Friday, March 31, 2017

My Dream App
for Genealogy Conferences

So, it's the season for genealogy conferences. I go, I learn, I have a blast getting to meet other genealogy enthusiasts. But there's just one thing I'm missing—one problem that irks me: out of all those thousands of fellow conference attendees, sure at least one of them shares a distant cousin with me.

But how to find that someone...

I've long pondered that quandary. You may have remembered—since my style is not to print up a custom T-shirt listing family surnames—I toyed with the possibility of using QR codes on business cards to invite people to scan my list of surnames.

With all the promotional material now coming out on various national, state and regional genealogical events, I think I've found the prototype for my dream cousin-finding conference app. It's the Ontario Genealogical Society's Wall of Ancestors, recently launched in preparation for the OGS conference coming in mid-June.

I say prototype, because while it offers the very utility I envision for use in large genealogical gatherings, I see a possible pitfall in the way OGS has set up their program. Before we get to that, though, let's take a look at what the OGS Wall of Ancestors offers.

Basically, it's a way for conference attendees—and, presumably, even OGS members who won't be able to attend the event—to list their surnames. It provides a place for people to enter their ancestors' given name, family name, the ancestor's dates of birth and death, and location. There is also a column in which to enter a tick mark indicating the submitter's intention to be at the conference—presumably so distant cousins may meet, face to face.

But it's much more than just a surname list. The list is there for a purpose: for participants to find others attending the conference who are researching the same family lines. So, naturally, the Wall also asks each submitter to provide his or her own name. This is an obvious request—else how would one cousin be able to reach out and connect with the other? Yet the way the conference organizers set up this part of the program has its down side. It asks not only for submitter's name, but provides a column in which that person must enter a personal email address.

Now, including an email address seems like a reasonable step. After all, how else would Cousin A find Cousin B in the sea of faces swarming through the convention center? This does provide an easy way to connect two people who, though related, are heretofore nothing more than total strangers.

Take a moment to think about that little detail. In this age of spam, violations of personal privacy, and unscrupulous shadowy figures lurking in the digital ether, that doesn't sound like the safest option. Yes, the genealogical community is a wonderful, caring and supporting network of people. However, it is not just genealogical contacts who are viewing that email address. Anyone on the Internet who finds their way to the OGS website may stumble upon this freely-accessible list of email addresses. I'm not sure I'd feel comfortable with that—nor might several others who otherwise would be interested in participating in this wonderful opportunity to connect with fellow researchers.

There is likely a reason why genealogical forums of the past—and even's current message boards—facilitated members getting in touch with each other without divulging the actual email address of the contact person. Initial messages were blind copied to recipients. It was not until the contact was made—and the trustworthiness of the contact person vetted—that members could voluntarily, exercising their own discretion, offer their personal email address.

I certainly hope that someday my favorite conference venues will offer a similar app to allow attendees to make cousin connections with others at the same event. That's always been my dream for well-attended events like genealogy conferences and institutes. But that dream app also includes a healthy respect for the privacy of each participant, allowing the control for such details as contact information to rest in the hands of the attendee, not the organization running the conference.

Granted, I'm by no means a computer guru. There may be extenuating circumstances that would make such a provision prohibitively expensive for societies to offer. But when I see how privacy is appropriately guarded in surname lists offered on some societies' websites, it seems that such programming possibility could be adapted for conferences without much difficulty or expense.

While the tech angle seems possible, spreading the vision may be more of a challenge. I'm so glad to see OGS seizing the opportunity to convert such a dream into reality—it gives other societies an example to emulate. It would certainly be a valuable step for other societies to take in benefiting those attending their events.

If we can view conferences as not only a place where societies facilitate learning experiences, but networking opportunities as well, we allow them to expand their usefulness to their members and potential members—safely—in the process.

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