Sunday, March 18, 2018

The last of the Keynotes at RootsTech

Saturday morning’s opening session for RootsTech featured two keynote speakers. But before they were introduced, Ken Chahine from Ancestry (who was the major sponsor for that day) spoke.  He showed a video clip from 2014 when he had last appeared on stage at RootsTech. At that time he made lots of predictions for the future, and we were shown a video clip of that. Many of his predictions had come true, with the notable exception that we would be able to sketch what our ancestors looked like based on reconstructed DNA. One thing that I don’t think I would have been believed possible at the time was the explosion in the number of people who have done a DNA test. In 2014 about 300,000 people had tested with Ancestry. A year ago it was four million people. In early March 2018 seven million people have tested with That is more than the entire population of Sydney, which is currently estimated at about five million people. This expediential growth in DNA can only be good for genealogists and is fantastic for adoptees seeking their roots.

It was then time for the Keynotes. Emcee Jason Hewlett interviewed Mexican pop-rock singer Natalia Lafourcade. She told us a little of her life and sang a few of songs.  The phrase “the voice of an angel” has become very clichéd, but I can’t think of anything more appropriate to describe her singing. After her first song Jason Hewlett was wiping the tears from his eyes. The third song she sang was Remember Me from the movie Coco which she would be singing the following night at the Oscars. [1]

This being RootsTech Natalia was told a little bit about her family history.  She commented that the name Lafourcade sounded more French than Spanish, but thought it was probably just a family myth that her family had a French connection.  Well it wasn’t. She was informed that her ancestor Pierre was born in 1842 in Bordeaux in France. The 33 year-old woman was jumping about in excitement on hearing that. Knowing where you come from has that effect on people.  Pedro, as Pierre became known, moved with his family to Santiago in Chile when he was just 13, from where his descendant, Gaston (Natalia’s father) fled to Mexico after the 1973 coup. There he met Natalia’s mother and the result was this elfin angel-voiced woman.

The next keynote speaker was Professor Henry Louis Gates Jnr. This Yale and Cambridge educated professor became interested in his family history when he was a nine-year-old boy and saw a photo on the day of his grandfather’s burial. It was a photo of his great-great-grandmother Jane Gates, who purchased a house in 1870 for cash, just five years after being a slave (she was freed at the end of the Civil War). On that day Gates’ father also showed him a newspaper report of her death, calling her “Jane Gates, an estimable colored woman.” Ever since that day he had wanted to know about his family tree.

The scrapbook with the report of Jane's death
In the year 2000, before commercial DNA tests were available, he was invited to give a blood sample to find his motherline ancestry[2]. The results came back indicating that he had Nubian ancestry which thrilled him, as at one time the Nubians were the black pharaonic dynasty of Egypt.  He started to wonder if he could combing his interest in genealogy with genetics, and would this help reveal the pre-slavery location of his ancestors.

The answer was yes, in the form of a TV series African American Lives. But after two series of this program he was called a racist! He faced criticism for not featuring white or Jewish people. So the program morphed into Faces of America and finally Finding Your Roots.

Once newspapers started to be digitised he started looking for the obituary of Jane Gates he had seen as a young boy. But it was only less than a week before he stood before us that he finally found it on

So his messages were
  1. Don’t give up – things are being digitised all the time
  2. America is a nation of immigrants. There is no such thing as racial purity – we are all the same under the skin
  3. The best evidence of our unity is our DNA

[1] Remember Me won Best Original Song at that Oscar ceremony.
[2] Mitochondrial DNA

Disclaimer: As a RootsTech Ambassador I receive complimentary admission to the event, invitations to some extra events and dinners and a free registration to give to one of my readers. I bear the cost of my return airfares from Australia and pay for my accommodation and meals.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Two Inspiring Keynotes

The Thursday morning RootsTech session featured Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York as a keynote speaker. Over seven years, Brandon has photographed and interviewed more than 10,000 people. But the route to that position was full of many changes of direction. Brandon told us about his life, starting with flunking out of college, when he hit rock bottom and felt like a total failure. He felt he should be doing something meaningful with his life, but didn’t know what. Eventually he went back to college, got straight “A”s, and fell into a good job in a financial company. For two years he thought about the markets constantly, their movements occupying his mind 24x7. He had a sense of importance from doing something people respected. Then he lost his job.

Brandon Stanton

Brandon asked himself “what do I want to do?”. He came to the realisation that he had been so busy holding onto his sense of self-importance that life had been passing him by. So he decided that he wanted to make just enough money to allow himself to choose what to do with his time.

He bought a camera and started taking photos of people. Initially it was a frightening experience, just taking the photos, but over time Humans of New York evolved and became more about the stories. Brandon has now started travelling the world and some of the people he has photographed have so inspired his readers that they have crowd-sourced funds to help them.  In fact his audience has crowd funded over $10 million for a variety of causes.

Brandon with the first photo he ever took

Brandon has now reached a point where he says he can choose the work he want to do. But he stresses that he chooses the work, and doesn’t choose not to work, because “following your dreams correctly is nothing but hard work.”

Friday’s keynote speaker was Olympian figure skater Scott Hamilton. Adopted at just 6 weeks old, he joined a family that clearly meant so much to him. He had very bad health as a child (which he claims is the cause of his short stature) and went to skating lessons as a way for him and his family to do something to get their minds off his illness. Eventually, after many ups and downs, this led to him winning gold at the Sarajevo Olympics in 1984.

