Genealogy Q&A With Mocavo Chief Scientist Matt Garner
Posted by Diane
We were thrilled when genealogy website Mocavo's
chief scientist, Matt Garner, agreed to be quizzed by Genealogy
Insider columnist Sunny Jane
Morton for the "Five Questions" Q&A in the May/June 2014
Family Tree Magazine (now mailing to subscribers
and coming soon to ShopFamilyTree.com).
Garner has one of the brightest minds in the
genealogy technology field. He leads the team developing "intelligent character recognition" software, which
eventually will be able to "read" handwritten records—making them
(relatively) quickly and easily searchable online.
Journalists typically ask more questions than they think they'll
need, to elicit the most interesting information.
We had a hard time limiting Garner's answers to just five for the magazine, so we're sharing them all here:
You’re the chief scientist at Mocavo now. Do you wear
a lab coat, use test tubes or anything like that?
While my title may conjure up images of Bill Nye, or
perhaps a mysterious, maniacal laugh, it simply means that I
oversee the research and development team at Mocavo. We work on
exciting things like electronically detecting and transcribing
handwriting from historical documents, improving the accuracy of
documents read by optical character recognition (OCR) and
generally using technology to both accelerate the pace and the
usability of historical data that is brought online.
What’s your lab like?
My “laboratory” is pretty amazing: a supercomputer, containing more
than 2,000 high-end CPUs. At the helm, my desk rivals NASA’s mission
control. My walls are covered with additional screens displaying
up-to-the-minute data, surrounded by oversized white boards
containing copious amounts of detailed scribbling from our most
How did you land in the genealogy industry?
I remember spending full days alone in the Family History Library in
Salt Lake City when I was only 9 years old. Every time I have left
the family history industry, my heart finds its way back. I’m just
as passionate about a document that contains hundreds of names as
I am about, say, a handwritten letter that may only relate to a
single individual. I know that to someone, somewhere, that
document has great value.
I’m also passionate about using technology to solve large-scale
challenges and problems. I’ve worked in a number of IT-related
positions and have been lucky to be able to find a number of
positions where both my engineering skills and my passion for
family history have aligned. Every time I have left the family
history industry, my heart finds its way back.
What historical writing style just about drives
you—and the computer—crazy?
Interestingly, it’s modern handwriting that is
disastrous. The advent of the typewriter (and subsequently the
computer) has lowered the standard of handwriting beyond
recognition and utility. Centuries-old handwriting, with a bit of
practice, is still largely legible by both man and machine.
Some of the bigger challenges surround cases where script is
handwritten on preprinted forms and overlaps printed lines and
text on the forms. It is more difficult to read such documents
accurately than freeform, handwritten letters.
What’s the coolest historical document you’ve ever
seen? OR Do you have a favorite historical font, type of writing,
I’m very fascinated by the RMS Titanic. While
working at FindMyPast in London, I was involved in bringing online
the complete, handwritten passenger lists for her fateful voyage.
Also, I later got to take a look at the original, handwritten
personnel file of Edward Smith, her captain, which was from the
personal collection at the private home of the Commodore of the
present day Cunard White Star line.
In a past job you handled credit card megadata.
What’s more fun, Mastercard accounts or genealogical documents?
The last position I held prior to making the jump into
the family history industry was in the Chief Technical Officer
role at a large credit card processing company. I was responsible
for making sure that literally millions of dollars got from point
A to point B on a daily basis and especially, that no
hackers invited themselves into the mix. The security protocols
were stringent and extreme. I was on-call 24/7. The position was
exceptionally stressful and demanding.
I recall once a split-second-long glitch in our system caused a
six-figure sum of our clients’ money to disappear into thin air.
Luckily, after some considerable, and painstaking,
around-the-clock effort, we got every penny back to its rightful
I certainly don’t miss even an ounce of the day-to-day stress of
that much responsibility. Luckily, all the gray hairs I gained
from that position have since regained their color.
What do you do when you’re not at your computer?
I pretty much spend all my spare time entertaining my
twin 3-year-old daughters, which is undoubtedly the highlight of
my day. Other than that, you might run into me at the local home
improvement store. I’m always in the middle of two or three DIY
projects around the house.
You’ve flipflopped between leading companies and
providing brainpower behind the scenes. What role suits you best?
I’ve enjoyed my time at each company in the industry
that I’ve had the privilege of contributing to. Pretty much all of
my roles have been similar—working simultaneously in product
design, software engineering and R&D, in one way or another.
I’ve also founded two of my own companies in the family history
space. Both were acquired by bigger companies in the industry and
became integrated into their respective products.
Much to my wife’s chagrin, I think I really am an entrepreneur at
heart. I prefer small, nimble teams and am always on the lookout
for the next big thing in the industry.
Mocavo features a genealogy search engine, historical records (free to search one collection at a time) and family trees. Want to see how you can find ancestors with Mocavo? Watch Family Tree University's Making the Most of Mocavo video course, available in ShopFamilyTree.com.
5 Questions Plus | Genealogy Web Sites
Tuesday, 15 April 2014 10:01:55 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)