- #1 – Ad Hoc Reports
- #2 – Research Suggestions
- #3 – Error/Problem Reports
- #4 – Hint Filtering
- #5 – Data Controls/Standardization
- #6 – Date Spans
- #7 – MyTreeTags Improvements
- #8 – Newspapers.com Improvements
- #9 – Ancestral Places
Genealogical research has undoubtedly become easier over the years, thanks in large part by the brilliant minds behind sites and tools like Ancestry.com (and Newspapers.com, Fold3.com, FindAGrave.com), FamilySearch.org, the National Archives, Archive.org, MyHeritage.com, Geni.com, and more.
There are also several desktop applications, some of which pre-date the online sites mentioned above.
The various sites and tools sometimes have integrations to allow some sharing of info from one to another, but they don’t always play nicely together. To not drive yourself crazy, you have to choose one site or program to use as your primary, and then take advantage of information made available on the others through weblinks, GED file downloads/uploads, etc.
My drug of choice has been Ancestry.com. This is where my family tree lives. This is where I’ve spent the bulk of my time in data entry, research, and quality control. Since jumping in to this never ending rabbit hole, hundreds if not thousands of hours have been dedicated to this site.
As amazing and user-friendly as it is, there is SO much potential for the site to evolve and improve. To their credit, the Ancestry team is actively iterating, innovating, and improving their platform. Last year, during the annual RootsTech conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, Ancestry announced a number of new beta features including “MyTreeTags.” These allow you to add tags to each individual in your tree so that you can quickly search for people based on what tags they have assigned. Assuming you’ve added tags to your people…. if you want to know who served in the military, 5 clicks and you have a list! If the 20 tags the Ancestry team created don’t fit the bill, you can create custom tags to fit your specific needs. As of this writing, I have 80 or so custom tags to help me sharpen my focus.
Ancestry Wish #1 – Ad Hoc Reports
The biggest downfall of the Ancestry.com platform is that you can’t create any sort of ad-hoc reports. At its core, your family tree on Ancestry.com is one giant relational database. Every person has the same set of data fields that can be edited. Every fact, with one or two exceptions, has a Date field, a Place field, and a Description field. In theory, you should be able to query your database to give you anything based on those standardized fields.
As an example, if I’m planning a genealogy research trip to Fort Wayne Indiana, I want to identify possible areas of research from my tree. Who was born, married, died, or buried there? I have all of that information stored in my tree. I should be able to say: “Ancestry, show me all ancestors with a Birth event in Fort Wayne, Allen, Indiana, USA.” Unfortunately, that is not possible.
I’ve used MyTreeTags as a workaround to this problem. Out of my 80 custom tags, a large chunk of them are location-based: “BirthCalifornia”, “DeathOhio”, “MarriageIllinois” are some examples. I added these tags to all of my direct-line ancestors going back 10-generations… one by one. I didn’t add tags to any extended family — aunts, cousins, in-laws, etc.
Ad hoc reports would make all of this possible and have the added benefit of cleaning up my ever-growing list of custom MyTreeTags.
Ancestry Wish #2 – Research Suggestions
For the novice genealogist, trying to figure out what to research or where to look can be overwhelming. For the seasoned genealogist up against brick walls, it can feel like you’ve tried everything and can’t see through the fog frustration to see what path to take.
Using a little bit of AI… or maybe some IBM Watson magic… Ancestry could very easily provide suggestions of what to do next. By looking at an individual’s gender, age, residence locations, and other data, it could easily suggest if someone was of prime military age during a major war or conflict. It could suggest federal, state, or local censuses that took place during that person’s lifetime.
Heinrich Wilhelm Rudolf Stoeppelwerth
Born 1842 Germany
Arrived 1840s USA
Marriage 1863 Missouri
Residence 1860s – 1910s Missouri
Residence 1920 Nebraska
Death 1920 Nebraska
Possible research areas based on this info:
- 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1890, 1900, 1910, 1920 US Federal Census
- Immigrant… Naturalization paperwork?
- 1844, 1852, 1856, 1860, 1864, 1876, 1880 Missouri State Census
- In his 20s during the Civil War — military records?
If the research suggestions could also be dismissed, accepted, marked as in progress or completed, it could help avoid duplicated research efforts.
Ancestry Wish #3 – Error/Problem Reports
Tree errors and problems can’t be resolved unless you know that there’s a problem that needs your attention. Error/problem reports could show if someone had life events that are impossible — death before birth. Birth before mother’s child-bearing age. Live events after death.
Ancestry Wish #4 – Hint Filtering
One of Ancestry’s most used elements is their “Hint” feature. Little green leaves show up on your ancestor’s profile indicating that a hint has been found — a record, tree, photo, story, etc that may or may not be related to your ancestor. You can view them in the person’s profile, but you can also view ALL hints within your tree.
At present, you can toggle between “All Hints,” “Records,” “Photos,” “Stories,” and “Member Trees.” You can also sort by most recent, last name, or first name.
As of this writing, I have a total of 19,221 hints, spanning 962 pages. This is an unruly quantity of information to sift through. Ancestry’s system recognizes an individual’s relationship to the “home” person — using that information to allow a filter for direct-line ancestors only would be a huge advantage. To further that, restricting how many generations back you want to look at. This can help narrow a researcher’s focus.
Ancestry Wish #5 – Data Controls/Standardization
With any database or large data set… the information you get out of it is only as good as the data you put in. There’s too much possibility for variation in date and location formats. Did that event happen on 2/3/1934, 2/3/34, 3/2/34, February 3, 1934, 3 Feb 1934, 3 Feb 34… etc. And how about date ranges or estimates?
