Using the Cloud for British Family History Research – An Interview with Graham Walter

graham walter

[Editor’s Note: Genealogist Graham Walter will be leading a series of genealogy classes discussing cloud computing and British family history research during the upcoming British Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah, October 7-11, 2013. In a recent interview conducted by Thomas MacEntee, Graham describes the state of cloud computing as it relates to genealogy research.]

If you had only 10 second to describe The Cloud to a genealogist, what would that description be?

‘The Cloud’ is a term that describes software and services presented via the internet. It can come in the form of small applications installed on the local computer or device but can also be presented as web-based apps but most share a common function of synchronising data between devices and web-based storage as well as being able to share with other users of our own choosing.

While it seems that many computer users have embraced “The Cloud” concept, in both the business world and personal computing space, the genealogy community has lagged behind. Are there any clear reasons for this reluctance to use The Cloud for genealogy research?

Many of us have collected out family history data through hours of toil in record offices and archives, often collecting it in the form of photocopies, hand written notes and sometimes microfiche. The result is a physical collection and very tangible ‘proof’ of our efforts.
Whilst a lot of our community are technically competent, many are not necessary of a technology ‘mind’. Also the computer industry has not, historically, been kind the end user – how many of us, in the early days of non-business email services, ended up loosing months of emails by a change by your ISP or by not having the enough of the ‘dark arts’ required to configure an email application?

In some respects, as a community we have been wary to adopt the ‘new’ of technology – how long did it take many us to upgrade to Windows XP from Windows 98 (or XP to Windows 7)? If it ain’t broke don’t even look for the tool box.

I think with the wide spread and reasonably quick spread of smartphones and tablets we (family historians) are seeing that there are may benefits of the services and applications provide by the cloud – for both mobile and static computing devices.

In your track at British Institute 2013, Using the Cloud for British Family History Research, you plan on covering various aspects of using The Cloud, especially for research trips. Can you give us a sneak peek as to what specific apps or functions you’ll cover?

I like to use an example of a trip to the Family History Library back in 2010 whilst in Salt Lake City for an earlier British Institute.

My computer was connected to the library wifi, as was my iPad. I collected a film and proceeded to look for some of my Wales ancestors, transcribing the information onto the iPad and Evernote as I went… after finishing with a few films I went back to desk and the computer – all of the transcriptions taken with the iPad were already there waiting for me… to trim them up, correct a few spelling errors (auto-‘not-quite’-correct!!) and collate the new information into my family history application. I didn’t need to try and fit the computer next to the film reader; there was no need to transcribed my hand written notes and then collate them – much of what was needed was already done by using a cloud solution.
We will also be looking at file storage with services such as DropBox and Box.net; web-based applications such as Google Docs and MS Office 365; photo storage with 1000 Memories and Flickr; as well as examining some of the specific family history web sites to further our research in to our British ancestors – findmypast.co.uk; TheGenealogist.co.uk; Ancestry.co.uk; British Newspaper Archives and British Origins.

Is The Cloud concept here to stay or is it just a fad? And why does The Cloud seem to make sense right now?

I think the cloud is here to stay – in that applications and services will continue to be provided by the internet… but it may be that the way they are presented to us and the way we interact with them will change. Will we have ‘augmented reality’ overlays from our head-mounted computer displays that show us images of the street we are in as it was in 1883? The possibilities presented by experiments like Google Glass can only be imagined but the underlying presentation of the data will likely come from the cloud.

Are there any genealogy-specific apps or programs taking advantage of The Cloud? Or has the genealogy community had to “ re-purpose” programs like Evernote to make them work for genealogy?

There are examples of those apps that we would re-purpose for our family history needs but there are those that are dedicated to genealogy and family history.

Many of the apps or services we will use from the cloud are often referred to as ‘productivity applications’ – they can be used by anybody for use in almost any type of activity, from hobbies to business and all points in between. Like the the typical ‘office applications’ like Microsoft Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Cloud apps can be adopted to fill the needs of the genealogist and family historian.

There are cloud-based spreadsheet, word processing and database applications that can directly replace the locally installed versions. We have apps that are have similar features that provide a better, specific use-case… and electronic notebook for our journalling as a replacement or adjunct to a physical notebook, a photo storage app that provides a means of collecting and sharing as a replacement for the physical photo album… and many more.

There are also the family history specific apps and services. Companies like ‘My Heritage‘; ‘findmypast’; ‘Family Search‘ and Ancestry are now providing services that can, if you want, replace the need for installing a family history application to your computer. These cloud-based services may provide enhancements over the ‘normal’ application by providing a means to match and compare your family tree data with other users within the site; share you family tree via the web with family members or other interested parties – even access your tree from other devices you own – like smartphones and tablets.

About Graham Walter, MCBS

In the real world Graham is an IT manager with Nissan and Renault in the U.K. He is a professional member of the British Computer Society. In the family history community, he is a volunteer with the Society of Genealogists’ Educational Outreach program. Graham works together with Jeanne Bunting as part of the “Census Detectives,” attending various family history fairs and society open house days showing people how to make use of online services for their family history research. He is also a member of the Guild of One Name Studies. and has given talks at their one-day seminars as well as presenting at family history group meetings.

©2013, copyright Thomas MacEntee

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