overall accuracy of the Family Tree.

To the extent that the individual users of the Family Tree maintain high standards of accuracy and support their entries with information from reliable historical records, the overall accuracy of the Family Tree should continue to improve. The challenge for the individual is simply to make each entry as accurate as possible and then the overall accuracy of the Family Tree will continue to grow despite the limitations on accuracy imposed by the reality of Big Data. The efforts of the users can continue to be supported by programmed error detection systems such as the Consistency Checker developed by

Judging the overall accuracy of the Family Tree by spot checking specific entries is bound to be misleading. Yes, it is certain that the overall accuracy of the Family Tree is highly dependent on individual choices, but collectively the wiki format allows users to spontaneously change or correct entries. One simple step that would increase the accuracy would be to continue to implement an automated consistency detection system which I realize is already a concern of the programmers, but in addition, a concerted education system for the users would also be appropriate and helpful.  

Saturday, May 25, 2019

What is "Your" Family Tree? A New Addition to the Basic Rules of Genealogy

I frequently see genealogically oriented blog posts and advertisements that refer to "your family tree." and as I thought about this use of an ownership term, I decided that it was time to add a twelfth rule to the Basic Rules of Genealogy. If you are not familiar with the Basic Rules of Genealogy, I suggest you review the following blog posts:
I published the first six Rules of Genealogy back on July 1, 2014. See "Six of the Basic Rules of Genealogy." This short list included the most famous and basic rule of genealogy: "When the baby was born, the mother was there." I added four rules in a post back on August 11, 2017, entitled, "New Rules Added to the old: The Rules of Genealogy Revisited." Summer must be my time for thinking of new rules. You can go back to these two original posts to read about the details of each rule.
Then I added one more rule back on August 2, 2018, in this blog post, "A New Rule Added: The Rules of Genealogy Revisited Again." Now it is time to add yet another rule. Here is the list for reference:
Here is a list of those original six rules from 2014:
  • Rule One: When the baby was born, the mother was there.
  • Rule Two: Absence of an obituary or death record does not mean the person is still alive.
  • Rule Three: Every person who ever lived has a unique birth order and a unique set of biological parents.
  • Rule Four: There are always more records.
  • Rule Five: You cannot get blood out of a turnip. 
  • Rule Six: Records move. 
In 2017, I added these four rules:
  • Rule Seven: Water and genealogical information flow downhill
  • Rule Eight: Everything in Genealogy is connected (butterfly)
  • Rule Nine: There are patterns everywhere
  • Rule Ten: Read the fine print
Well, we now have another rule.
  • Rule Eleven: Even a perfect fit can be wrong
The new rule is easy to remember:

Rule Twelve: You do not own your ancestors

Unless you come from a long line of parents who were both only children and who were all descended from only children, you have a lot of relatives. You may not know who all these people are but you do have a lot of them. In fact, your relatives likely number into the billions. For example, on one of my online family tree programs on, I have more than a 100,000 Smart Matches™that indicate I have about that many relatives who share the information I have on that particular family tree. If you are one of these people who believe you have traced your ancestry back to Adam or whatever, you automatically can claim billions of relatives. So which one of those relatives owns all that potential genealogical information? This "my" and "your" possessive language is not just misleading, it is pernicious and false. I guess you could accurately talk about "my family tree on or if you are referring to the file itself, but the contents of "your" family tree don't belong to you or anyone else.

Here in the United States, we have a very pervasive "ownership" point of view. We add the idea of "my" to almost everything when we will all die and then who owns all those "my" things? Genealogy gives us an open field of things that we cannot even conceptually "own" beginning with our ancestors. We all share our ancestors with all of their descendants. We do not and cannot conceivably "own" anything about our ancestors.

Our legal system in the United States can give us an illusion of ownership, but ultimately, everything we have here on this earth is shared with everyone else who is living and has ever lived, including, but not limited to the air we breathe. Hence, Rule Twelve.

Friday, May 24, 2019

51st annual BYU Conference on Family History and Genealogy
There are classes for all skill levels —whether you’re seasoned in family history or just beginning. We also offer more than 20 different tracks, so you can learn about what interests you most.

I will be teaching two classes this year at the Conference.

