For Memorial Day, BillionGraves App/Site Launches

Memorial Day in the United States is tomorrow, May 30, 2011. In time for this day, app-developer AppTime has launched a new iPhone App/web site combo called BillionGraves.

The concept is quite simple – provide a way to use camera-equipped phones to photograph gravestones and upload them to a central website for transcription and searching by others. So you download the cell phone application, use it to photograph gravestones, upload the photos to the website, and then you or others can see the photos and add transcriptions which make them searchable. The link to Memorial Day is two-fold – first, that these photographs can be a form of memorial to those who served their country and died in that service, and second that people are off from work can visit cemeteries, and while there photograph gravestones and upload them to the web site.
The idea is quite good, but I foresee some problems. 
I like the idea because anything that makes the process of documenting graves, transcribing them and making them searchable, is a boon to genealogists. The problem is that I don’t think AppTime has put quite enough thought into the back-end of this site. Things can be fixed over time, but it would have been better to get some of these things right at the beginning.
The biggest problem I have is the duplication this creates with other sites like FindAGrave.com, which I’ve written about before. I understand that AppTime wants to make money, and by controlling the server they can better control revenue streams, but I’m not sure there is room for a newcomer here. Far be it from me to tell anyone not to go into a market because it’s crowded. I’m a big believer in the market and if they can truly innovate here, that’s great. If they just muddle the process and split up the graves indexed on their site and the others, then they are not contributing but detracting from the process. I also wonder if  they will be able to build the large cemetery database needed to make this work. It might have made more sense in this regard to sell an App that is a front-end to FindAGrave.com.
Let’s put aside the issue of competition, however. I signed up to the site and tried it out. The interface is simple, which is great. Even without using the cell phone app, I can choose to transcribe photos. If I choose Transcribe I see the photo and a simple interface for adding the names and dates from the gravestone. This simplicity masks some omissions, however. For example, there is no place to add the maiden name of a woman. My only choices, in fact, are to add Prefix, Given Names, Family Names and birth and death dates.
Transcribe interface on BillionGraves.com
So there is no way to add the maiden name, nicknames, or other information that may be present on the grave. I can of course add a nickname into the ‘Given Names’ field and I can add the maiden name to the ‘Family Names’ field, but how? If I add the maiden name one way such as in parenthesis, and someone else does it differently, then what if I only want to look for women whose maiden names were Smith? I can’t do that, and BillionGraves.com can’t add this later without making people go back and correct the data later.
There is no way to fully transcribe a gravestone, to add information on the individual, to add a memorial to the person, etc. This can all be added later, but then how do they know which graves already transcribed have more information to be added once they offer that capability?
There is no way to add more than one photo of a grave, such as when there is writing on both the front and back. There also doesn’t seem to be a way to prevent duplicate entries of the same grave. Perhaps they’re expecting the GPS coordinates uploaded with the photos to help them figure out duplicates, but there is nothing that indicates that to me, and nothing to prevent someone from photographing a grave already photographed.
While FindAGrave.com could improve the experience quite a bit, they do support the ability to link graves of spouses, parents, etc. This is an important feature, and one that BillionGraves needs to support.
From a Jewish perspective, of course, there doesn’t seem to be support for other languages such as Hebrew – common on Jewish gravestones.
The iPhone app is free through June 1 (the next two days) and then AppTime will be charging $1.99 for the app. Presumably the web site itself will remain free. An Android app is currently being worked on and they hope to release it in the next few weeks. For more information on BillionGraves, go to their web site or their blog.
If you have an iPhone then download the App by June 1st for free and give it a try. Let me know what you think in the comments. If you use FindAGrave.com, let me know what you think of the differences.
I hope AppTime fixes some of the initial issues with the web site and wish them the best of luck in this new effort. I also hope FindAGrave.com wakes up and puts out their own cell phone apps to provide a way to upload geo-tagged photographs to their site as easily. Let’s hope competition improves both sites.

6 thoughts on “For Memorial Day, BillionGraves App/Site Launches

  1. Like you, I had great hope that Billion Graves would either force FindAGrave to make some improvements or become “the” site to go to. I’m very disappointed that the only way you can upload photos is via an iPhone. They’re losing out on a ton of content. When I did the first part of my review, I had hoped that some of the things were just from the site being slammed. But when I discovered that non-iPhone users are shut out of contributing images, that was the deal-breaker.

  2. Amy, they clearly have taken a different approach which is that all photos need to be geo-tagged to be uploaded, thus only smartphones (or very expensive digital cameras which too few people have to make them worth supporting) can be used. Since smartphones also have Internet access, it makes a lot of sense. The idea is to make the collection of photos easy so someone with a smartphone cna just walk a line of gravestones and photograph them all without having to write anything down, and without having to do anything on their computer later. On their blog they say the Android app is coming in a month.

    To me the bigger problem is not how the images get there, but rather what happens to them afterwards. There is no way to have multiple photos of the same grave, which you point out on your blog as you saw the rear side of a gravestone and there is no way to know where the image is of the front. With Jewish gravestones it is very common to have writing on both sides. Not being able to specify maiden names, nicknames, etc. or being able to do a full transcription of the grave are the real problems for me.

    FindAGrave.com has a big advantage over BillionGraves, and it’s not just their large userbase, or that they already have a method for adding photos from a computer, but that they have built a massive cemetery database. Without this key piece of information it will be hard for BillionGraves to make their database as useful. FindAGrave.com should use their knowledge of cemetery locations to build an app that allows one to do the same thing, but automatically adds the photos to the correct cemetery, then has someone confirm the cemetery, transcribe the photo, then try to match the photo with existing graves in the cemetery. The problem is eliminating duplication of efforts. If they want to get fancy they could show the graves that have geo-tagged photos nearby when you’re taking pictures, to prevent you from taking pictures of graves that already have photo. You could, for example, load the App on your phone when you enter the cemetery and have a map show you the graveyard and where geo-tagged photos are located.

  3. I love the concept that Billion Graves is promoting. It’s awesome to go to a cemetery, snap a photo with my smartphone, and add it right there. It’s a shame that BG didn’t incorporate the best of FindAGrave — multiple photos, search by location, ability to add *any* photo, etc. It seems like they were so excited/anxious to get the app out there, they didn’t fully think through what the website should do.

    Maybe FindAGrave will see the excitement that BG is generating and start doing something about getting mobile upload capability. They’re going to need to do something soon or they’re going to stagnate.

  4. Duplicated photos are a problem. I was transcribing this morning and was presented with a picture that I was sure that I had already transcribed. I completed the transcription and then searched for the individual (Gordon Jamieson). I found where the headstone has now been transcribed three times!

  5. This is great news. I actually tried out the app for the first time a couple of weeks ago, as I was in the US with an Android phone with a data plan and GPS. Oddly, standing in NY in the middle of a massive cemetery it couldn’t pick up a GPS signal. It could be a problem with the phone, but other GPS apps seem to work. A shame really, as I really wanted to take pictures with the phone and use the app. It won’t even let you take pictures if you can’t get a GPS signal, although maybe with this new feature it will let you do so in the future.

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