RootsTech, day one

Whew. That was a full day at RootsTech, Thu Feb 10, 2011. Much information to digest. I didn’t realize that this was the first one. Cool! Some notes:

The opening keynote addresses from Shane Robison (HP) and Jay Verkler (FamilySearch) were only somewhat interesting, and mostly devoid of anything useful. Shane’s was a commercial for HP, and he didn’t even mention genealogy, I don’t think (and was copyright 2010—come on, we pay attention to things like that!). Next year, at least get someone who knows something about genealogy. Jay’s talk was much more on target, and I would have liked to hear more details about what FamilySearch (FS) is, and what they are doing.

Luckliy, I happened to sit next to a FS employee, and I picked his brain. According to him, FS has about 100 paid developers, and even more support staff. They are not making a product to make money, but for use by people. They get their money from the Latter Day Saints (LDS) church. I asked him if you had to be LDS to work for FS, and he said that technically, no, but everyone is. Does religion play a role at work, I asked. Yes, they have devotional time, and the religion permeates their lives. I see that all over Salt Lake City… I’ve never seen so many college kids in ties.

Walking around after the keynotes, I feel like I am in another world… I’ve never seen so many old, white people in one place before. There is literally no one of color, and there must be a couple of thousand people here. The city is somewhat like that, but this conference is even more so. There is little diversity… very few people from Europe, South America, etc. In fact, many people here seem to be from nearby. One thing is for certain: they take their genealogy very seriously around here.

Next was a special hour to unveil a Developers Challenge. The goal is to take a couple of genealogy public API’s and build a mashup—interesting combination that does something new. If you have ideas, leave me a comment below.

Ok, now for the main reason I’m here: “An Open Source Python” says the title. This was work by a computer science masters student now hired by FS. The project is Legado,  by Oliver Nina. This turned out to be a great talk for Gramps, because it ended up being half about Gramps. Oliver showed the prototype of a project where he synced a Gramps database with a FS on-line version of his tree. The idea is nice, but would take much work to make it more than just a prototype. During the talk, Oliver described how Legado works. It turns out that the base code is a Python library written by Peter Henderson, and can be found at Peter will give an extended discussion on the Python library to FS on Saturday, 11am Mountain Time. Gramps would be able to authenticate against FS using either their OAuth or Basic authentication. I’m going to look at this interface over the next couple of days while I’m here.

Many people, including Oliver, asked me questions about Gramps. I think we may see some additional developers interested in using, if not contributing to, Gramps. BTW, I learned that one can get a booth at RootsTech for just $200. I would have guessed much more expensive. Something to consider, perhaps, for next year.

Next was a panel discussion with many of the major genealogy vendors in the US. This included, Geni, FS, One Great Family, and a few more. It was largely disgusting watching the vendors talk about how much money they were going to get, and how they would even be willing to share little pieces of it with us developers, if we build stuff on top of their APIs. I asked a simple question: “How are users going to get their data out of your system?” Scott Mueller from gave a direct answer (“all of it”) but all of the other vendors were very slimy in their answers. I suspect all of the rest of them intend to try to milk as much money out of your data as they can. Even FS has some issues to work out: they have a license protecting your information once it is in their system—from you. And they also don’t want other people copying the API that they have developed. Say what? You purposely want other vendors to have to create a different API? Either I heard that wrong, or this is an insane position from FS surely guaranteed to splinter the world of genealogy on-line APIs.

I was so angry with this group that I completely missed my appointment with the Photo Detective, Maureen Taylor. I had a special photo all ready to go. Bummer.

Overheard in the vendor area: “Yes, our software runs on all operating systems: Vista, XP, and Windows 7”.  Many people here had never heard the term “open source”.

I did sit in on a talk that was made up of mostly users, and the things that they really love are surprising. I think we should look at better integrating image metadata into Gramps, for example. I went to a great talk by Jimmy Zimmerman on Document and Graph-based Databases. Document Databases are similar to BSDDB (which Gramps uses), but are much easier to use. For example, they have some very nice querying capabilities. This includes systems like CouchDB and MongoDB. Graph databases allow querying for data based on their connectivity. This includes databases like Neo4J. If you were going to develop a genealogy system in 2011, Jimmy showed us what it should look like: a graph-based system sitting on top of a document database. Interesting! I wonder if we can incorporate some of these ideas…

I have more notes, but now some food, rest, and hacking…



  • Leaves on a Tree

    Hi Doug,

    I came across your site tonight and read your post above about RootsTech with some interest. I’m relatively new to the department but hope to learn more about the Gramps Project. Thanks.

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  • Jason Simanek

    Thanks for sharing your experiences so far!

  • Neil Thornock

    Thanks for the updates. I actually live about 50 miles south, near BYU. I’m hoping to see Gramps become a better tool to use with FS, since I too have little patience with those wanting to make money on my family history (and I like Python). So – good luck getting it all figured out! I’m watching with interest…

  • Jimmy Zimmerman


    I really enjoyed being able to sit by you at the FSDN luncheon. I’m encouraged by the work that you guys are doing with Gramps.

    I’d like to see more Open Source projects spring up to enable us to do our Family History more effectively. Perhaps next year we need to have a track focused solely on what is happening in Open Source. I believe Gramps is the most active of all Open Source initiatives related to Genealogy. I’d like to see Open Source projects spring up around historical record digitizing, indexing, hosting, searching, etc. I’d also like to see an Open Source pedigree viewer powered by JQuery.

    I believe FamilySearch will one day make their API spec “Open”, but my understanding is that because it is still in relative infancy, that it is not ready to be promoted as a standard to be implemented everywhere. There is also an issue of governance that needs to be figured out. We wouldn’t want to make the same mistakes that ended up dumping GEDCOM in a state of no community governance and in a sense creating a static de-facto standard that has caused all sorts of pain throughout the industry.

    As was shared in the Genealogical Standards sessions on day 3, FamilySearch is trying to figure out the best model to step forward and take an active role in the community to provide better solution/standards for data sharing.


  • TBH

    Thanks for the note and observations. It will be interesting to see what FS does this coming year and what is said at Roots Tech II.

  • Tom Hobbs

    This was a lecture at Roots Tech – might be worth a visit to see an ally of open source.

  • Paul Tabolinsky

    The non-standard genealogy problem truly hurts. Open-Source really needs to (finely) step in here with FS to provide well thought out products for genealogy, common users and UI.
    Note Zimmerman’s: “… wouldn’t want to make the same mistakes that ended up dumping GEDCOM in a state of no community governance and in a sense creating a static de-facto standard that has caused all sorts of pain throughout the industry. ” and still does !

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