What if Genealogy had a TED Conference?

Wednesday, 21 May 2008 | by Mark Tucker

Each year in California a conference is held where the world’s greatest thinkers and doers present “ideas worth spreading.” The conference is called TED which stands for technology, entertainment, and design. What started in 1984 as a gathering place to explore these three converging fields has expanded its content to include science, business, the arts, and the global issues facing our world. Over four days, each of the 50 presenters gets 18 minutes to give the talk or performance of their lives. The results are fascinating, inspirational, ingenious, or just plain beautiful. Many of these talks are made available for free online at

TED Genealogy

Does genealogy have anything like a TED conference?

 From a small gathering in 1991 of 6 genealogy and genealogy software group leaders came the non-profit organization called GENTECH that hosted local and then national conferences to attract genealogists to computers and computer users to genealogy. Or more simply put, it merged genealogy and technology (see In 2002, GENTECH became a division of the National Genealogical Society (NGS) and can still be seen in GENTECH tracks at the annual NGS conference. Most of these sessions focus on new genealogy software and internet sites, how to use technology for genealogy, and occasionally a glimpse of the future. Another conference that focuses on family history and technology has been held at Brigham Young University (BYU) since 2001 and is called the Family History Technology Workshop. In 2008, this workshop had about 100 attendees – most of them software developers with just a hand full of attendees that used (but did not create) genealogy software. An interesting part of this conference is that it is open to computer science students to present projects they have been working on as well as professionals in the genealogy software community. Some of these 20 minute presentations dealt with the human interface and design while others were much more technical. The area of genealogy continues to advance technologically and more focus is starting to be placed on the design of the user experience of software.

What if there were a TED-like conference to spread the best ideas about technology, entertainment, and design in genealogy and family history? There are so many fascinating things happening with technology in genealogy that could be distilled at a level all could understand or at least leave us awe struck. Not enough is currently being done in the area of design in genealogy, but with raised awareness of such a forum many would likely rise to the occasion. The genealogy community could only be bettered by the results. We all have families and ancestors, but not everyone is interested in genealogy. Entertainment is mostly untapped when it comes to genealogy. It has the potential of interesting millions in their ancestry at a level and to a degree that is comfortable to them. One example of the blend of genealogy and entertainment is from the music group, Venice, and their song “Family Tree.” Imagine an annual conference where genealogy’s greatest thinkers and doers present their ideas worth spreading to the world. Imagine a venue where passion can be seen in presentation and performance that inspires, is fascinating, or is just plain beautiful.

If genealogy had a TED-like conference, what topics would you like to see presented in the areas of technology, entertainment, and design?


  1. Mark, I would like to see a topic on designing genealogy forms for computer users. As a relative newcomer (10 yrs) to genealogy and fairly tech-savvy it surprises me that more computer-friendly forms are not available for the user. Most books still have printouts to photocopy, but how many people use these. I had to search extensively for .doc forms that I could fill in through MS Word and was very happy to find a set of PDF forms and charts from Michael Hait to use.

    I would like to use charts and forms that take advantage of color, fonts, styles — all things that you use admirably in you Geneaology Research Map. I even tried to make a custom research form following the map and using the colors and symbols you set out. . . alas, my charting skills are not up to the task (yet!). Good design does help with good research.

    Comment by Denise Levenick — 23 May 2008 @ 2:08 pm

  2. I would like to express support for, and add to, the comment above by Denise – As the author of THE FAMILY HISTORY RESEARCH TOOLKIT (Genealogical, 2008), I am obviously very interested in bringing the classic genealogy forms into the 21st century and beyond. While the Toolkit has fillable/savable PDF forms (perfect for sharing information with non-users of genealogy software), I still believe that additional improvements could be made to the forms that are used. Family Group Records and Pedigree Charts have been around forever! One idea that I am toying around with right now is a “social web/social map” idea, taking advantage of the benefits of so-called “cluster genealogy”. I am also drawing inspiration from the “genogram” format of graphic representation.

    Comment by Michael Hait — 27 May 2008 @ 12:47 pm

  3. I am glad to see that Michael Hait is still thinking of new research forms — I use the toolkit to help organize my notes when I have a particular family focus. As I encourage students in my high school classes, I find that the exercise of typing notes or even recopying is a solid learning tool. Michael’s ideas of a “social web/map” and “cluster genealogy” are intriguing. Where can I find out more about this?

    Comment by Denise Levenick — 29 May 2008 @ 5:08 pm

  4. I have not quite formalized the system yet, though when I do, I will likely publish the results: on my website, in a magazine/journal, and/or in manuscript form. I am particularly interested in two aspects: the graphical form of note-taking as espoused in Tony Buzan’s “Mind Map” concept, and many of the new discoveries/insights of network theory.

    At this point, my idea of a social web involves a combination of the Pedigree Chart and Family Group Record, similar to an “All-in-One Chart”, with additional connections added for non-familial relations. For example, spouses’ siblings and siblings’ spouses, neighbors, additional parties to deeds, witnesses to baptisms and wills, and others who attended the same church, or shared a similar occupation in the same town, etc. “Cluster genealogy” attempts to reconstruct the social structure surrounding a given individual at a given time and place — one of the concepts of network theory states that if A knows B, and B knows C, then A is highly likely to at some point know C. In mapping social relationships, one often finds that such social circles indeed exist, with a small group of people often being involved with each other throughout a given period of time in multiple facets.

    Social circles are best expressed in a very loosely structured format. This makes it quite difficult to create a set “form” (like those in the Toolkit). I have had some success in using the WordArt functions of Microsoft Word, and MS Power Point also works well to a degree.

    Aside from this project, however, I have indeed been thinking of additional ideas for new forms, and plan to have a few “web-exclusive” forms available on my website soon. Check back often for their availability:

    Comment by Michael Hait — 29 May 2008 @ 7:53 pm

  5. Thank you, Michael, for the very helpful description of “cluster genealogy.” As a writer/researcher, I find the family connections and stories the most interesting part of genealogy and your ideas to track a “historical social community” strike me as a very useful tool. That said, yes, it is quite difficult to construct a set “form” to use as a log for these relationships.

    What about some tool that also uses a narrative? I have been considering the idea of a family Who’s Who, brief prose biographies that would present information in an engaging narrative with sources listed outside the narrative itself. By this I do not mean the prose statement of facts, dates, and places that is generated by genealogy software, but something highly personal and engaging. This would be enhanced by a form that offers the sources and raw data, but the narrative would allow for the human connections to be revealed… A marries B with C as a witness; the narrative could explain that C is the foster child raised by the family of B.

    I will be checking your website, and enjoy this conversation. Thanks.

    Comment by Denise Levenick — 2 Jun 2008 @ 12:08 pm

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