Here’s a sampling of those tracks:

  • Online Research, featuring classes like “Instagram for Genealogists” and “Using Social Media to Solve Your Family History Brick Walls”
  • Military Research, with classes like “Basic Training – Find Your Ancestors in Military Records” and “Researching Your Colonial War Ancestors”
  • Organize, Preserve & Share, including classes like “Fable or Fact? Verifying Old Family Stories” and “Road to Publication”

Monday, May 20, 2019

Exploring Genealogy Series #10 Introduction to

Exploring Genealogy Series #10 Introduction to

This is #10 in the Exploring Genealogy Series. This episode focuses on an introduction to the website. I will be expanding on the exploration of other online websites in the future and be continuing with my focus on

My Exploring Genealogy Series is on my YouTube Channel. Here is the link to the Channel.
Please take a moment to subscribe.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Exploring Genealogy Series #9 Research on the FamilySearch Family Tree #4

Exploring Genealogy Series #9 Research on the FamilySearch Family Tree #4

Yes, this is another in the Exploring Genealogy Series. This video continues with the research of the Alexander Bragg family and I begin my focus on my direct line ancestor Sarah Bragg who apparently has a number of research issues and a possible second marriage. This particular video series documents my thought process in examining a particular family in the Family Tree. Because this is a multipart series, it may seem like I am moving rather slowly, but I am demonstrating each of the issues that need to be addressed when researching a family. From a superficial look at the Family Tree, you might conclude that "all the research had been done" on this family. But as my examination proceeds, you can see all of the issues that come to light including wrongly indexed records and problems with dates and the need to standardize dates and places.

This video, along with the others in this series are on my YouTube Channel.
If you search for the Channel, you need to search for "James Tanner Channel" and then you will see about a half a dozen "james tanners" and you can spot me from my photo. But I will continue to link the channel from these blog posts. If you subscribe to the Channel then you can find it readily from your subscription list on

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Still Waiting for those Golden Years: Avoiding Frauds and Scams

I recently read an article in the Deseret News entitled, "Does Utah deserve the title 'fraud capital of the United States'?" According to the study cited in the article, the answer to the question was yes, Utah is the fraud capital of the United States. I really didn't need a newspaper article to make me aware of that fact. Utah and particularly Utah Valley, where I now live, have had that reputation for many years. The study cited only referred to Ponzi schemes, but there are a lot more frauds out there to catch the unprepared and unwary.

Over the years as a practicing trial attorney in Arizona, I encountered a sizable number of instances of fraud and not surprisingly, quite a few originated in Utah. In fact, some of the first clients I had, right out of law school, were involved in a huge land sales fraud called Lake Havasu Estates.  See "Land Fraud Target of U.S. Crackdown." That particular fraud instigated an overhaul of the land sale regulation in the United States. That particular fraud did not originate in Utah, it involved land in Arizona. It took a while to stop these types of sales. See "18 Indicted in Arizona Land Fraud Costing 10,000 Victims $40 Million." This one was called the Cochise College Park land fraud.

I still fail to understand how so many people can be defrauded of so much money. I was recently in a meeting here in Utah Valley with about 4- or 50 people who were mostly older than I am. The question was asked as to how many of these individuals had lost money due to fraud. To my surprise, I saw more than half of the peoples' hands go up.

I have a naturally inquisitive and suspicious nature. I learned long ago that is an offer or deal seemed too good to be true, it almost always was a fraud or scam. When do sales practices cross over into fraud and scams? When what is being sold or represented has little or no value and may even be detrimental to the buyer. The current classic example is the Nigerian Prince scam. Quoting from the Australian website in an article entitled Nigerian Scams.
Nigerian scams involve someone overseas offering you a share in a large sum of money or a payment on the condition you help them to transfer money out of their country. While these scams originated in Nigeria, they now come from all over the world.
There is a long list of variations on this basic scam. This category of scam is called the "unexpected money or winnings" scam. It has a lot of different forms that include rebate scams and inheritance scams.

The classic Ponzi Scheme involves a proposed investment where the rate of return is much better than what could usually be expected and the first "investors" get a better than expected return which is paid from the subsequent investments of new investors until the entire structure collapses. The challenge of detecting these scams is that the perpetrators are usually people who are either well known to the victims or closely associated with people who are well known. The greed and duplicity of the victim is the core of almost all successful scams and frauds.

If someone steals your money or property without your knowledge or agreement the crime is theft. If you rely on representations made to you and willingly turn over your property and then lose it, that is fraud. A scam is the mechanism for committing a fraud.

So how can you avoid being defrauded?

Obviously, the victims of fraud are more common among those with diminished capacity. But anyone lets emotion overcome reason can be a victim. This is usually the case with frauds committed by people who are in your same religious or social organization. These are called affinity frauds. You trust the person because he or she is a known member of your organization. In every case, the person perpetrating the fraud first gains your trust in some way.

Here are five basic rules for avoiding frauds and scams:

#1 If it sounds too good to true, it probably isn't

High rates of return on investments usually are made by people who understand exactly what is at risk and make a judgment call to invest.

