Tag Archives: billiongraves

The challenges of online cemetery research

I’ve fielded many questions about the Okopowa St. Project I announced yesterday. Many of the questions have centered on the need for doing this, considering there is an existing database of photos from this cemetery, with tens of thousands of photos. While the goal of this project is not primarily to document the Okopowa St. Cemetery, but to experiment and learn from the process, I do think addressing the broader issue of doing cemetery research online is worth tackling.

Cemetery research is an important part of any genealogy search, even more so for Jewish genealogy, where Jewish gravestones usually provide the first name of the father of the person buried. That ability to jump a generation back can be very important when researching Jewish families.

There are many resources for doing cemetery research, but on a global scale for Jewish genealogists, there are only a few.

FDJCP Warsaw DatabaseIn the case of the Okopowa St. Cemetery, the primary resource is the aforementioned database, which is published by the Foundation for Documentation of Jewish Cemeteries in Poland (FDJCP). This database has 82,325 entries. I’ll get to the photos in this database in a moment, but one downside to this database is a lack of phonetic searching. If you search for ‘Cohen’ you will get no results. Search for Kohen and get results. That’s an obvious one, but considering many of the graves were in Hebrew and transcribed to English, there is no way to know if the spelling guessed by a transcriber was the same one known by a relative.

The largest database of Jewish burials is the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR) which has information on over 3 million burials worldwide. JOWBR is an amazing project, but like any volunteer effort is dependent on what its volunteers can produce. In the case of the Okopowa St. Cememtery, it has information on less than 200 burials, and no photographs.

There are two large burial databases that are not specific to Jewish burials. The first one is FindAGrave.com, which was originally an independent project, but is now owned by Ancestry. FindAGrave originally had a focus of documenting celebrity graves, and built a community of people to photograph and manage profiles of buried people. FindAGrave says they have information on 480,840 cemeteries in 240 countries. In the case of the Okopowa St. Cemetery, however, they only have profiles of 121 burials, of which only 47 have associated photos. Of those 47 burials, many of the photographs are not actually of the gravestones, but photos of the people themselves that have been submitted by people online.

The second and more recent online database was created by the company BillionGraves. BillionGraves took advantage of the fact that the new smartphones coming into the market had cameras, built-in GPS, and Internet access. That allowed them to write an app that could capture photos of gravestones with their exact location, and upload them straight to their web site without needing to document anything about the graves. The information could be transcribed later on the web site. This allowed volunteers to rapidly build databases of entire cemeteries. Not long ago MyHeritage, the commercial genealogy company, partnered with BillionGraves to use their technology to collect photographs of all the gravestones in Israel (something IGRA also participated in by proving volunteers to take the photographs). BillionGraves flipped FindAGraves’ model on its head, as instead of creating a profile of a person and then adding photographs of their grave (which needed to be located), BillionGraves starts with the photographs and adds the information later. Concerning the Okopowa St. Cemetery, BillionGraves only has 216 burials documented.

I think it’s useful to take a look at the varying quality of photos across these sites, but as you may have figured out by now, that’s almost impossible. JOWBR has no photographs of this cemetery, and FindAGrave has only about 20-30 gravestone photos. What are the chances that among those 20-30 photos, the same graves were documented on BillionGraves? It turns out there is at least one.

Wanda Sieradzka de Ruig died about ten years ago. Here are three photos of the her grave site from the three databases that have photos:

Wanda Sieradzka de Ruig on FindAGrave Wanda Sieradzka de Ruig on BillionGraves Wanda Sieradzka de Ruig on FDJCP
FindAGrave
BillionGraves
FDJCP

Now, this gravestone is not the best example, because unlike many graves in the cemetery, it is not densely covered in text. It’s also relatively recent, so the text is not worn down. What we can see, is that even with that being true, the FindAGrave photo of the gravestone is hard to read, as it’s perhaps taken too far away. I always like a wide shot of a gravestone to give some context, but that shouldn’t be the only photo. There should always be a close-up photo of the text of the stone.

