Genealogy in a Cloud

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Guaranteed to Turn the Genealogy World As You Know It Upside Down!

Presentation by Craig Miller, Vice President FamilySearch International, presented at NGS 2010 Conference.

Certainly the Internet has had more impact on providing “information on demand” than anything else in the history of mankind, and genealogy has ridden this wave by providing online access to records. Now, a new use of the Internet is quickly forming that will significantly impact the way we live. “Cloud Computing” promises a new paradigm of Internet use. This presentation will demonstrate what “cloud computing” is, explore the potential impact of “cloud computing” on our lives, and look at what the future holds for doing “genealogy in the cloud.”

So, what is cloud computing anyway?

Today many people have a computer that they use at home or at work to do word processing, create presentations, build spreadsheets, or work on their genealogy. We buy and install computer programs like Microsoft Word to do our word processing, or we use a program like Personal Ancestral File to record and track our genealogy. We enter the data into the program on our computer, and the program “saves” the information on a hard drive on our computer. The notion of “cloud computing” is a paradigm shift that has the programs, storage of data, and even the computer running on the Internet, provided as a service rather than on your own machine.

What are examples of “Cloud Computing?”

One example is Google Docs, which is supplied by Google for free. Google Docs provides word processing and programs for spreadsheets and presentations on the Internet, letting you share your documents with whomever you want. You can even allow others to add information and help edit your work. In addition, many genealogical Web sites provide the ability to collaborate with others and “build your family tree online.”

So, what’s the big deal? 

I currently use my own PC to do everything I want to do. Why should I use “the cloud” to do what I already know how to do really well? What is the big deal? Well, some things are better done collaboratively with several users helping one another. The ability to have many people working together is what the Internet inherently provides. Hosting the data, computer, and software natively on the Internet flips the paradigm from the individual to the group and allows for a naturally collaborative experience. For example, I asked a few of my friends and an editor to help me write this document, and I got instantaneous feedback. And I didn’t have to keep track of multiple versions as each person changed and improved the document. Without this tool, I would have had to combine, resend, and track multiple documents. Determining who had which version would have become a big, time consuming job as I attempted to consolidate the feedback. Now, not only can I work instantaneously with others, I can farm out tasks to others and expand and limit participation as I see fit. The time savings are substantial. As for the quality of the work, "we” are always smarter than “me.”

There are also other factors to consider. In many cases, I get to use free software and free storage. Consider the freedom of not having to purchase Microsoft Office Suite while still getting the same (or better) functionality. I don’t have to worry about backing up the data or installing a new operating system. I don’t have to worry about patches and upgrades or debugging my PC when installing a new program that causes incompatibilities to occur with other programs. I don’t have to worry about hard drive or computer failures, and I can have access anywhere there is Internet access, which includes my iphone. I can take a snapshot of any version I want and explore different versions with different groups of friends, and I can save any version to my PC.

For businesses small and large, this technology is truly significant. As a small business owner, I can now purchase the exact same functionality that huge companies run their business on without paying millions of dollars. In fact, I just purchase what I need for the size of company I own. I don’t need to hire an IT department to keep servers running to keep a Web site going, to host my account software, or to maintain customer relationship software. I don’t have to know anything about running a data center or firewalls to protect my data. It’s all provided to me as a service.

What does it mean to me in the world of genealogy?

That's great for small businesses and editing documents as a group, but what does it mean to me in the world of genealogy? The genealogy market has already, in some ways, taken advantage of the power of cloud computing. Consider the millions and millions of online trees that have been created under a cloud computing model where the software, the storage, and the computers managing the information are somewhere in the Internet. Furthermore, in some cases these trees have been created collaboratively. Perhaps one of the greatest advantages of “Genealogy in a Cloud” is the ability to get help from others. A few sites like is an example where the software, hardware, and data, all being provided in the cloud, provide data to the genealogical community from many participants. The site already has two million people collected in their online family trees. In both cases, everything has been done with free software in a totally open environment for people to work together.

So, what does the future hold?

What happens when people put data out on the Internet and open that data to others with the same interest to expand, review, and share? And in particular, what happens when this data is something that has a compelling relevance to all--like genealogical data? When people gather over a common interest, they begin to work together. They share ideas, information, and expertise, which results in everyone benefiting from each other's knowledge and data. Just as this document becomes better the more that others review, edit, and add their ideas, the better the data shared on the Internet can become. Each person who participates lends his or her unique skills to make the whole greater than anyone could create on his or her own.

Imagine a place where data and expertise are shared to create something grander than one person can provide on his or her own. Imagine a world where, if you are stuck on a tough research problem and don’t know where to look, an expert was willing to help you solve the puzzle within seconds. Imagine an important genealogical document that needs to be translated from Old English text and someone with that skill and desire to share is there to translate it for you, right now in real time. Imagine getting expert answers to any question you might have. Imagine being able to have access to a catalog of all the world's genealogical information at your fingertips. This is only the beginning. And your imagination, actually your collective imagination, is the only limit.