Finding Our Roots: The Technology of Genealogy

Vintage photo of books, journals, pens, and other tools of research circa 1930.There seems to be a resurgence of interest in history, particularly personal history and genealogy. Popular television shows such as “Finding Your Roots” and “Who Do You Think You Are” explore ancestry. and similar websites provide a platform for discovering your lineage. I wonder if part of this interest is because we now have technologies that help us discover who we are and where we come from.

Document Scanning

The ability to scan and catalogue large numbers of documents has been a boon to genealogy research. We can mine the data from those documents to connect family lines. However, old documents are not always easy to read or access. A recent report from MIT highlights work that allows us to read fragile texts that cannot be touched or opened. Researchers are using terahertz radiation scanning and character recognition software to scan multiple pages at once. So far they are able to read through nine pages at once but hope to soon read through a whole book. This might someday enable us to read through ancient papyrus. They could one day unlock the information that links you to Cleopatra.

DNA Testing

Advances in DNA analysis have led more people to seek out testing, which adds more people to databases, which increases your chances of making family connections., mentioned above, sells a DNA collection kit for $99. Return a DNA sample and they will test it, add the information to their database and return the analysis that shows your ethnic mix and identifies possible relatives based on a match of DNA markers. This can be eye opening for people who do not know a lot about their past.

Record Matching

Advances in data analysis have improved the ability to match old documents in order to construct a family tree. Birth, marriage, death, and burial registries contain many errors that make them hard to reconcile. The town clerk in 1895 may have misspelled a name or recorded a date incorrectly so that it doesn’t match other official records. With modern data analysis, we can compensate for those errors and develop a “best guess” match for such records. has proprietary matching algorithms that increase the chance of a correct records match.

Translation Software

Many of us do not speak the language of our ancestors, so when looking for records, we need translation. Researchers and technologists are developing applications able to translate names and other information from one language to another. offers what they call “Global Name Translation” that breaks down the barrier of language. They describe this recent breakthrough in a press release in their blog:

“The new technology will now accept searches in English, automatically increase their scope to cover Russian and Ukrainian as well, and conveniently translate all results back to English.”

Such technology opens up a lot of possibilities that were once closed but can now help link family trees from different countries and cultures.


Technology can help bring people together and can aid our search for who we are and where we come from. It might even turn up a surprising connections to long lost family members. Have you used genealogy tools? Did they work? Let me know your experiences.

Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.

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2 thoughts on “Finding Our Roots: The Technology of Genealogy

  1. Karen Hix

    Hey Kelly-
    I am an AIM alum – we even had some classes together back in the ’90s. Genealogy is a passion(obsession) of mine as well. I find myself on-line in the middle of the night following a small clue to solve a piece of this giant puzzle. Is AIM considering a course in this area? Most fascinating for me is the historic context. For example: Given that the entire (Caucasian) US population in 1790 was close to the population of the states of Oregon and Washington today, it is conceivable that our ancestors living at that time actually knew of – or even interacted with – the likes of George Washington, Daniel Boone and others we read about today. In my own family quest, I have found the AIM “Research Methods” class to be one of the most valuable. I have applied many techniques learned in this class in my genealogy work. I have four very old family Bibles and some entries are illegible. I have been considering radiation scanning to see if it can reveal the original text. I have been able to connect with others who share common ancestors through automated matching algorithms and DNA matching and we have now developed our own on-line communities. This is truly a fascinating field. I have even considered making this my “retirement” career – when the time comes!
    Best regards,
    Karen Hix

    1. Kelly Brown Post author

      Hello Karen,

      Good to hear from you! We should do some sort of discovery to find out where our old classmates have gone :-). I am glad to hear that you are involved/obsesssed with genealogy. I am very fortunate that a lot of my genealogy was already done by family members on both sides back into the 1600’s. I still need to trace part of the line back to Scotland but unfortunately Brown or Browne was a very common name in the 16th and 17th centuries, as it is today. Stay in touch and let me know how your family search develops. I would be happy to share some of my search sites with you.


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