Finding 'My Tree' Within FamilySearch Family Tree's 'Our Tree' - Outline


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FamilySearch’s Family Tree is an important step forward in open collaboration with the ultimate goal of a single tree of all mankind. While a powerful paradigm, many crave better visibility into their portion of “Our Tree”. This is an outline for the accompanying presentation showing how existing features and new research can help uncover “My Tree” within the larger Family Tree.

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Finding 'My Tree' Within FamilySearch Family Tree's 'Our Tree' - Outline

  1. 1. Finding ‘My Tree’ Within FamilySearch Family Tree’s ‘Our Tree’ Ben Baker – Sr. Software Engineer on Family Tree To view and download the accompanying presentation slides, please go to What is Family Tree and Why Do People Refer to Family Tree as ‘Our Tree’? FamilySearch Family Tree is a collection of about 1 billion person profiles in a single shared database. Family Tree is free to use and available to anyone with a free FamilySearch account. Because Family Tree is a single tree and any user can edit information on most persons, changes made by one user will be reflected to all users. In this manner, Family Tree is wiki-like. Similar to Wikipedia, Family Tree is maintained by volunteers and changes made to data on pages is reflected to all users and change tracked. Some of the main reasons for a common tree, “Our Tree”, is to reduce duplication of effort and increase collaboration. Information added to Family Tree will also outlive any researcher contributing to it. We can all go further faster by working together when sharing information and comparing our research. If Family Tree is ‘Our Tree’, what do you mean by finding ‘My Tree’ within it? When I talk of finding ‘My Tree’ within Family Tree, I am not referring to working outside of Family Tree in PAF or some other desktop records manager. Family Tree product manager Ron Tanner has coined the term ‘my-tree-itus’ to refer to users who are not comfortable with other users modifying ‘their’ data and buying into the ‘Our Tree’ concept. I agree that ‘my-tree-itus’ is common among many researchers and not the most effective way to move the work forward. Instead, this presentation will focus on ways to achieve better visibility into a particular user’s portion of ‘Our Tree’. While the goal of FamilySearch Family Tree is to produce a single well-sourced tree of all mankind, not all of the persons in Family Tree are related to any particular user very closely. There are some existing features as well as new research that can help uncover ‘Your Tree’. I’ve had people ask me or others I know questions like “Can’t I just print out my family from Family Tree?” and “Can’t I export all of my relatives from Family Tree?” I believe this type of questions underscores a yearning for features to better expose and work with those persons closest to the user. One may wonder how many of the 1 billion persons in Family Tree are really related to me. You have a maximum of 2046 direct line ancestors back 10 generations (likely into 1700s). Assuming all of these 1023 couples had 5 children who married and had 5 children (i.e. 25 grandchildren), there are a maximum of 204,600 persons in this group. Of course you haven’t found them all yet or you wouldn’t be at this conference. Regardless even using 200,000 persons and assuming overall duplication of persons in Family Tree at a liberal 50%, this represents only 0.04% of the number of people in Family Tree. In other words, you aren’t very closely related to the vast majority of persons in Family Tree.
  2. 2. Some Ways to Find ‘Your Tree’ within Family Tree 1. Get the big picture of your closest relatives by printing out charts Printing a chart is a simple way to see who is in ‘Your Tree’ and can be a functional and/or artistic way to display your relatives. Family Tree and many other web sites support producing many different kinds of charts from Family Tree data. Family Tree offers several different chart printouts from a person profile page or any of the tree views, including the following: a. Standard LDS pedigree charts and family group sheets prefilled with data. Many patrons have found these forms useful to save and print. These forms can also be edited after they have been created. b. A 7-generation color fan chart c. A new portrait pedigree printout highlighting photos of your family 2. View memories of persons related to you The Memories section of provides a way to upload photos, stories and documents. These memories can be linked to persons in Family Tree providing additional depth to the profile of these persons. When selecting the People tab within the Memories section, you will likely see many photos of persons that were uploaded, tagged and linked by others. Warning: this can be highly addictive to see many photos and read stories of your family you may not have seen before. The system is showing you persons four generations above you along with their spouses, children and grandchildren. When clicking on any of these persons, you will see a “View my relationship” link which will open a box showing how you are related to the person. We hope to expand this functionality to other places on the site and on a larger set of people in ‘Your Tree’ in the future. 3. Use the watch list for watching, navigating and filtering your relatives Any person in Family Tree can be watched. Doing this will add them to your watch list which can be viewed by going to the Lists tab in Family Tree. You will receive weekly e-mails of changes made to these persons by yourself and others, providing a way to connect with living relatives also working in your lines and to ensure the integrity of data in ‘Your Tree’. In addition to the features around notification of changes to watched persons, the watch list can be used for other powerful purposes. First, it can simply be a way to navigate to a distant relative you’ve been working on so you don’t have to remember their relation to you every time you log in. Additionally, two powerful features recently added to the watch list are the ability to filter and sort.
