Artificial Intelligence and Genealogy
Elevenses with Lisa Episode 32
In this episode we tackle a few small geeky tech questions about artificial intelligence, better known as AI, that may have a pretty big impact on your genealogy life. Questions like:
- Is artificial intelligence the same thing as machine learning?
And if not how are they related?
- And am I using AI, maybe without even being aware of it?
- And what impact is AI really having on our lives? Is it all good, or are there some pitfalls we need to know about?
We’re going to approach these with a focus on family history, but pretty quickly I think we’ll discover it’s a much more far-reaching subject. And that means this episode is for everyone.
While I’ve done my own homework on this subject and written about it in my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, I’m smart enough to call in an expert in the field. So, my special guest is Benjamin Lee. He is the developer of the Newspaper Navigator, the new free tool that uses artificial intelligence to help you find and extract images from the free historical newspaper collection at The Library of Congress’ Chronicling America. I covered Newspaper Navigator extensively in Elevenses with Lisa episode 26.
Ben is a 2020 Innovator-in-Residence at the Library of Congress, as well as a third year Ph.D. Student in the Paul G. Allen School for Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington, where he studies human-AI interaction with his advisor, Professor Daniel Weld.
He graduated from Harvard College in 2017 and has served as the inaugural Digital Humanities Associate Fellow at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, as well as a Visiting Fellow in Harvard’s History Department. And currently he’s a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow.
Thank you so much to Ben Lee for a really interesting discussion and for making Newspaper Navigator available to researchers. I am really looking forward to hearing from him about his future updates and improvements.
Artificial Intelligence and Genealogy
Covering technology and its application to genealogy is always a bit of a double-edged sword. It can be exciting and helpful, and also problematic in its invasiveness.
Tools like family tree hints, the Newspaper Navigator and Google Lens (learn more about that in Elevenses with Lisa episode 27) all have a lot to offer our genealogy research. But on a personal level, you may be concerned about the long reaching effects of artificial intelligence on the future, and most importantly your descendants. In today’s deeply concerning cancel culture and online censorship, AI can seriously impact our privacy, security and even our freedom.
As I did my research for this episode I discovered a few things. Artificial Intelligence and machine learning is having the same kind of massive and disrupting impact that DNA has had on genealogy, with almost none of the same publicity. (For background on DNA data usage, listen to Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 217. That episode covers the use of DNA in criminal cases and how our data potentially has wide-reaching appeal to many other entities and industries.)
A quick search of artificial intelligence ancestry.com in Google Patents reveals that work continues on ways to apply AI to DNA and genealogy. (See image below)
AI now makes our genealogical research and family tree data just as valuable to others outside of genealogy.
This begs the question, who else might be interested in our family tree research and data?
Who Is Interested in Your Genealogy Data
One answer to this question is academic researchers. During my research on this subject The Record Linking Lab at Brigham Young University surfaced as just one example. It’s run by a BYU Economics Professor who published a research paper on their work called Combining Family History and Machine Learning to Link Historical Records. The paper was co-authored with a Notre Dame Economics and Women’s Studies professor.
In this example, their goals are driven by economic, social, and political issues rather than genealogy. Their published paper does offer an eye-opening look at the value that those outside the genealogy community place on all of the personal data we’re collecting and the genealogical records we are linking. Our work is about our ancestors, and therefore it is about ourselves. Even if living people are not named on our tree, they are named in the records we are linking to it. We are making it all publicly available.
In the past, historical records like birth and death, military and the census have been available to these researchers, but on an individual basis. This made them difficult to work with. Academic (and industry) researchers couldn’t easily follow these records for individual people, families, and generations of families through time in order to draw meaningful conclusions. But for the first-time machine learning is being applied to online genealogy research data making it possible to link these records to living and deceased individuals and their families.
It’s a lot to think about, but it’s important because it is our family history data. We need to understand how our data is being used inside and outside the genealogy sandbox.
Answers to Your Live Chat Questions About AI
One of the advantages of tuning into the live broadcast of each Elevenses with Lisa show is participating in the Live Chat and asking your questions.
From Linda J: What about all the “people search” sites (not genealogy) that have all, or a lot of, our personal date?
Lisa’s Answer: My understanding is that much of the information provided on many of the “people search” websites comes from public information. So while the information is much easier to access these days, it’s been publicly available for years. That information isn’t as accessible to projects like the one discussed in this episode because those websites don’t make their Application Programming Interface (known as API) publicly available like FamilySearch does.
From Doug H: Wouldn’t that potentially find errors in our trees?
Lisa’s Answer: Yes.
From Sheryl T: Do these academic researchers have access to the living people on the trees? Or are those protected from them as it is to the public?
Lisa’s Answer: They have access to all information attached to people marked as “Living Person.” Therefore, if the attached record names them, their identity would then be known. Click a hint on your tree at Ancestry for example, and the found records clearly spell out the name of the person they believe is your “Living” person.