He overcame testicular cancer and was unsure whether he’d ever be able to have children.  Nine months and 2 days after his marriage his son Aiden was born.  For the first time he looked at his own flesh and found the moment overwhelming.  When his red-headed second son, Maxx, was born Scott suddenly decided that his unknown heritage must surely include Irish ancestors. This afternoon he will get to find out as FamilySearch staff have researched his biological background and will tell him about his ancestry.  Scott and his wife went on to adopt two children they had met when they were working with the disaster relief after the Haiti earthquake, allowing him to give back something important to other adoptees: a happy family. But health problems hadn’t finished with him. In 2004 it was announced that he had a benign brain tumour and needed risky brain surgery. But still he remains happy and positive.

He finished up with these words, which resonated so much with every genealogist listening:
“Our past is the foundation of everything that comes off it. For without a past we have no future.”
Scott next to MC Jason Hewlett - he wasn't joking about
being short. In fact he's only about my height

Disclaimer: As a RootsTech Ambassador I receive complimentary admission to the event, invitations to some extra events and dinners and a free registration to give to one of my readers. I bear the cost of my return airfares from Australia and pay for my accommodation and meals.

The European Union is Going to Affect Genealogy

The soon-to-come-into-effect EU “General Data Protection Regulation” (GDPR) is going to have a nasty impact for Family Historians. At the RootsTech Innovation Showcase, The LegalGenealogist Judy Russell highlighted this as one of the biggest challenges facing the industry.

Kurt Witcher, Judy Russell, David Rencher and Scott Fisher
on the "Innovation Showcase" panel.

So what is GDPR? It’s a policy to protect personal information that will come into effect in the EU in May 2018.

The GDPR aims primarily to give control back to citizens and residents over their personal data and to simplify the regulatory environment for international business by unifying the regulation within the EU. [Wikipedia contributors, "General Data Protection Regulation," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed March 2, 2018).]

Sounds innocuous? Maybe, but it isn’t.

According to the European Commission, "personal data is any information relating to an individual, whether it relates to his or her private, professional or public life. It can be anything from a name, a home address, a photo, an email address, bank details, posts on social networking websites, medical information, or a computer’s IP address." [Wikipedia, op.cit]

As with all new legislation, we won’t really know how it pans out until test cases come before the courts, but already one archive in Norway has decided that the new regulations will require them to withdraw some records from public access.

European Union Flag

Think that it won’t affect you? Think again. Any companies anywhere in the world that have data about EU residents have to comply with these new regulations. What if someone who served in the Australian forces during WWII now lives in the EU. Will their service records be able to be made available?  What about the World War II Nominal Roll website ( which includes dates of birth?

We’ll have to put this in the “wait and see” basket.

Friday, March 2, 2018

RootsTech has started: Connect. Belong.

Rootstech 2018 has started!

Queues for Registration
When registrations opened at Midday on Tuesday over 14,200 people had registered. There were representatives of every American State (the first time this has happened) and 42 other countries.  There are 197 exhibitors (and 60 of them are new companies) and over 300 classes. Not surprisingly, the queues for registration were loooooong.

The lectures started at 9.30, and many of the sessions were completely full, they were so popular.  But it’s not as if there weren’t plenty of other classes to choose from – there are about 25 concurrent streams!

Time to blow my own horn. After lunch it was time for me to give my talk on the Registry of Deeds in Ireland. It was in a room with a capacity of 228 people, and there were probably less than half a dozen seats left when I started.  I got plenty of good feedback, which is always reassuring.
Crowds at my talk

Jason Hewlett
The “official” opening was at 4.30pm. Jason Hewlett was once again the MC (or Emcee as he has on his splash screen). As well as entertaining us with a song, he got the audience to open up the FamilySearch app on our mobiles and click on “Find my relatives at RootsTech” the app would process for a little while, and then show you a list of your relatives at the conference based on the trees that we have uploaded to FamilySearch FamilyTree.  I had lots of relatives, but the closest was a 4th cousin who is related to me through my Manning ancestors from Co. Wicklow. We have met up and when the chaos of RootsTech is over we’ll be able to stay in touch to concentrate on our shared ancestors.

Steve Rockwood was the keynote, and talked about the conference theme of “Connect. Belong”. He said that FamilySearch wants people to connect (like we did with the app mentioned above), because when we connect we treat each other differently. Connections can generate emotions, as with the discoveries LeVar Burton made last year which brought him to tears.

The connection process starts with Discovery. While research bores most people (but not genealogists!) the discoveries that the research leads to can really excite people. DNA testing is a booming area, and most people are coming to it with a sense of discovery.

Steve Rockwood
Steve then highlighted the need to gather and collect the records before it is too late. Not just the records in archives and repositories, but also the records (and memories) at risk in our families. Steve’s son videoed his grandfather after that man had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and the answers he gave to the questions that were asked form a precious part of their family archive.

Steve summed up his message again: “It matters because when we connect we treat each other differently.”

Disclaimer: As a Rootstech Ambassador I receive complimentary admission to the event, invitations to some extra events and dinners and a free registration to give to one of my readers. I bear the cost of my return airfares from Australia and pay for my accommodation and meals.