I stumbled across an interesting web page which seems to be making a bit of a buzz in the design circles and since this blog is about the intersection of genealogy and technology I had to share it. Industrial designers Huang Jianbo, Zhao Ting, Wang Yushan, Ran Xiangfei & Mo Ran came up with an innovative and hi-tech way to reach out and touch someone from beyond the grave (in a thankfully non-zombie-ish way): the E-tomb.

etomb3Posted on the Yanko Design site, this grave marker of the future has it all: the ability to store your personal web pages, blog, facebook profile, photos, videos and more for easy access by a mourner or genealogist’s bluetooth-enabled smartphone. Better still, the smallish memorial is topped with a heavenly layer of solar panel silicon to power the information terminal. I guess you could see the whole thing as a little spooky, but on second thought I rather like the idea of preserving the bits and bytes of my life in-perpetuity for future generations to browse. Maybe someday this blog will be enshrined on a chip in my tombstone.

Better yet, maybe someday a digital facsimile of my consciousness will be embedded into an e-tomb memorial so that I can call out to future relative passersby of my cemetery plot and virtually guide them through the family tree research I so painstakingly compiled in my lifetime, like a genealogy version of McCoy Pauley, “The Dixie Flatline,” in Gibson’s NEUROMANCER.

Other than the fact that the e-tomb is currently only a proof of concept design (near as I can tell), the only bone I’d pick with the designers is that in all of their careful attention to the “e” aspect, they forgot to include the option for some good ol’ analog inscriptions on that e-tomb tombstone! Maybe that’s for version 2.0…

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Like people, it’s no secret that from the moment a cemetery is “born”, it is already dying. Initially land for plots is plentiful and revenues roll in to maintain and improve the facilities. But for most, the space for selling new plots eventually runs out (especially in urban cemeteries) and perpetual care fees even if invested well can’t keep up with the cost of maintenance. Each cemetery faces an inevitable decline into obscurity and neglect without infusions of cash.

Aside from the family members of those buried in one of these “lost” cemeteries, this situation pains no one more than genealogists — not only do we depend on well-maintained cemeteries for access to records, but also for providing a safe environment for our wanderings. That’s why I’m pleased when I find a examples of how some cemeteries are finding innovative ways to reverse the downward spiral of decay.

JCCem-WebsiteOne such place is the Historic Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery. Founded in 1829 and serving as the final resting place of many Jersey City, New Jersey founders as well as for soliders from the Revolutionary War to the present day, the cemetery has a rich history but also a checkered past. Declining revenues and financial mismanagement by past trustees caused the cemetery to fall into disrepair by the turn of this century and finally abandoned in 2008. But a new cemetery board of trustees made of caring volunteers is turning things around with a mix of community events and Internet technology.

JCCem-FacebookFunds are needed for clearing the detritus of years of neglect on the grounds. Ongoing maintenance of the grounds and buildings are needed and the deteriorating cemetery records need restoration and preservation. The cemetery built and launched a modern website to serve as the communication hub for all these fundraising efforts. They use email marketing to keep people aware of upcoming events and they have an active Facebook page with over 750 fans. I haven’t found a Twitter account yet or any YouTube videos, but I’m sure those will come along eventually if they help spread the message and aid fundraising efforts.

The Jersey City & Harsimus Cemetery uses these channels not only to solicit donations directly, but also to promote innovative community fundraising events including:

“Ghost of Uncle Joe’s Halloween” costume ball and rock show
“Old Time Wakes” – Oral stories by legendary storyteller Bob Leach
“Shakespeare at the Cemetery” – a theater performance

JCCem-The Ghost of Uncle JoeTo some, the idea of of holding concerts and theater performances in a cemetery may be anathema, but I think its a great way to get the community invested in the preservation of this cemetery and making its records more accessible to those that need them. The “spooky” draw of it all may help get kids into learning about genealogy and history instead of defacing it. It also harkens back to the “garden cemetery” movement of the 19th century when cemeteries were as much park & recreation facilities for the public enjoyment as they were utilitarian places to bury the dead.

