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# Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Inside Ancestry.com’s Top-Secret Data Center
Posted by Diane

Inside the unassuming building that is the data center for Ancestry.com and other Generations Network properties, rows and rows of cabinets house the 5,328 servers that hold the Web site, all those indexes and digital images, and users’ family trees.

In all, it’s 2.5 petabytes of data (one petabyte is equivalent to 283,000 DVDs).

A lot of security protects that data. A guard watches cameras 24/7. Windows are bulletproof. Sensors monitor windows and doors. The Ancestry.com guy walking us around had to swipe his badge at several doors, then lay his palm in a Mission: Impossible-like handprint reader to enter the server rooms.

I can’t disclose the location and photographs weren’t permitted (darn it, I forgot my hidden-camera lapel pin), but the folks at Ancestry.com sent these approved images:

Some rows of server-filled cabinets:


Still more servers:
 

(This makes me feel insecure about the jumble of cords shoved behind my TV stand.)


There’s 807,000 Kw hours of power running through the cords per month—about the amount used by 1,076 average homes over the same time period. An elaborate air conditioning system keeps the servers from overheating.

If things do get too hot and the smoke detector sounds an alarm, all life forms have two minutes to scram before a fire-suppression chemical hisses into the room and starts to suck out the oxygen.

An automated system reroutes traffic around servers that are getting overheated or full, then alerts the techies who can replace those machines. Batteries can run the place for an hour should a power failure occur; huge generators can keep it going after that.

Regular disk backups are transferred to tape and whisked weekly to a Granite Mountain disaster-proof storage vault (near the one where FamilySearch keeps its master microfilms).

Ancestry.com’s monthly hosting costs run $300,000—$143,000 for the space, $112,000 for power and the rest for bandwidth. That’s part of what you’re paying for in your subscription. (A larger chunk of your subscription fee goes to adding new content and upgrading current content.)

Ancestry.com
Tuesday, January 13, 2009 12:30:41 PM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [4]
1911 UK Census Goes Online
Posted by Diane

The 1911 UK census is online for the first time at 1911census.co.uk, a site from the fee-based UK genealogy site FindMyPast.com.

The scheduled release date wasn’t until 2012, but public demand got it moved up. But sensitive information relating to illnesses and to children of women prisoners will be held back until 2012.

The 1911 census covers England, Wales, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, as well as those aboard Royal Naval and Merchant vessels at sea and in foreign ports. It’s also the first British census to include full details of British Army personnel and their families stationed overseas.

More than 27 million people's census entries—80 per cent of the English records—are available today. Over the coming months, 9 million records from the remaining counties of England, Wales, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, as well as the naval and overseas military records, will be added.  

You can search 1911census.co.uk by name, place and birth date (you’ll need a free registration). By summer, you’ll also be able to search on an address. Each record page view costs 30 credits; you can buy 60 credits for about $10.30.

The record images are color, scanned from the original census returns, which generally results in better images than scans from microfilm.


census records | Genealogy Web Sites | UK and Irish roots
Tuesday, January 13, 2009 8:20:15 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [0]
# Monday, January 12, 2009
Online Searching: It’s Complicated
Posted by Diane

The search presentation of Friday’s meeting at Ancestry.com shed some light on what happens after you hit the Submit button, and why your results sometimes don’t seem to make sense.

Not being a computer genius, I offer this layperson's interpretation:

Every variable your search contains—every date in a range, every place of residence, every keyword—computationally is a separate query that runs through the millions of records in Ancestry.com’s servers.

The search engine operates on an algorithm that assigns each record points based on terms in your search that match data fields in the record. Some data fields, such as the name, are weighted more heavily than others (that is, a matching name would get more points than a matching place of origin).

The search engine also assumes some terms are the same, for example, Kathleen and Cathy (who knew there are 800 variations on the name Catherine?), Florida and Fla, Syria and Alssyria. And it tries to account for the variations in spellings, the roaming birth dates and other unexpected information in historical records. Search product manager Anne Mitchell calls this “fuzziness.”

That’s why some records in your search results seem far outside the realm of possibility for your ancestor—the date or place may have been off, but the other stuff was close enough to get the points necessary to make the list.

Frustratingly, sometimes records you know aren't your ancestor get more points than the ones that might be him. You could spend hours sifting through all the search results—it's hard to know when to stop (someone said after two or three pages of results, it's unlikely you'll find the record you're looking for).

Mitchell said that the search engine's algorithm will soon be adjusted to subtract points when a name or date in a record doesn’t match what you typed in. Before, this additional step in the search process would’ve taken too long and made the servers start smoking. But now that the engineers have almost figured it out, your search results should appear in a more logical order, with the best matches higher up on the list.

It’s entirely possible my ancestors’ passenger list has been destroyed and they hid from the 1920 census enumerators, but once the changes go live, I’m going to repeat these frustrating searches.