#2 If it is a once in a lifetime opportunity, you probably will lose money on the deal

As I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, there was a common lament; if I had just invested in property along Camelback Road, I would be rich now.  Yes, that would be possibly true but it ignores the fact that some people did invest in property along Camelback Road and other parts of the Salt River Valley and made a lot of money. Why did these people make money when you did not? Probably because they had money to invest and knew enough to invest in land. But as I mentioned above, there were plenty of people who bought land in Arizona and lost all of their investment even when there was not any fraud.

#3 If you have to decide right now or the opportunity will go away, then waiting will save you a lot of grief

Fraudulent schemes almost always come with a deadline for investment with the idea that there will not be enough time for the victim to reflect on the "opportunity" or consult with those who may be able to detect the fraud. If an investment is good today, then it will probably be good tomorrow. If you had purchased stock in Apple Computer years ago, you would be rich today is not the basis for making an investment today. Most sound investment strategies involve investing in a variety of areas that include stocks, real estate, and other time-honored investments.

#4 Don't lend money to relatives with the expectation of every being repaid 

If you do get repaid consider it a bonus. Many frauds are committed by family members. It is possible that your family member has a legitimate investment opportunity, but if he or she does, then they certainly won't mind having their investment proposal reviewed by an attorney and an accountant.

#5 Never give personal or financial information to anyone without knowing exactly who they are and why the information is needed

Most online frauds are based on obtaining personal and financial information from unsuspecting victims. Simply make an ironclad rule that you never give that kind of information to anyone unless you initiate the contact. Even if someone calls representing that they are calling from your bank if you did not initiate the call then terminate the contact immediately and call your bank or whatever directly on a publically available number to verify the contact. What is better is to go to the bank or other institution and ask them about the contact.

This rules will go a long way towards avoiding being defrauded. But remember, stop and think before you act.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Exploring Genealogy Series #8 Researching the FamilySearch Family Tree #3

Exploring Genealogy Series #8 Researching the FamilySearch Family Tree #3

This is a continuation of the Exploring Genealogy Video Series. In this segment, I continue with the research I started on the Family Tree. I find that there are no sources supporting the relationship between the two direct line ancestors I have chosen and I start working my way forward in time to see if there is something connecting Sarah Bragg to her father in the Family Tree.

Thanks for watching this video. Please take a moment to subscribe to my YouTube Channel so you can get notified of new videos as they are uploaded.

The idea with this video sub-series is to demonstrate, in detail, how I examine, correct, and research the entries in the Family Tree. If you would like to request a particular topic or want me to do a video answering a particular question, let me know by posting a comment.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Problem of Hoarding Ordinances on the FamilySearch Family Tree

I was given a recent reminder of the problem of hoarding ordinances on the Family Tree when I read an email raising a question about another user of the Family Tree that had over 28,000 names reserved. I understand the there are users with reserved lists with substantially more names than 28,000 and the highest number I have heard discussed was over 600,000. Despite the difficulty in imagining that anyone could do that much research and verify that many names, there is the basic problem that no one person or family or ward or stake could do that many names in many years.

Recently, there has been some statements, including a presentation by Ron Tanner of FamilySearch, that there will be an imposed limit on the number of names that can be reserved. Numbers like those above also raise some serious issues about the quality of the work being done. I am well aware of people who are doing "private extractions" of thousands of names from European records and I am not doubting their sincerity and dedication, but when the numbers get up into the tens of thousands, I can only question the validity and accuracy of that many records done by the same individual.

There is also a fear that limits will impose some disincentives and slow down the Temple work. But with the Ordinances Ready program, family members are supposed to go online and get their own names so there is no need for a huge reserved list. In fact, with the Ordinances Ready app, family members will likely get the same names that are released or shared with the Temples. The council from some time has been to reserve only as many ordinances as you can be sure to finish in a reasonable amount of time. See

Just recently, the expiration date of the ordinances has been appearing on Temple lists, but there is nothing yet about a number limit. If you start to see a number limit, let me know.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Family History Library to Add Sunday and Longer Monday Hours to Schedule

