Alan Eaton. Founder & CEO.
- Date of Incorporation: 1998
- Location: Springville, Utah
- Industry (Yahoo Finance): Internet Software & Services
- Employees: 30
- Website: OneGreatFamily.com
OneGreatFamily.com was founded in 1998. Will you please share how things got started?
I started working for the Church before FamilySearch™ Internet had begun. I worked on a project called FamilySearch™ 2, which was a CD-ROM-based product. The FamilySearch™ that was on the CDs used a DOS interface. They hired me to be on the team to do a Windows interface. I got there and recommended that they should do something on the Internet. At the time you could hardly say the I-word. (They called it the I-word.) The Church was being very cautious about the Internet because it had pornography and bad things on it. So I was inadvertently ruffling feathers by saying we should do an Internet project here at the Church, and that it should be FamilySearch™ on the Internet. One day Randy Bryson called me into his office. He sat me down and he said “We’ve heard you’ve been causing some trouble around here.” And I said, “Yeah, I can’t help it, I’m just trying to make things better. I came up here to try to see if I can contribute; it’s not about creating a job for me, it’s that I want to make things better.” He said, “Well, we want you to be the Technical Lead for FamilySearch™ Internet.” And that was that; nobody had known about it and so I was the original, the first Technical Lead for FamilySearch™ Internet as it was being conceived and built.
Yeah, that’s how it started. FamilySearch™ Internet was just going to be this data search engine and I said, “We need to do the end project. We need to achieve the ultimate goal, which is a family tree online that everybody can work on at the same time.” I started prototyping it, programming what I thought would be the ultimate genealogy experience on the bus as I was commuting to Salt Lake, using an old broken-down laptop. The screen wasn’t even connected. I had to lean it on the seat in front of me while I was prototyping. This is real entrepreneur stuff, right? And I was doing it on my commute for free. I called it “One Family” and they kind of got word of it up at the Church and they started having me present it to some employees. Then I started presenting it to the leaders of the Family History Department, then they had me present it to the General Authorities and I presented it to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. I didn’t sleep two days before or two days after, and they tentatively approved a multi-million dollar budget to build it. A few weeks later, they called me back in and said the First Presidency had decided, “Not now.” That was June 14, 1998. And so I said, “Does that mean not now for anybody, or just not now for the Church?” They came back and said, “Well, we’ll have to get back to you.”
No, they got back to me in ’99—still in June—and they said, “No, we wish you the best success to go do this on your own.” And that’s how OneGreatFamily started. I presented to the Church from October ’98 to June 14th of ‘99. I was presenting to the Church and they were calling me and I was doing it all without pay considerations.
The idea of having a digital one human family tree of Adam has been around for years. There’s the Ancestral File, the Pedigree Resource File, Ancestry’s OneWorldTree®, even the new FamilySearch™. So why did you decide to create your own system?
At the time, the only thing that existed was Ancestral File. And Pedigree Resource File is just a collection of GEDCOMs, it’s actually not a human family tree. So it didn’t quite fit the bill either. Our vision was that there, in the end, when this is all done, there would be one human family tree. I saw the weaknesses of Ancestral File. We set out to fix all the problems of Ancestral File, because Ancestral File had the core idea, it was just early technology. We came along and improved on that and had our tree going. I’ll tell you more about the preservation of user-specific views and everything as we go on, but it was long before Ancestry OneWorldTree®. I think they came in 2003 or 4. The new FamilySearch™ has been in the works for five years, but it is only being released to members this year.
So there are all kinds of online industries that you could have gone into in 1998—books, retail, real estate. Why did you choose Family History?
I think I have 20 other ideas that I’d like to go do that are not family history related, and some would be a lot more profitable, a lot more fun, and a lot more wild. But I think it goes back to the idea that family history is kind of in my genes; it’s in my marrow of my bones. I felt there was a need and a time and a purpose and I feel like we’ve been on that mission a little bit. Vision might be too strong of a word, but I really felt it was kind of a calling to go do this and to help the world. Really our number one goal was to try to get millions of people involved in and enjoying their family history, and at the same time make some money with it. But the goals are in that order and that’s been our mission from the beginning. While there are other opportunities, I’ve had a natural interest in family history for a long time. My brother and I used to sit down on the floor, four or five-years old, and look at a book that my mother had made. She had made carbon copies, one book for each of her children. There were pictures of our ancestors and cartoons; we’d just thumb through that family history book and it had an impact on me.
Let’s go back to OneWorldTree®. This idea is very prevalent nowadays—what makes you stand out from the competition?