Something else to think about if you have an Ancestry Family Tree: Family trees product manager Kenny Freestone said the quality of a family tree search—the automated search that give you those “shaky leaf” hints next to individuals in your tree—is more precise than for a ranked search. That’s because the hints are based on several generations of your tree, rather than just one person.

(And, by the way, you now can hide a tree so it’s completely excluded from the index.)


Ancestry.com | Genealogy Web Sites
Monday, January 12, 2009 9:38:50 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [0]
# Sunday, January 11, 2009
Secret Genealogy Blogger Revealed! (Partially)
Posted by Diane

Before I left for Salt Lake City, we Family Tree Magazine staffers were speculating whether I’d finally encounter the anonymous and well-informed Ancestry Insider blogger. 

And I did! Dear Myrtle and I were sitting across the table from him,  though silhouetted as he was against a bright window, I couldn’t really see him. But I did snap a photo:

 

Shoot. Well, he says to tell you that if Brad Pitt wore suspenders, they could be twins.


Genealogy fun
Sunday, January 11, 2009 12:04:21 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [1]
# Saturday, January 10, 2009
From Paper (or Film) to the Web
Posted by Diane

Our Ancestry.com tour included the corporate offices

and the digitization department. This is Laryn Brown, head of the Document Preservation department, in front of monitors tracking the scanning.

 

About a dozen people operated different kinds of scanners; one photographs books and automatically turns the pages. There was a flatbed scanner bigger than me.

 

In the works is a UV scanner, which can bring out ink on severely damaged and faded records (we saw an example of what this technology can do—it turned a nearly blank page into a readable document).

More and more often, though, Ancestry.com will digitize paper records on-site at repositories, with digital images sent to headquarters for processing.

Yes, many records are indexed in China and Uganda. Indexers receive months of training in English and whatever language the records are in; they're asked to key exactly what they see, even when a word is misspelled. US employees do quality spot checks and occasionally send back batches of records for re-indexing.

Back in the USA, another team examines records and indexes to “normalize” those misspellings and aberrations in data fields. Say a set of records is from California. The clerks who created the records way back when may have written the state as CA, Cal., Calif. or Calfa. The Ancestry.com staff will add “California” to the index for these records so they come up in customers' California searches.

More on searching later!

I was lucky enough Friday to be in the company of some wise bloggers and super-experienced genealogists. For their observations, see Dear MyrtleEastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter, Genea-Musings, the Ancestry Insider and GenealogyGuys.


Ancestry.com
Saturday, January 10, 2009 11:54:07 PM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [2]
New and Next at Ancestry.com
Posted by Diane

Ancestry.com hosted a bunch of genealogy bloggers yesterday for a tour of its offices and top-secret data center, and a look at what’s coming up on the site. I’ll cover it in several posts over the next few days. First, a summary of the soon-to-come stuff:

  • Some search engine tweaks should get you better search results that appear in more logical order. Right now, the search engine “scores” how well records match your search by awarding points for each term that matches. Soon, the search engine also will dock points from records with names or dates that don’t closely match what you entered.

Another update will help keep records dated, say, 1930 out of your search for someone who died in 1900 (search engineers have had to find a way to do this without making your searches take forever).

  • A wiki-like tool will make it easier for to add corrections to Ancestry.com’s indexes. (Senior vice president Andrew Wait admits the current mechanism isn’t the best.)

  • Upcoming DNA test price cuts will include a $79 33-marker Y-DNA test (down from $149) and a $149 46-marker test (down from $199). The reason for the cuts? Ancestry.com wants to build its DNA test results database to make it useful for people searching it for genetic cousins. Currently it has more than 30,000 results; they’re shooting for 150,000.

The DNA area also will feature more educational tools, many developed with help from partner 23andMe.

  • Content-wise, Ancestry.com is increasing efforts to digitize and index records in county and state archives, which means more scanning of paper documents rather than microfilm.

  • You’ll see new content including state censuses, a 1940 census substitute in the form of city directories from the era, state vital records, military records including Navy cruise books, naturalization documents from 1792 to 1989 (indexes just went live on the site; images are still to come), US Chinese immigration records, prison and criminal records, and more.

  • More Civil War records will come out in conjunction with Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday; a Vermont and New York records release will coincide with those states’ 400th anniversaries.

  • Look for more promotion of the World Archives Project, which vice president of content Gary Gibb says lets Ancestry.com save indexing costs and put more resources toward aquiring records.

  • Wait also announced a goal to increase family history education—including how to use resources that aren’t on Ancestry.com.