It’s hard to say where all this social media and internet tech will take the Jersey City Cemetery but I can’t help but think its a positive model for other struggling cemeteries — embrace the future to help preserve the past!

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Genealogy research has changed dramatically in the last 16 or so years since the Web was born: we’re now able to search more records from our home computers, create electronic trees and post them to web sites, scan and post old photos to share with family members and more. But this has come at a price. Instead of our work becoming more durable, our increasing reliance on digitized documents has made everything more ephemeral than ever. This was never more clear to me than when I came back from a vacation last summer after working on some family history research. As I prepared to boot up my laptop to back everything up, nothing happened. After a week of attempting to wrest my data from a damaged hard drive I was forced to give it all up for lost and had to restore everything from a two-week-old backup. If it hasn’t happened to you yet you might be tempted to think “not me” but here are a few sobering statistics:

  • Computer hard drives are rated for 3-5 years MTBF (that’s Mean Time Before Failure). Unless you’re buying a new computer every 2-3 years and barring any rough treatment, sooner or later your drive WILL fail.
  • 6% of all PCs will suffer an episode of data loss in any given year. Given the number of PCs used in US businesses in 1998, that translates to approximately 4.6 million data loss episodes. The number is probably even higher today. [1]
  • 31% of PC users have lost all of their files due to events beyond their control (fire, flood, lightning, etc.) [2]
  • Simple drive recovery can cost upwards of $7,500 and success is not guaranteed.[2]

But you can take measures to protect your precious research. USB Flash Memory “thumb drives” are easy and portable, but impractical for large amounts of files. For relatively recent computers with a CD or DVD drive that can write (“burn”) as well as read disks, regularly writing a backup disk of your precious files is a must. This method is great for having an instant snapshot of your data that you can easily restore or move to another computer, but it can become tiresome.

I tried to stick to a schedule of backing things up every 2 weeks, or when I made a major addition to my genealogy files. In the case of my post-vacation disaster, it turned out that two weeks was not frequent enough — I lost everything I did while on vacation! It can also become an issue of space. Making backups on standard “write-once” optical disks like CD-R or DVD-R is relatively cheap, but even if you only fill one CD or DVD each time and back up once a week, where are you going to put 52 disks after a year? Or 104 disks after 2 years? My needs require at least 3 DVDs per complete backup cycle — 156 DVDs per year!!

Instead, I chose to use rewriteable optical disks. I now rotate between 2 backup sets with these DVD rewriteables: each time I back up I overwrite the oldest set and this ensures that if something happens to the most recent backup, I at least have another no more than 2 weeks old. It also puts less “wear and tear” on the rewriteable media since these do have a limited number of rewrites before they will need to be replaced.

So CD/DVDs are a good, solid backup plan, even if a little cumbersome depending on how often you back up and how large your file storage needs are. After my computer crash, and wanting something to supplement my disk media backups, to be a little more frequent, and less work for me, I began to ask myself “what else is there?” It turns out there are a surprising number of online services (both free and for a monthly fee) that will remotely back up your computer for you. Leave your computer on, log into the service with a password and it will back up the files you designate via your Internet connection. The beauty of this is the potential for much more frequent incremental backups which you can restore to any computer wherever you can access the Internet. Here’s a sampling of some of the major online backup services out there:

iBackup www.ibackup.com 5 GB, 15-day free trial
Mozy www.mozy.com 2 GB FREE, subscription plans for more capacity available
iDrive www.idrive.com 2 GB FREE, subscription plans for more capacity available

Check out this PC Magazine review of various services: http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2288745,00.asp or just Google “online backup” and you’ll see lots of options.