The biggest differences vary depending on the company, so let’s take them one at a time:
Pedigree Resource File, as I’ve said, is just a collection of GEDCOMs, not a tree, not a one world tree concept or a simple family tree or a common pedigree.
Ancestry’s OneWorldTree® is what they call, by their own terms, tree-stitching where people submit GEDCOMs and they stitch them together. OneWorldTree® is kind of a misnomer because they’re all just kind of tied; the GEDCOMs are tied together.
At OneGreatFamily, we take everybody’s data and we actually merge it together to remove the duplication as a benefit to the users. There’s only one you or I on this planet. The goal of OneGreatFamily is to get rid of all the tens of thousands of duplicates, boil it down to the single you and me that lived. OneWorldTree® does not do that, that’s one of the big differences between us.
The new FamilySearch™ hasn’t quite made it to where we are either. Their technology does some of what we do, but we do some important things they don’t. One core idea is that they don’t handle automated matching. They don’t do automatic merging, and there are even limitations for users from doing lots of what they call “combining”; in fact, they even limit the number of times you can combine because of technology limitations. My understanding is they have a couple thousand servers that they’re running it on. We’re taking ¾ of the traffic they do and we’re running on 20 or 25 servers. Our technology is very optimized and is very good.
Let’s talk a little bit more about this merging process. One of the main reasons that the Ancestral File was stopped is because names were combined incorrectly. John Smiths from different decades were combined incorrectly and digital polygamy was born. With OneGreatFamily.com, you have not only figured out a way to merge names correctly, but you’ve also figured out how to do this automatically. I’m intrigued. How do you do this?
We like to say we’ve fired a lot of neurons to make this happen, and gone through lots of revisions; it’s part of our proprietary technology—the algorithms that we use. But one of the base concepts that we use is what we call a Handprint™. We’ve found that if you take an individual and you put the person in the palm of your hand, the fingers represent relationships. If you take those relationships—father, mother, spouse, siblings, children, those relationships uniquely identify a person better than names, dates, and places. We built our whole technology around this Handprint™ concept. Nobody else does it. Not to mention that it’s a great way to identify people. We can take the world’s data of those who don’t have dates or places and we can combine them into the human family tree. No one else that we know of can do this. In Africa, South America, they have great oral genealogies—no dates and places. We’re the only technology that we know of that can actually bring them in and make them part of the human family tree because our technology uses relationships to do it.
What about conflicting data points during this merge process? Birthdates, names, etc… How does the system know how to automatically choose which data point is correct?
That’s a good question. We knew that people would have differing opinions. And that they would potentially never go away. We might always disagree. So we had to build technology that would preserve everybody’s view, yet do this matching and merging of the whole human family tree.
And that’s a lot of what they are doing with the new FamilySearch™
Kind of, except that at the new FamilySearch™, they have their summary view and the last person who sets that wins. I can’t figure out how to see my view. They kind of approximated it, but didn’t quite get there. We preserve everybody’s view. Now what we chose to do with our system, and it’s a business decision, is to implement it so that people can add to your view. They can add to your tree without your consent, but if you don’t like what they added, you simply hit the delete key. And it just deletes it from your view. We don’t let anybody change your data without your consent.
As the original submitter?
Now the other thing though is that we show you, at a glance, in your whole pedigree who has a differing opinion with you. We indicate it in what we call a “star field view,” so at a glance you can go out and collaborate with others and email them, and communicate with them, to find out why they have a different value than you. You can see what sources they have—birth certificates, etc. This really was meant to allow the whole world to work on OneGreatFamily at the same time. We built the system to handle all of that and deal with the conflicts.
These technologies seem to be the end-all, self-perpetuating solution to Adam’s family tree. I would think that all you need is a pipeline of genealogical data pouring into your system and you would create the most incredible, automatic family history machine ever. Have you considered researching OCR technologies, partnering with Footnote.com or the Family Search Indexing project to create this type of a system?
Absolutely. In fact, we have continuing discussions with Footnote and since 1998 I’ve had discussions with the Church quarterly, sometimes monthly. OneGreatFamily was built to be the skeleton of the human family tree, and the technology is there ready for people to hang all kinds of meat on the bones, to fill out the stories, and we have stories in OneGreatFamily. We’re just not in the business of going and finding that data. Our business is to provide the best human family tree services available. We’ve got a web service that’s available now, so that anybody can leverage our human family tree, and do all this kind of extra stuff on top of it. We’ve built it to do just that, and we think a partner will come along. We’ve just recently, in the last few months, started doing some business development trying to get partners to use our web service. We kind of prototyped it and gave it a name. It’s called GenealogyCloud.com™. People can check it out, see how to access it. It is very simple programming API, a REST API.I If people can do Google Maps, they can do genealogy.