For locations… is it Gilroy, Santa Clara County, California, United States of America… or Gilroy, Santa Clara, California, United States… or Gilroy, CA, USA…? And what about historical locations? If I could toggle a switch that indicates a historical location is being used, another data field could open up for what the modern location would be.
All of this requires that the user create some standard they plan to use, and then modify entries as they are populated by various hints.
If you could set your preferred format for each, and quality check/control entries against that standard, your data would be much cleaner… ultimately lending itself better to those Ad Hoc reports I talked about earlier.
Ancestry Wish #6 – Date Spans
The date field for any fact in Ancestry doesn’t like date ranges. If you type in 2001-2002, for a fact that spanned both years, you’re presented with a warning:
The system will allow you to add the fact anyway using the unsupported date range… but it won’t really know what to do with it.
Some facts should have the option of having a beginning/ending date. Address, residence, employment, military, and occupation are all great examples. These facts don’t occur on a single date… they certainly start on a single date, but when looking at the bigger picture for an individual, it would be nice to somehow see details that stretch over time.
How to display those ranges on the individual timeline can be debated. Either show the fact at the point in the timeline when the fact started… or modify the timeline somehow to show ranges off to the side… or nest facts — though that could become complicated very quickly.
How to graphically display the information aside… this would still be a great addition to the timeline.
Ancestry Wish #7 – MyTreeTags Improvements (Bulk update, organization, and smart apply)
Ancestry’s release of MyTreeTags last year was epic. It allows for much easier identification of unique facts that each ancestor has. As with any release, there are improvements that could definitely be made.
For one, I’d like to apply tags to multiple ancestors at once. I see this being done in tree view, (pedigree or family). Add an icon to the vertical left-side tools which toggles multi-select. Multi-select would add a checkbox to the view over each ancestor in view. You could then select whomever you like, and add the tree tag. Here’s a quick visual of what that could look like:
Another improvement would be to organize and categorize tags as you see fit. The built-in tags are sorted into 4 categories: DNA Tags, Life Experience Tags, Relationship Tags, and Research Status Tags. There is a 5th category for Custom Tags.
I provided a screenshot of my Custom MyTreeTags at the top of the post… and as you can see it’s a bit clunky. When you’re looking for a tag to add to your ancestor, it takes a bit of searching and scrolling. I’d love to be able to add my own categories and maybe even nested categories to better find the tags in question.
Third, and a bit more complex, would be the ability to apply tags based on logic. A simple example would be “Add Direct Line Relationship tag to all direct ancestors of designated home person.” Another could be “Add Unverified Research Status tag to all ancestors in generations older than selected person.” The application of this improvement may not be used as frequently as others, but the option would certainly allow for more efficient labeling.
Ancestry Wish #8 – Newspapers.com Improvements
One of Ancestry’s properties is Newspapers.com. In all of my research, this has been one place that has provided the richest and most human information possible. The site allows you to search and browse newspaper archives, and when you find an article of interest you can virtually create a clipping of it. With your Clipping, you can add a title and notes, and then attach that Clipping to a person in your Ancestry tree (among other sharing options). You can then look at ALL of the clippings you’ve made in your account:
If you take a quick look at the screenshot of my Clippings… your first thought might be “Oh cool!” After a few minutes and some thinking through use-cases… you might re-think that reaction. At present you can only do a few things:
- Date clipped/modified (Newest)
- Date clipped/modified (Oldest)
- Paper date (Newest)
- Paper date (Oldest)
- Date/Date Range
- Location (Country, State, County, or City)
- Newspaper (Name or Location)
Outside of those features… it’s one long scrolling mess of clippings. I would LOVE the ability to organize these clippings in a more useful way.
When you’re building a tree in Ancestry, you can build as many different trees as you’d like. When you’re searching through burials on FindAGrave.com, you can save a grave listing to any number of “Virtual Cemeteries” that you create. In Fold3.com, you can add records to a virtual Memorial you create for your veteran. In Newspapers.com…? Nothing.
I’d love to add tags to clippings, similar in a way to MyTreeTags, and then filter by those tags. Possible tags could include the family name used, the life event the article is about, or if there’s any follow-up needed. It would be amazing to also create virtual shoeboxes (like virtual cemeteries) to keep clippings for MY family tree separate from clippings for a tree I’m building for a friend.
Ancestry Wish #9 – Ancestral Places
The Ancestry.com App gives you the ability to view clusters of life events on a visual map of the world. You can zoom in or out and you can choose the types of events you’d like to see (birth, marriage, death, burial, residence, all other). When you tap on one of the dots, it will show you a list of events for that location.
This is amazing! It’s a tool that will definitely come in handy when researching in one specified location. Where can I find this in the website? Well.. that’s kind of a trick question. The short answer is you can’t. The longer answer is you can’t *unless* you’ve completed an AncestryDNA kit… you can find a mapping feature in your DNA Story — but this function doesn’t serve the same purpose as the map in the Ancestry app. You can look at areas you’re connected to by your DNA, and it shows a timeline you can click through. When you do, it will show some events that happened in the area at the time, and will also show some DNA matches.
I would love for the map feature with the same functions from the app to be available on the website.
RootsTech 2020 is a few days away… I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Ancestry announces new features, much like they did last year. My list of feature improvements will continue to grow, and it just might find its way over to someone on staff at Ancestry one day.