BillionGrave’s photo is actually closer up, and easy to read. Unfortunately, you can’t see the spouse’s information, and you can see there is some text on the surface closer to the photographer, but it’s cut off. It’s worth noting that in the FindAGrave photo this text was covered in fallen leaves, so it can’t be seen at all.

The FDJCP photo is wide like the first one, but still closer and of better quality. It’s still difficult to read the text facing up on the stone, but overall this is probably the best image.

Let’s take another example. In this example, the grave is only on two sites, BillionGraves and the FDJCP site:

Izrael Frenkel BillionGraves Izrael Frenkel FDJCP
BillionGraves
FDJCP

At first glance, the BillionGraves photo is superb. It’s well framed, the text is clear, and the lighting is even. Of course, looking at the second image, one realizes that the Polish text in the BillionGraves photo is only one side of the gravestone with text, and there’s a whole different side with text in Hebrew. However, looking at the FDJCP image, the angle for both sides makes it much harder to read. The Polish is readable, but the angle, the uneven lighting on the Hebrew side, and the small size of the Hebrew text relative to the whole image, makes it very difficult to read. Better than not including it at all, but difficult to be sure what you’re reading. The photographers working for the FDJCP may have photographed the text closer up for indexing purposes, but FDJCP only includes one photo, and in this case that makes it hard to read. I wonder what they do in the case where text is on opposite sides of the stone?

When I photograph gravestones, I like to take at least three photographs, and in some case more, per gravestone. These photos include a wide photo showing it in the context of its location, a photo of the entire gravestone without the wider area, and a close-up of the text on the stone. If I need more than one photo to capture all of the text, such as when it is on different sides, I always take extra photos getting all the text. For those who have read my article on Jewish Gravestone Symbols, you also know I like to take photographs of the symbols on gravestones. The Okopowa St. Cemetery is particularly rich in these symbols.

For the above gravestone of Izrael Frenkel, for example, I would have taken one wide shot of the entire gravestone, probably showing both sides of text. I might take a closer image showing both sides as well, but I definitely would have taken one straight in front of each side of text, and cropped to include only the text. Probably then I would have four photos of this gravestone.

Let’s take one last example that is only on the FDJCP site:

Gavriel Horowic FDJCP

I have no way of knowing why the above photo is angled the way it is, or why the bottom is completely cut off. Maybe there’s something out of the frame that blocked the photographer from taking a picture straight in front of the gravestone. Maybe the bottom part of the gravestone is blocked by something and photographing the bottom wasn’t possible. While these things are possible, I don’t know if any of those are true since there is no photo to provide context. Even if all of that was true, it seems from what you can see that it should have been possible to get a photo of the text closer up.

So to be clear, while the primary goal of the Okopowa St. Project is more about experimentation and learning than it is about photographing gravestones, it will still be nice to have new high-resolution photos of many of the graves.

Find A Grave app

Find A Grave goes mobile

One of my earliest posts on this blog was about Find A Grave and how it could be used to help you with your genealogy research.

It’s long bothered me that they had no mobile app that could be used on my cell phone. Certain since BillionGraves launched back in 2011, the lack of a mobile app has been glaring.

Last year Ancestry.com purchased FindAGrave, and people have been wondering what was going to happen to the service. The first big change luckily is a good one, the launch of a mobile app!

Find A Grave app

The app is focused on searching for cemeteries and graves. It doesn’t yet have any way to manage the memorials you’ve created on FindAGrave.com, or Virtual Cemeteries. One very important feature it has integrated, however, is finding nearby graves that people have requested photos of, allowing you to submit photos through the app.

One thing you might notice in the screenshot above is that it allows you to ‘Add GPS’ to a grave. While Find A Grave has never death with GPS before, it seems they are now moving in BillionGraves’ direction by supporting, at least in a small way, GPS coding of graves.

Do you use Find A Grave? Do you use BillionGraves? Are you planning on downloading this app? Have you already? Share your thoughts on grave-focused sites and apps in the comments below.

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.