Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Helping Others To Keep Remembering

I have always been a sucker for classic simplicity. So when I ran across an ingenious system for aggregating data in one resource genealogy researchers always need, I was hooked.

The very message that first introduced me to BillionGraves convinced me I was going to like this system. See for yourself from their explanation posted on YouTube.

Streamlined. People like me for whom snail mail was made anathema thanks to the now ubiquitous reach of email should really like the BillionGraves concept. I have all sorts of good intentions—and the piles of cemetery photographs still languishing in some drawer in my office to prove it. I meant well, Find-A-Grave!

And I mean well when I try to encourage others to join me in remembering to give back. For all the volunteer help that benefited us as we struggled through that genealogic learning curve, we certainly can afford to do our part and volunteer to give back to the community.

Especially now. With Memorial Day fresh on my mind, I woke up early yesterday and dragged my family with me to a local cemetery to beat the rush. I wanted to try out my new BillionGraves app. We did an experiment, since we are a divided family—divided, that is, over whether to prefer the Android or the iPhone version of smart-phonedness.

Here’s how our experiment went, so far. The Droid is ahead, 1 – 0, by the way.

First, my husband, the proud owner of the HTC Inspire Android, downloaded the free BillionGraves app from Google Play. That was easy.

Then, my daughter whipped out her trusty iPhone and checked out the iTunes Store, where she quickly located Apple's version of the BillionGraves app.

And waited.

Before you are quick to say, “Strike one!” let me add that my husband co-opted my BillionGraves user name, which allowed him to sign in quickly. My daughter had to create her own account. Perhaps that is where we got snagged. Maybe she should have done that ahead of time.

We hopped in the car and made the breezy five minute drive to the closest cemetery. As we pulled up to the main entrance, I have to say that the flags were breath-taking. The grounds were transformed for their Memorial Day ceremonies, with immense flags lining both sides of the streets within the Memorial Park. Smaller flags dotted the grounds designating each veteran buried there. There were so many lives of service to commemorate!

I wanted to start our test-run project at the point of one specific grave. I’ve mentioned before about my first husband, who died young of a rare disorder. As far as I was concerned, that was step number one in this journey for me.

There is no way I want to fool anyone—including myself—that I am any good at photography. Besides that handicap, I also have never tangled with “smart” phones because they make me look perfectly dumb. I can’t read the display. So here I am at this cemetery in broad daylight—the stuff I thought was necessary for a good picture—and I find that the bright light washes out the display even more. So much for me being the guinea pig in this experiment.

My husband graciously took my place as experiment subject, and started snapping away.

We encountered some glitches. First, the whole gig is based on connection with a GPS system. For some reason, after clicking the first shot, we couldn’t proceed to photograph number two. The GPS system suddenly lost track of us—standing right here, two steps over from the first headstone we had just captured! We waited. We moved around. We waved the camera in the air. Nothing changed. We were stuck.

Oh. There it goes! Why? I have no idea. But we’re up and running again.

And so it went, stopping, stumbling, then breezing through the rest of the row until the whole puzzle descended mysteriously upon us once again. After two rows of photographs, we decided we had achieved our purpose in giving BillionGraves a test drive.

Meanwhile, what of the Apple?

Tick. Tick. Tick. Still waiting for the download to complete. Something got gummed up. Or was it the fact that the email confirmation for the newly-acquired BillionGraves user account was delayed by Google? Yeah, it was the gmail account, surely!

While waiting to give the iPhone one last chance to redeem itself, I played around with another notion: could I see the phone display better on the Android if I shot pictures in the shade? I gave that a try. It definitely yielded a better visual for the user, but I didn’t know how well the photo would transmit.

Giving up, by this time, on the iPhone, we headed back home. First consideration: downloading data—the next step—may cost more on your system, depending on how your phone contract is set up. Our plan gives us only a limited amount for transmitting data. So it was better to transmit from home, where we could tap into the house wireless system.

Somewhere in the midst of that five minute drive home, something “dinged” in my daughter’s iPhone. It was Apple’s “ta-da” for arriving at the scene. Which we had just left.