From Nancy M: How long do the show notes stay available? am looking for Google Books two weeks ago and last week’s Allen Co Library.
Lisa’s Answer: The show notes remain available until the episode is archived in Premium Membership. You can find all of the currently available free Elevenses with Lisa episodes on our website in the menu under VIDEOS click Elevenses with Lisa.
Nannie A: I heard a rumor that Ancestry .com has been sold. Do you know if that’s true?
Lisa’s Answer: Yes, they were sold again this year. Read:
Private equity firm Blackstone Group Inc. buying Ancestry.com for $4.7 billion
Private equity wants to own your DNA by CBS News.
Elevenses with Lisa Episode 43 Show Notes
Do you like finding new stuff about your family history? Well, then you’re in the right place because today that’s exactly what we’re going to do in this episode of Elevenses with Lisa.
If you’re looking for new information about your family history, an important website to add to your research list is the Internet Archive. The Internet Archive is a free website that attempts to archive the web, and that includes online genealogy!
One of the best ways to approach your search at the Internet Archive is by focusing on a particular type of record. Here are 10 genealogy records that every genealogist needs that can be found at this free website.
Watch the Internet Archive episode:
Getting Started with the Internet Archive
You are free to search for and access records without an account, but there’s so much more you can do with a free account. Here are just a few advantages of having an Internet Archive account:
- Borrowing ebooks
- Saving Favorites
- Uploading content
- Recommending websites to be archived.
Getting a free account is easy. Simply click on the Sign Up link in the upper right corner of the home page.
Types of Content at the Internet Archive
There’s a surprisingly wide variety of content available on the website including:
10 Awesome Finds at the Internet Archive
A great way to discover all that the Internet Archive has to offer is to think in terms of categories of records. I’m going to share with you ten genealogy record categories that include several specific types of records.
Start your search for each category using just a few keywords such as:
- a location (town, county, etc.)
- the type of record,
- a family surname, etc.
Next try applying some of the filters found in the column on the left side of the screen. I try several combinations of searches to ensure that I’ve found all that the Internet Archive has to offer. Let’s get started:
Genealogy Records Category #1: Church Records
In Elevenses with Lisa episode 41 we discussed how to find and use church records for your family history. Here are just a few of the specific types of church records you can find at the Internet Archive:
- Meeting Minutes
- Church Histories
- Quaker Records
Genealogy Records Category #2: Family Records
- Compiled Family Histories
- Family History (general)
- Family Bibles
Learn more about finding and using family bibles for genealogy in Elevenses with Lisa episode 29.
Genealogy Records Category #3: Location-Based Records
- Location History (Example: Randolph County Indiana History)
- City and Rural Directories
- Plat Maps
Genealogy Records Category #4: School Records
- Student Newspapers
- High School, College, etc.
Genealogy Records Type #5: Work Records
- Trade journals
- Corporate histories
- Works Progress Administration (WPA)
- Civilian Conversation Corps (CCC)
Genealogy Records Category #6: Military Records
- Military Radio Shows
- Military histories
- Photographic reports
- Veterans Administration Payment Records
- WWI County Honor Books
Elevenses with Lisa episode 31 features the Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library which hosts much of their content on the Internet Archive. Tip: If you find a collection difficult to navigate, visit the website of the sponsoring organization (such as the Allen County Public Library) which may have a better user interface for searching the records.
Genealogy Records Category #7: Patent Records
From the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Keep in mind that your ancestor may be mentioned in a patent even though they did not file it.
Genealogy Records Category #8: Probate Records
Although there doesn’t currently appear to be a large number of probate records, the Internet Archive does have some. Try searching by location to see if it includes a probate record for others from the same community. For example, a prominent shopkeeper might list many in the town who owed them money.
Genealogy Records Category #9: Audio and Video Records
Audio records include:
- Oral interviews
- Old radio shows
- Music from days gone by (78s, cylinders, etc.)
Genealogy Gems Premium Members: Listen to episode 176 of the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast for more on the Great 78 Project at the Internet Archive. (Learn more about joining us as a Premium Member.)
Video records can include:
- Old home movies
- Local shows and news
- Newsreels shown in movie theaters
- History Documentaries
I searched for the small town where my husband’s ancestors lived for several generations and found a great video from 1954. It featured a parade float sponsored by his great grandfather’s business and several faces I recognized! Watch Winthrop Days.
Genealogy Records Category #10: Collections!
A collection is a group of records submitted by a user. Often times these will be organizations, libraries and archives.