So, this is a means for an individual to tap into your skeleton and add meat to the bones?
It’s for anybody that needs human family tree services, which may include other fields.
And this currently exists?
Yes it does.
What do you think is the next step for the genealogical-entrepreneurial world? What do you think is the next step for us to better redeem the dead?
The next “genealogical entrepreneur” thing to do is a more difficult question [addressed in the final paragraph]. What I think the next step to do to redeem the dead is a product that we’re doing called “OneClickTempleTrip.” It’s simply meant for the people who want to do the temple work for their own ancestors, but don’t have the time or the means or the interest to go dig through microfilm or search for things on the Internet and so forth. What we did is create a product that will allow you to login, we search your tree for you, and find your next ancestor to take to the temple. We do it as fast as is possible with today’s technology. So you click, login using your FamilySearch™ login (because they’re the ones that keep the temple data), our machines do their thing, give you back your next ancestor, and you print it out and take it to the temple. It’s that easy.
In my interview with Janet Hovorka, I asked her what needs to happen to get more people involved with genealogy. And her answer was “to make genealogy simple.” There are so many people who feel overwhelmed when they get in the family history experience and I look forward to see OneClickTempleTrip.com come out. So…
We’re putting finishing touches on it right now.
So, OneClickTempleTrip.com seems to answer my next question, but I’ve asked this question in each interview and I’m going to ask it anyways: Statistics show that only 1-3 percent of members actually do family history work. What do think hinders members from redeeming the dead?
First, I think your statistic is optimistic. I think there are about 20 things, so I’ll give you the top two:
#1 – Members think the work’s already been done. There needs to be a product that shows them what has been done and what has not been done. And it needs to show them, instead of them having to learn how to become a genealogist and go dig through microfilm and indexing and doing all of these things.
#2 – They’re generally interested but they don’t have the time to become expert enough to tackle doing genealogy. They just need to be able to see how to do the work for their kindred dead. That’s why we’re focusing on that.
Do you feel that OneClickTempleTrip.com is going to be the solution to this?
Will it be the solution for everybody? We think we’re pretty close; in about a week, we’re going to Beta. And so we’ll get feedback. The ultimate will be OneClickTempleTrip combined with OneGreatFamily; as you do the temple work for your ancestors, we can show you stories, pictures, etc. OneGreatFamily has this infrastructure of the whole human family tree. We can also search it fast and give you performance without burdening down the Church’s system, which is already overloaded. We can offload all of that load from the new FamilySearch™. But we have tools in OneGreatFamily that let you see your whole family tree back to Adam while you’re sitting there on your screen. We’re the only product that has that. It’s called Genealogy Browser, and we have a star field view that shows your tree back to Adam.
How correct is it? When you get to those kings and they start fabricating some genealogy, how correct is that? Based upon what records you have.
It depends on who you talk with, because the serious genealogists don’t even think the Bible is correct. And those kings tie into the Bible; they don’t consider it a valid source. You have to take that all into consideration.
Any advice you would give to genealogists, entrepreneurs or members of the Church?
Yes, I’d give advice to each one of those groups distinctly. First of all to genealogists, I would give advice to do what they do best, which is to continue to require good quality genealogy research, contribute to places like OneGreatFamily and help clean it up for everybody. They are doing a service for everybody else.
To the members of the Church who are not genealogists, my advice would be to go and enjoy your family history and do the temple work for your kindred dead. Leverage the work of your “Aunt May” who is doing your genealogy. Support your “Aunt May,” give “her” money, encourage “her,” be interested. Enjoy the family history and do the temple work, because “Aunt May” can’t do all the temple work either. You know everybody has this “Aunt May.”
For the entrepreneurs, I would say don’t reinvent the wheel. Go do something that hasn’t been done, leverage things like GenealogyCloud™ and provide a new interface, a new experience. Because that’s where all of us working together will make it better for everybody involved. But reinventing the wheel, still doing things that have already been done, is a waste of time for everybody.
Family history is a wonderful, enjoyable thing to do in life. I can’t imagine getting much more satisfaction than being able to do it for a living. Marrying technology with family history and providing for my family and doing some good in the world is the ideal job in my mind. My parting thoughts for entrepreneurs is: go with your passion. Do something that you love, whether it’s family history or not. If you can find a passion, if you have a passion to marry technology and doing good in the world, I think there’s no better reward.
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