At home, the Droid effortlessly uploaded the data to BillionGraves and gave us the thumbs-up report that the exchange was successfully made.

Not so fast, though, according to my double check on the BillionGraves website later that day, when I tried to access the photos to see what kind of quality we got, thanks to the blinding sunlight. All I could get was an error message that said the photos didn’t load correctly.

That puzzled me. My first thought was about the listing of the cemetery, itself. In preparing for this expedition, I had scoped out the BillionGraves website to see if our cemetery was listed.

It was not.

But when my husband, at the cemetery, started his work, the first step was to identify a cemetery. And there, in the listings, was the cemetery. Go figure.

When I got home again, checking on the home computer, I found—what?!—no listing for the cemetery. So I manually added it in, which can be done.

I noticed on the website that the BillionGraves team is quite interested in transparency and accessibility. They included their phone number as well as a Skype number. Plus, they invite emailed questions, too.

I chose the email route, but even that hit a glitch! I couldn’t get my note sent. I tried again a couple hours later, and it finally went through.

It will come as no surprise to anyone to hear that I was not the only one thinking about test driving the BillionGraves app on Memorial Day. I had plenty of company. At least enough to bog down their system, for which they immediately apologized to me profusely. BillionGraves support staffer Rob Moncur explained,
Today our site has had so much traffic that we are experiencing some load-related troubles.  We are working furiously on the problem and hope to have it solved as soon as possible.
How nice to have a problem such as that! At least their crowdsourcing idea of getting a huge number of people, worldwide, to consider a random act of kindness in photographing local cemeteries seems to be taking off.

By the way, here's that nice note bloggers like me are supposed to write about product reviews: you can be sure that I was neither paid nor swayed to say what I had to say about the BillionGraves organization and the affiliated businesses.


  1. I have been a Find a Grave volunteer for a couple of years now and I have never heard about this BillionGraves.
    Thank you, I cant wait to use it.I downloaded on my iphone as soon as I read your post .
    Thank you, thank you!

    1. After my comment I stopped to open my new app and after making a new account for log in , I was disappointed to find that it will do nothing but spin and never makeconnection. That was in my home under our internet service. I am now at the hospital in Shreveport and have tried both 3G on the phone and the hospitals guest internet service and it still spins.
      Got any ideas?

    2. I'm not sure exactly what happened there, but I know we had some GPS issues at the cemetery, too. I've found that BillionGraves is definitely a site where you need to do first steps first...but I see you mentioned you are already logged in with your own user account, so that may not be the problem. Perhaps you need to actually be at a cemetery for the system to click?

      While I don't know how to troubleshoot the thing--I'm only getting started myself--I was very encouraged to see their user support team answer my question quickly. Go to their website, scroll down on the face page to the bottom left, click on "Contact Us" and email them with your concerns. Hopefully, they will be able to give you a quick and useful answer! (Or go to http://www.billiongraves.com/contactus.php )

      Thanks for checking out BillionGraves. I think it is a great concept...they may just be in a beta phase, in which case we can all help them work out these bugs and get things going more smoothly!

  2. Thanks for test driving this app! I love your post and enjoyed your memorial day adventure. I will certainly try the app soon and keep you posted! I like the idea of skipping a step from having to download the photos from the camera and onto the websites.

    1. Thanks, Smadar! I see you have a weakness for that streamlined concept, too! Let me know how it goes for you when you try out your own test drive with BillionGraves!

  3. Hi Jacqi,

    Excellent blog post - thanks for the experiences.

    I read your blog in Google Reader, but can only see 50 words of it. Could you change your settings to enable reading all of your blog post in RSS readers?

    Thanks -- Randy

  4. Sounds like a cool app..but I have no cell phone..I know I am stuck in the dark ages:)

  5. Being a member of Find-a-grave, I can see the allure of this app. I take listings of graves with no photos - but it is cumbersome trying to see if they are or are not photo'ed or even entered yet.

    I've had to stop with the photography for a while.


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