Here are just a few examples of collections that may be of interest to you as a genealogist:
- American Libraries
- Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center-microfilm
- Genealogy (a collection of over 160,000 items)
- Canadian Libraries
- British Libraries
- Australian libraries
- Reclaim the Records
Borrowing Books from the Internet Archive
Visit the Books to Borrow collection. You will need to be logged into your free Internet Archive account in order to borrow books. You can borrow the book in 1 hour increments. In some cases, you can choose a 14-day loan. If there is only one copy of the book available, the 1 hour load will be the only option. If there are no copies available you can join a waitlist. No waitlist is necessary for one hour loan ebooks.
Learn more about creating your own collection at the Internet Archive.
Tips for Using the Internet Archive
Tip: Find More at the Internet Archive
Scroll down below the individual item for:
- Download options
- “In Collections” (which can lead you to more content from the same collection)
- Similar items
Also, when you find an Item of interest, click the Contributor link to see all of the items uploaded by the user. It’s very likely they will have additional similar items.
Tip: Use the Internet Archive Advanced Search and Search Help
One advantage to using the Advanced Search is when you are searching for items from a specific timeframe. It’s much more efficient than clicking the box for very year in the range in the filter.
Tip: Downloading from the Internet Archive
Download the full cover version of the PDF when available. Images will likely be clearer and more accurate.
More Interesting Content at the Internet Archive:
- Video Game Oregon Trail
- Old Radio Programs
- bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1872
- Veteran’s Administration Pension Payment Collection
- Oaths of Allegiance and Naturalization Index
- Genealogical publications
Answers to Live Chat Questions
One of the advantages of tuning into the live broadcast of each Elevenses with Lisa show is participating in the Live Chat and asking your questions.
Question from Sue: What does metadata mean?
Lisa’s Answer: Metadata is data that describes other data. For example, the date of upload is metadata for a digital file that you find online. Metadata is often added by the person or institution doing the uploading to the Internet Archive. I like to search both “Metadata” and “text contents”.
Question from CA: Date filter really applies to date posted not date of item u r looking for….correct?
Lisa’s Answer: In the case of genealogical documents, the date typically refers to the date of original publication rather than the date posted. You will find dates back into the 19th century in the filters.
Question from Mary: is there a print icon? I don’t see it.
Lisa’s Answer: Instead of printing, look for the download options. Once downloaded to your computer, then you can print.
Question from Susie: Would this site have membership of Rotary clubs and such type groups?
Lisa’s Answer: Absolutely! Search for “rotary club” and perhaps the name of the town or locality.
Question from Sally: Is broadest search METADATA? Does it catch everything?
Lisa’s Answer: No. Metadata is the default. I would strongly advise running both Metadata and text context searches for your search terms.
Question from Amy: Lisa, do you know of a way to correct records that are incorrectly or in sufficiently tagged?
Lisa’s Answer: To the best of my knowledge, you can only do that if you were the one who uploaded the item. If anyone else reading this has found a way to edit or tag other user’s items, please leave a comment below.
Question from John: You may have mentioned this but what is the difference between searching metadata or searching text?
Lisa’s Answer: Searching metadata is only searching the data (like tags) that were added to provide more information about the item. A text context search will search all the text that was typed including the title and description. I recommend searching both ways. Keep in mind that not all user’s include detailed descriptions, which is why metadata is very important.
Question from K M: Why does Allen County Library have this archive?
Lisa’s Answer: I think it may be because the Internet Archive provides affordable cloud storage which can be a big expense when offering online records.
Question from Karen: Lisa will you explain the download options?
Lisa’s Answer: Options are based on the type of item. For print publications you will often find you can download the item as an EPUB, PDF, Full Text, etc. Download options can be found by scrolling down just below the item near the description and Views. You can also found download options for Adobe files while viewing the item in the viewer. Click the three dots in a circle icon just below the search icon.
Question from Barbara: Would audio include old local radio programs?
Lisa’s Answer: Absolutely!
Question from Rita: Can you share info about how to upload something?
Lisa’s Answer: Learn more about creating your own collection at the Internet Archive.
Question from Margaret: What about information on the Mayflower?
Lisa’s Answer: Yes. Search Mayflower and then use the filters to narrow your results by Topic & Subject and by Year.
Question from Jeremy: Any pointers on Swiss Mennonites, Lisa?
Lisa’s Answer: A search of Swiss Mennonites brings up 21 items, some of which look rather interesting. Otherwise, like with all genealogy research, formulating a more specific question can help you craft a better search query at the Internet Archive.
Subscribing to the Genealogy Gems YouTube Channel:
The ideal genetic genealogy interface creates a seamless transition between genetics technology and genealogical research findings. Most currently available tools are either DNA technology without much genealogy, or genealogy without much DNA technology. AncestryDNA is really pioneering the genetic and genealogical integration with its newest AncestryDNA product update.
The goal of genetic genealogy is to aid your traditional research by verifying known connections and providing clues to as yet unknown ancestors. DNA was never meant to replace traditional research methods, nor has it ever claimed that ability. Rather, it is meant to aid your traditional research by verifying known connections and providing clues to as-yet unknown ancestors.