Ancestry.com
Saturday, January 10, 2009 8:27:24 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [0]
# Thursday, January 08, 2009
101 Best Sites: Texas Archives and a Genealogy Wiki
Posted by Diane

Our look at two of this year’s Family Tree Magazine 101 Best Web Sites picks takes us to Texas and around the world:
  • Texas State Library and Archives Commission: We categorized this site as “Best for Military Researchers” for its online index of 54,634 Lone Star State Confederate pension applications and Texas Adjutant General Service Records (1836 to 1935). But I’ve also found it helpful for other records: This archives was the source of information on my great-grandfather’s brief stay in the state penitentiary for bootlegging. I was impressed with the online information and staff responses to my research questions.
  • WeRelate: This is a community Web site just for genealogists that works on the "wiki" principle, where users generate and update the content. Created by the Foundation for On-Line Genealogy in partnership with the Allen County Public Library, the free site has pages for 1.5 million people/families.
Users can upload GEDCOM files, upload and annotate scanned documents and photos, share family stories and biographies, and generate maps of ancestors' life events.

Read more about using this and other genealogy wikis in the March 2009 Family Tree Magazine (on newsstands and FamilyTreeMagazine.com Jan. 13).
See the rest of the best on FamilyTreeMagazine.com.


Genealogy Web Sites
Thursday, January 08, 2009 10:22:21 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [0]
# Wednesday, January 07, 2009
New Online Index Guides You to St. Louis Ancestors
Posted by Diane

Dennis Northcott, archivist at the Missouri History Society in St. Louis (my old stomping grounds) wrote me about the new Missouri History Museum Genealogy and Local History Index.

The index includes references to hundreds of thousands of St. Louis ancestors who appear in more than 225 museum research sources.

That includes St. Louisans’ Civil War-era loyalty oaths, early 20th-century yearbooks, Who’s Who publications, local censuses, WWI service member questionnaires, newspaper clippings, church histories, business letterheads and others.

You can search the index by a person’s name, business/corporate name, or street address (great for researching the history of your house and its former occupants).

You’ll find a search tips link on each search form—Northcott suggests checking out those tips before you start.

Matches give source information for the resource the name or address appears in, then you can click to order a photocopy.

Learn more about the index in Voices, the Missouri History Museum’s online magazine, and see the museum’s Web site for additional St. Louis-area research help.


Genealogy Web Sites | Libraries and Archives
Wednesday, January 07, 2009 8:22:20 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [0]
# Tuesday, January 06, 2009
Are Digitization Projects Skipping Your Ancestor?
Posted by Diane

Genea-Musings blogger Randy Seaver brings up a seldom-raised issue: the quality and completeness of records digitization projects between the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and its partners Footnote, FamilySearch and Ancestry.com.

His post stems from a discussion on a professional genealogists’ mailing list. A list member experienced with NARA records did a spot check: She noted the first 25 names on a NARA microfilm reel of Civil War pension index cards and searched for those names in Ancestry.com’s pension index database. She found just one of the names. (I can hear you thinking "I knew it!")

The researcher said the cards that didn’t scan well from the microfilm were left out of the database (Ancestry.com’s source information states 1 percent of the cards are “missing;” she puts the percentage higher).

The researcher also questioned the wisdom of scanning colored documents in black and white, pointing to Footnote's Civil War widows' pensions project.

A NARA staff member explained that partner digitization projects use original records or the highest-quality “master” microfilm and are subject to quality controls. Other, non-partner projects may have digitized records from second- or third-generation film, resulting in poorer images.

He also said NARA does make original records available, even after they’re digitized, to "researchers who need to see them."

A respondent from Ancestry.com commented that the microfilmed Civil War pension index cards were particularly difficult to scan because some cards were on dark paper, and the technology available at the time was inferior to today's.

See Seaver’s entire post here. He raises good questions at the end.

It’s easy and comforting to assume genealogy databases have every surviving document in a particular record set. This is a reminder that’s not always the case.  


Genealogy Industry
Tuesday, January 06, 2009 12:52:18 PM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [8]
Go to This Summer's Family Reunion on a Shoestring
Posted by Diane

Now’s the time to be thinking about this summer’s family reunion. You can glean a few tips from CNN’s article about holding reunions during tough times.

The March 2008 Family Tree Magazine (now mailing to subscribers) offers a special genealogy-on-a-budget section with professional researcher Maureen A. Taylor’s how-tos for genealogy travel on a shoestring. Here's a sneak preview:
  • Explore transportation, hotel and rental car options using a metasearch engine such as Farecast or Kayak, which search several travel sites at once. (Study the fine print for any added fees, though.)
  • Instead of putting up your whole group in a hotel, consider renting a residence through a site such as Cyberrentals.
  • Try to use public transportation instead of renting a car, especially in big cities. Ask your hotel or the visitors bureau Web site for information.
  • Scout out restaurants ahead of time and shop for gift certificates priced below face value at Restaurants.com (note any restrictions on usage) and eBay.
Get more planning help in FamilyTreeMagazine.com’s Reunions section and create kid-friendly get-togethers with advice from Family Tree Kids!


Family Reunions
Tuesday, January 06, 2009 9:54:31 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [1]