When genealogy meets technology

The Rootstech 2012 T-shirt ‘Digital dude’

I can’t think of a more appropriate subject for my first blog post than technology and genealogy. I recently returned from two weeks in Salt Lake City, during which time I attended the second annual Rootstech conference, a major event bringing together genealogists and the developers who design the sites, software and gadgets to which we have become addicted. Last year Rootstech attracted over 3000 attendees, and this year there were about 4500.

The keynote speakers were introduced as though they were rock stars or sports stars, accompanied by loud music and fancy lighting effects. As befits a technology event the three keynote sessions were streamed live online, and people in the hall were comparing notes with virtual attendees all over the world, via Twitter and Facebook. Following the #Rootstech hashtag, I spotted comments in at least four languages other than English. These sessions and a number of others were also recorded, and are available on the Rootstech website. I can particularly recommend Josh Coates on ‘Exabyte Social Clouds and Other Monstrosities’, which was quite a performance.

For the duration of the conference there were about a dozen sessions at any given time. Some were for developers, some for users, and others were aimed at both. Blogging and other kinds of social networking were high on the agenda, and I took part in an international panel discussion on the use of social networking in genealogy, with bloggers from Australia and the USA. As far as I am aware I was the only British presenter outside of the contingent from the brightsolid group of companies.

But for all of the high-profile content of the conference sessions, the centre of the action was the Expo Hall. As you’d expect, the major commercial and non-profit players in the world of genealogy were there, including Ancestry, FamilySearch and brightsolid; at the other end of the scale there were small companies offering a single product or service, like portable scanners or QR codes for gravestones. The centre of the hall was the media hub where a number of Official Bloggers were based, reporting on the event to their followers. There were two glass cubicles for recording audio or video interviews which were in almost constant use, and the results are now on a variety of blogs, podcasts and the like.

The Media Hub wasn’t the only unique feature of the hall, though; there was a small demo area where vendors and developers could demonstrate their products and services, some soft seating areas where you could just sit and chat, and then there was the Microsoft playground. There you could play actual games like table tennis, or get a neck massage. Good for the creative process, apparently.

Amid the buzz and the excitement I didn’t get to as many sessions as I would have liked, but the contacts that you make and the things you learn outside the official sessions can be just as valuable. You can record and live-stream lots of things, but you can’t reproduce the kind of social networking that happens face to face. It was a conference with an emphasis on technology, that’s for sure, but it just goes to show that technology needn’t replace the human and personal element, it can enhance it too.


  1. Penny Holt says:

    Ironic. It was all about technology, but still face-to-face was the best. I got a lot out of RootsTech, but certainly networking was the most important. I saw you at the International Panel and thought you were great. After WDYTYA Live, I’d love to see a blog comparing the UK and US way of doing things.

    1. Audrey Collins says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed Rootstech as much as I did, and thank you for your kind comment about the international panel, we had a lot of fun doing it too. I saw quite a number of people at Who Do You Think You Are?-Live that I had last seen earlier in the month at Rootstech, and some of them made interesting comparisons between the two events. I agree that a comparison between the UK and US ways of researching and networking would be a good subject for a future post, thank you for suggesting it.

  2. Brian Swann says:

    The ubiquitous Audrey Collins!

    It will indeed be interesting to discuss with you after WDYTYA where all this might go, Audrey – and the US / UK Differences.

    And I would just broaden our horizons now and include Europe.

    1. Audrey Collins says:

      Brian, it was good to be able to catch up with you at Who Do You Think You Are?-Live recently. DNA is becoming more and more significant in genealogical research, although those of us with a liberal arts/humanities background are having to concentrate very hard to get up to speed with the science. My own scientific qualifications don’t extend beyond O-Level biology (and the fact that it was an O-Level rather than a GCSE will give you a clue that it was quite a long time ago).

  3. Patricia Weiss says:

    I would be very interested in the US/Europe diffences. Research is much harder in the US because of the lack of documentation. Many of us have started participating in Y-DNA family groups trying to trace our ancestors back to Europe or elsewhere. How may I follow your discussions?

    1. Audrey Collins says:

      As you will see from the other comments on my post, there is likely to be a lot of interest in looking at the way genealogists operate in different countries. I will try to write something about this in the near future. I have already been discussing this with some American genealogists, and following a number of their blogs too, to see what they make of British research and British genealogists. I believe we only realise just how much we take for granted in our own records when we start looking at those of another country.

  4. Anne Ramon says:

    Hi Audrey. Thanks for the update on the conference – it sounds like it was really interesting and informative. Do you know of any UK or European equivalent gatherings? Maybe there are Meet-up groups?

    1. Audrey Collins says:

      Anne, I’m not aware of anything like Rootstech, even on a small scale, in the UK or Europe. Rootstech itself attracts attendees from all over the world, both in person and online. I don’t know if a similar event on this side of the Atlantic would be able to attract such great numbers, or even if there is an organisation willing and able to put in the amount of time and money that FamilySearch devote to Rootstech. I’d be very happy to be proved wrong, though, and I would definitely be interested in attending one.

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