I admit, I dream of a future technology so precise that it pinpoints the locations of ancestors and defines our exact relationships to others. While we are not there yet, many have experienced a genetic test’s power to obliterate previously-held beliefs about relationship and heritage, and create new intricate and personal relationships where before there were only blank spaces. In this sense, genetic genealogy can be viewed as a kind of police force of the genealogy world, righting wrongs and taking names. But I digress.
For now, the ideal must remain a seamless transition between genetics technology and traditional research results, so that the two so completely complement each other that we can’t see where one stops and the other begins. Yet the two worlds are often separated by a chasm of misunderstanding and just plain ignorance. Of the three testing companies, two are making mediocre efforts at best to try to help you incorporate your genetics into your genealogy. They are basically dishing out a serving of genetics, offering a vending machine of genealogy snacks and calling it a full meal.
With one exception.
AncestryDNA has put genetic and genealogical integration at the forefront of its product. They are the only company making a serious effort to integrate your genetics and your genealogy. To be successful, they need two things: tons of people and their genealogy. The more people test, the better the database becomes. Not just in terms of the matches you find, but also in terms of statistics and the power that numbers have to solve complex problems, like relatedness.
So, how do they get more people interested in genetic genealogy?
This reminds me of my early days at Relative Genetics, one of the first genetic genealogy companies. I was fresh out of college and tasked with training our CEO, CFO, QA director, and marketing director about what exactly it was that we did as a genetic genealogy company. None of these men had any experience in genetics or genealogy. In those meetings as we were trying to figure out ways to grow our company in an unknown industry, I felt like I was the constant downer to the party. As a scientist I had been trained that there are no absolutes. Whenever we talk about outcomes it is always in terms of “most likely” or “less likely” and to never, ever say “always.” So when they would get excited about an idea and propose wording for an ad campaign, I was always reining them in.
After reading a recent announcement by AncestryDNA, I feel like their marketing department had a meeting on the day their scientific advisor was out sick and without his or her corralling, they started a stampede.
Which, of course, was exactly what they wanted.
In their press release, Ancestry’s Dr. Ken Chahine, SVP and GM of AncestryDNA said, “It is effectively a shortcut through time—you take the test today and we tell you who your ancestors were, for example, in the 1700s. You don’t need to research records or build a family tree — AncestryDNA now transports you to the past.”
Which is exactly what people want to hear, especially non-genealogists who are curious about their past, but don’t have the tools or know-how or interest in doing the actual genealogy work.
But is it true? Is genetic genealogy a short cut through time?
“Absolutely,” says the marketing team.
“Sometimes, and that depends on factor A, and factor B and situation C and…” say the scientists.
And they are both right. The trick is to hear them both as you review these kinds of new advances in genetic genealogy.
What makes the “absolutely” true is that one of the dreams of genetic genealogy is to use the DNA of living people today to actually reconstruct the genetics of our ancestors. So that their actual DNA profile is known. Then it will be easy to identify their descendants as we will be able to see immediately what part of our DNA came from which of our ancestors. Ancestry has demonstrated their ability to do this in a large scale study of the descendants of a 19th-century American and his two successive wives.
Now, time for the “Sometimes.” This full genome reconstruction hasn’t been done yet for your grandparents, or great grandparents. Right now the best we can do is use your DNA to link you to living individuals, then rely on your traditional genealogy to help you find your common ancestor. Ancestry is trying to help you do that using their DNA circles, and now with their New Ancestor Discoveries.
Remember that to be included in a DNA circle you have to have a “ticket” to the party, meaning both your genetics and your genealogy match with at least two other people in the database and a circle is created around the host of the party, who is your common ancestor.
With New Ancestor Discoveries, we are letting those with just a genetic ticket into the party. Meaning that if you share DNA with two or more people in a DNA Circle, the host of that circle is named as an ancestor who might be on your pedigree chart.
Did you notice how I said “might?” That this newly discovered ancestor MIGHT be in your pedigree chart?
As an idea, New Ancestor Discoveries is VERY EXCITING, don’t you think? To be able to find out using both genetics and genealogy that a particular person living 100 years ago might just be the one who belongs in that blaring blank space on your pedigree chart? And it will be. But right now, Ancestry needs to work out some bugs, starting with a stronger acknowledgement that the ancestor listed in the Discoveries is by no means an absolute, but just a hint.
In coming posts I will share with you how I am using the New Ancestry Discoveries to discover more about my genealogy, even if it isn’t exactly in the way Ancestry intended. For now, learn more by reading my recent posts: from the left side of the Genealogy Gems home page, search on the category “DNA.”
And click here to visit my website and learn more about how I can help you navigate the exciting world of genetic genealogy.