  3. 3. Any text can be entered into the Filter text box when viewing the watch list. Results in the watch list with this string will remain and any without the text will be filtered out. For example, if I want to see all of the people in my watch list with the surname of Tolman I simply type Tolman into the Filter text box and I will see the Tolmans in the people I am watching. This text doesn’t have to be a name, either. It can be used to see all persons you’re watching who were born or died in a particular place or in a particular year. Similarly, sorting can be used to sort by name, birth, death and more, making it possible to more easily find a particular person you’ve been researching. I hope that someday a “relation to me” column will also be present on the watch list that can be sorted by closeness, making this feature even more powerful. In the meantime, I recommend using the filtering and sorting features to help work more effectively with your relatives in Family Tree. 4. Use the history list dropdown to revisit persons you’ve viewed recently Similar to the way many patrons use the watch list to navigate quickly to relatives in their tree, Family Tree keeps a history list of the 50 persons most recently visited. Since you often visit your own relatives the most, this is a simple way to jump directly to them quickly. The history list is available as a drop down next to the Tree and Person tabs in Family Tree. 5. Use other views to view your family in other ways and directions Many users are not aware that there are more ways to view their family than the Traditional pedigree view. They are each better suited for different purposes. The other views currently include:  Descendancy - Useful for descendancy research which is often the most effective way to find new people who need LDS temple work. New icon indicators also provide powerful ways to see where work across an entire family still needs to be done.  Fan Chart – Useful for seeing more generations on a screen at once  Portrait – Useful to see the portraits of your relatives reminding you they are real people, not just names, dates and places. 6. Use a desktop records manager to synchronize with Family Tree Many great researchers have spent years doing genealogical research and documenting it in desktop records managers such as PAF, RootsMagic, Ancestral Quest and many more. Many of these records managers provide features to synchronize with Family Tree data. Doing this can help to identify discrepancies in Family Tree data that should be corrected and point out people who should be added to Family Tree. Many desktop managers also provide powerful features to support your genealogical research not available in Family Tree itself. Changes made in these programs will be synchronized to Family Tree.
  4. 4. Pulling data from Family Tree into a desktop records manager also provides a method to export data to a GEDCOM file. 7. GEDCOM upload is not evil and can be very useful Due to some past problems with duplication created from uploading GEDCOM files, many people believe doing so is still a bad thing. However, this is simply no longer true. First off, no persons are automatically added to the tree when uploading a GEDCOM file. Second, matching algorithms check to see which persons in your file are already in the tree to avoid re-adding duplicate persons. Similar to using a desktop records manager, uploading a GEDCOM provides an ability to identify persons not already in the tree that should be added. Future features will likely make working with an uploaded GEDCOM easier to use and more powerful. I also recommend uploading a GEDCOM if you have done significant research, even if it is very large, because it is a simple way to help your years of research live on beyond your life. While today’s features may not make it easy to use, uploading a GEDCOM will share your work with others instead of hoping someone will find your file and use it themselves. New research to improve the ability to identify and work with your closest relatives Because of my own frustrations with a lack of ability to see into and work effectively with ‘My Tree’ in Family Tree, I have been working on a side project that provides a method for retrieving a sorted list of relatives including direct, collateral and relatives through marriages. I hope to see this work incorporated into future FamilySearch products. The algorithm consists of computing distance from a base person in terms of generational or “vertical” distance, collateral or “horizontal” distance and marriage distance which is the number of marriages between the base person and another person. These distances are combined in an equation that computes a single distance I call Weighted Relationship Distance for each relative. The idea of this distance is to provide a single metric that can be used for sorting and prioritization of tasks of relatives throughout a user’s tree. I was personally able to identify several persons my parents had previously researched that were fairly closely related to me, not in Family Tree yet and therefore still needed LDS temple ordinances. To participate in an alpha test and receive an Excel spreadsheet back with your relatives sorted by closeness, please send a GEDCOM file to along with the person you’d like to compute the relationships from (most likely yourself). I’d also appreciate any feedback on how well this approach helps you to focus on your family as well as to organize and accomplish your genealogical research.