How we got on at Rootstech 2016

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Rootstech reached a new high point this year. For those of you who don’t know the event, it’s the largest family history gathering in the world, held every year in February in Salt Lake City. This year more than 26,000 attended the show. There were hundreds of classes, demos, presentations, workshops, and other events to attend. This was joined by a truly massive exhibit hall with several hundred exhibitors of varying sizes and hues. From small start-up ventures, established service providers, large societies to the four major sponsors (Ancestry, Findmypast, MyHeritage and FamilySearch).

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Paul Manzor at the Eneclann Stand

The whole event is preceded by the Innovator Summit, a one-day gathering of technologists engaged in family history. Its an exciting forum where new software, technology and ideas are presented and debated. What’s unusual is how open all the participants are, no matter which organisation they represent. The Summit ends with a Showdown, where a panel of judges determine the best new ideas, awarding fairly substantial prizes of $100,000. This year’s winner was TapGenes, which has developed tools for tracing any family’s health history, and helping drive preventative medicine for known genetic weaknesses. Other winners included 2nd place Studio by Legacy Republic who have developed technology to digitise photo albums, and 3rd Place Twile who display family trees as a timeline. Twile also won the popular vote too.

There were some very memorable Keynote presentations, but to mention a few, the new CEO of Family Search, Steve Rockwood introduced the entire event. For those of you who don’t know, Family Search is the genealogy arm of the Mormon Church, who invest more than $250 million annually in imaging historic records and helping people with their family history. And all for free.

I can’t leave out Stan Ellsworth, the host of BYU-tv’s hit history series, American Ride, who literally drove onto the stage in a Harley Davidson!

But the outstanding keynote was by David Isay, the founder of StoryCorps. Since 2003 they have been collecting stories, mostly via recorded interviews between participants. While they offer some suggested questions that interviewers/ees can use, one of their principal aims is to allow the parties (usually two people) to talk freely. The results are astonishing. Heartfelt, genuine and open, it seems that normally reticent people will open up with a microphone. David has won the TED prize in 2015, six Peabody Awards and a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. Have a listen and you’ll see why.

The premier social event of Rootstech was undoubtedly the MyHeritage Party held on Friday night featuring games, dancing and the unexpected pleasure of hearing Bruce Drurie singing!

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As for big announcements and exhibitor presence, first prize must go to Findmypast. In case you think I’m guilty of favouritism, their booth featured a 16 foot high image of the wedding of John F. Kennedy to Jackie Bouvier in 1953. This was to announce their new project to create the largest online collection of U.S. Marriages from 1650-2010 with over 100 million records this year. They went onto announce a huge number of new partnerships in the sector, including RootsMagic, Legacy Family Tree, Family-Historian, Puzzilla, Billion Graves and RootsCity, to name a few.

But the big news this year, in my opinion, is the rapid componentisation of the online family history space. Several innovators are developing components that can added to any web site, like family trees, timelines, data, etc. So I would predict than in the near future online genealogy sites will be assembled from off-the-shelf components rather than being developed as a proprietary technology for a specific site.

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Brian Donovan giving one of many talks at the event

What about Ireland and Irish family history? I hear you say. Well there were only two presentations by speakers from Ireland, myself and John Grenham. We each gave one, mine on the Irish record collection at Findmypast, and John’s on the twists and turns that have brought so many free resources online.

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Brian Donovan with Senator Jillian Van Turnhout

The only exhibit which travelled to the event from Ireland was Eneclann, represented excellently as always by my colleagues Paul and Laura (well done!). The Ulster Historical Foundation had a stand too, staffed by a solitary (and overworked!) local supporter. We were all mobbed with enthusiastic attendees proving once more that the appetite for Irish family history is huge. I was also delighted to see our own Senator Jillian van Turnhout there too. I’m sure she’ll bring this message home.

To finish on my highlight. On Friday, at the Findmypast sponsored lunch, I was able to announce to the several hundred guests that in March Findmypast will release an index to the Irish Catholic Parish Registers. This will include all 10 million records that appear on the images published by the National Library of Ireland last July. Now that’s something to look forward too.

Brian Donovan

 


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