In an interesting development that has been discussed for some time, the Salt Lake City, Utah Family History Library has announced extended hours and for the first time, Sunday opening. Here is the announcement.
Family History Library to Add Sunday and Longer Monday Hours to Schedule 
The FamilySearch Family History Library, one of Salt Lake City’s top attractions and the world’s largest genealogy library, will extend its hours of operation beginning Sunday, June 2, 2019. For the first time, the main floor of the library, including the FamilySearch Discovery Experiences, will be open on Sundays, from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m., and extended to 9:00 p.m. on Mondays. Regular library hours will be Monday through Saturday from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. The library is free to the public. 
The addition of Sunday hours and extended Monday hours will allow more individuals and families to take advantage of the library’s rich, fun, and interactive discovery activities. On Sundays, services will be limited to the main floor of the library, with its immersive, interactive discovery experiences and 68 computers that provide free access to premium family history websites and digital collections. Guest support will be provided by a research specialist and local consultants. On Monday through Saturday, the library will be fully staffed and will continue to offer full services on all floors. 
“Family history is a family activity,” explained David Rencher, the director of the Family History Library. “We are excited to extend our hours so that families can better connect, discover, and gather their families—both living and dead.” 
Through fun, hands-on activities, the 10,000 square feet of discovery experiences at the Family History Library provide people of all ages a personal way to explore and experience their heritage. The attraction offers more than 100 custom iPads, 44 touch-screen monitors, and 42 computers. Six recording studios enable guests to create free, high-definition audio and video recordings of family members and preserve treasured memories for future generations. 
The library serves hundreds of thousands of guests yearly from all parts of the world. They come specifically seeking elusive ancestors in the family tree or are merely curious to see what they can discover about themselves while passing through Salt Lake City. In addition to free access to the world’s historical genealogical records, the library also offers free family history classes and webinars on various topics and accommodates field trips, bus tours, and group events. 
“We are always looking at ways to make our amazing resources more accessible to our guests and to make their visit to the library more inviting and welcoming,” said Lynn Turner, a manager at the Family History Library. 
The Family History Library is located at 35 North West Temple Street in downtown Salt Lake City, west of Historic Temple Square. The phone number is 1-801-240-6996.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Exploring Genealogy Series #7 Part Two: Researching in the FamilySearch Family Tree

Exploring Genealogy Series #7 Part Two Researching the FamilySearch Family Tree

This is Part Two of my Researching the FamilySearch Family Tree segments of the Exploring Genealogy Series. In this segment, I start to get into some of the major challenges of working with the FamilySearch Family Tree. By examining the details of the entries, I find out that there are some children in my target family that were added by FamilySearch with the Internation Genealogical Index or IGI records. I also find a mistake in the indexing of a record that refers to another direct line ancestor. This is only the beginning of this series and I am sure I will find more problems and challenges to resolve. By watching me work on these entries, you can see exactly how I approach each problem.

This is an ongoing part of the Exploring Genealogy Series and you are invited to subscribe.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

More Show Me Videos on The Family History Guide
Show Me videos are relatively short audio and visual illustrations of each the Goals in The Family History Guide. Here is a screenshot of where they are found on the website.

The blog post mentions six of the Show Me videos, but there are more being completed every few days. Here is the list of the six that are posted as of the date of this post.

  • Projects Overview—How to navigate the Goals and Choices in the Projects of The Family History Guide.
  • Project 1: Goal 1—Learn FamilySearch Project 1, Goal 1, including sign-in, basic navigation, and privacy rules.
  • Project 1: Goal 2—Learn about Summary Cards, Person Pages, charts, and Time Lines.
  • Project 1: Goal 3—Learn about viewing details for children and spouses, as well as the Family Members section of the Person Page.
  • Project 1: Goal 4—Learn to use the Find menu and Recents menu to quickly locate people in your tree.
  • Project 1: Goal 5—Learn how to use alternate views, such as Portrait, Fan Chart, Virtual Pedigree, etc.
The Show Me videos follow the text of the website in a narrative format. We have elected to use a computer-generated voice because it will be easier over time to update the videos. Here is our YouTube Channel.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Exploring Genealogy Series #6 Part One Research in the FamilySearch Family Tree

Exploring Genealogy Series #6 Part One Research in the FamilySearch Family Tree

This is #6 in the Exploring Genealogy Series. In this segment, I start with Part One of the Researching in the FamilySearch Family Tree sub-series. I thought I would explain in detail all of the steps I go through to begin and continue researching a family in the Family Tree starting with standardizing dates and places and continuing through the entire process of correcting the entries, adding sources, and whatever else comes up during the process.

Be sure and subscribe to my YouTube Channel for notification of future segments. Here is the link.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Exploring Genealogy Series #5 Tree Sweeper

Exploring Genealogy Series #5 Tree Sweeper

Tree Sweeper is a program from the Brigham Young University Family History Technology Lab that helps to find inconsistencies and errors in the Family Tree. Although it is primarily directed at members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it is a great step forward in helping all of the users of the Family Tree to improve the information in their part of the Family Tree.

This video is part of an ongoing series of videos I am uploading to my own YouTube Channel. Here is a link to the Channel and of course, you are invited to subscribe.
You can also view my videos as part of The Family History Guide website.

The Family History Guide
The Family History Guide has its own YouTube Channel. Here is a link.

The Family History Guide YouTube Channel
In addition, there are over 100 of my videos on the Brigham Young University (BYU) Family History Library YouTube Channel.

BYU Family History Library YouTube Channel