After some research and assessment of my storage needs, not the least of which was the desire for a 100% FREE solution, I settled on iDrive. It supports both Macintosh and PCs and provides handy software for connecting to the service and restoring your files should you need to. You can also easily set up automatic backups on a schedule. And best of all if you refer 10 of your friends to iDrive, they will bump up your free storage allotment from 2 Gigabytes to 12 Gigabytes. (Note: Your friends don’t need to join, you just enter their email addresses and iDrive sends them an invitation.) Once you use up your storage allotment either purchase more storage space or erase the online backup completely and start fresh. It is a good idea to permanently back up files that never change to CD/DVD and only use the online backup for files that change regularly.

If you share files with others regularly another service I’ve become fond of is DropBox. For free you can get 2 GB of live storage that behaves like another drive on your computer. Once installed, drop files into the Dropbox folder and it also copies them to the Dropbox server where they are backed up. You can also designate a shared folder and invite others to access it, creating a virtual shared hard drive you can access in real time. Very handy.

Ultimately you must decide for yourself how often and by what methods you back up those precious genealogy files, but for me maintaining a 1-2 week CD/DVD backup cycle along with a remote backup service every other night in case I slack off on the CD backups or they become damaged seemed about right. If none of this sounds workable for you however, there’s always the original low-tech backup method: paper. Just start saving up for that climate controlled, fireproof warehouse!

[1] “The Cost Of Lost Data,” David M. Smith. Graziadio School of Business & Management, Pepperdine University. Accessed 3/29/2010.
[2] “Data Loss Statistics.” Boston Computing Network. Accessed 3/29/2010

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Late last year the Web was abuzz with talk about Google’s preview release of “Wave” and its possibilities. If you haven’t heard of it, Google described it as a “personal communication and collaboration tool”. It is a web-based service, computing platform, and communications tool designed to merge e-mail, instant messaging, wikis, and social networking. In a little more layman’s terms:

  • A wave is equal parts conversation and document. People can communicate and work together with richly formatted text, photos, videos, maps, and more.
  • A wave is shared. Any participant can reply anywhere in the message, edit the content and add participants at any point in the process. Then playback lets anyone rewind the wave to see who said what and when.
  • A wave is live. With live transmission as you type, participants on a wave can have faster conversations, see edits and interact with extensions in real-time.

How does genealogy fit in? Since genealogy research is frequently about collaboration and sharing of materials, the real-time communication and group collaboration power of Wave seems to have real potential to revolutionize genealogy research, especially as more and more research is done online. You can drop in images, documents, video, maps and more. People you add to a wave after it is underway can play back additions to the wave up to that point to see how the conversation developed and get right up to speed. And there are a number of software bits called “gadgets” and “robots” that add extra functionality to a wave.

But the momentum seems to have stalled in recent months. The main genealogy wave I subscribed to (and one of the first to pop up after the preview launch of Wave) is called “Public Genealogy Wave for the Discussion of Genealogy.” As of today it has 61 followers. But after several months there are only 91 messages posted on it. I noticed many of the other Waves I follow (both genealogy and not) are in a similar state. Has the Wave gone flat? I think one of the problems is that as a preview, Google Wave is still buggy. I’m sure these bugs will be worked out in time.

The bigger issue is that it is not for the technologically faint-of-heart. The ambitious and noble goal of Wave — to unite and simplify a multitude of communication technologies — has had the opposite effect. The interface is complicated. It seems harder to follow a conversation in the stream than it should be. While I’m a self-proclaimed technophile and gadget geek, I found the thought of slogging through that stream of messages made it easy for me avoid logging in. And here we are, four months later.

So at least as far as genealogy research is concerned is Google Wave dead? Maybe not yet, but complexity is rarely a good thing when you’re trying to build a user base for a tool.

Google Wave in Plain English (video)
Google Wave Made Simple (video)
Google Wave 15 Features (video)
Google Wave for Genealogy
Eastman’s Online Genealogy Blog (EOGN)
Is Google Wave the future of collabrative genealogy research?

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