Monday, May 30, 2011 - Competition for Find-A-Grave?

Short answer: Doubtful.

Disclaimer: I am a long-time volunteer and user of Find-A-Grave, but I'm all about new technology to aid in genealogical research.  

As I was browsing through my Google Reader this morning, I ran across A.C. Ivory's Mobile Monday post about  I was intrigued!  He gave a very thorough analysis of the iPhone app, and touched a bit on the website.  You can also see related posts from Taneya at Taneya's Genealogy Blog, who brought up all kinds of changes/improvements that she would like to see, and Phillip at Blood and Frogs, who talked about (among other things) the unnecessary duplication of efforts since we already have a gajillion graves on Find-A-Grave.  I thought I would supplement with one of my own, focusing on the website - since there is only an iPhone app, and I don't have an iPhone.

Before I delve into the website, I'd like to comment quickly on something A.C. mentioned.   "One of the main points that sets this new website apart from FindAGrave is the ability to see on a map exactly where in the cemetery the headstone is."  Okay, I get it.  What I don't get is what he mentions later:  "You can't search the database using the app. Search feature for individuals is only available on the website."  Huh??  Kind of makes the entire operation a little self-defeating from the outset.

I get the whole GPSing and geocoding and whatnot.  Unfortunately, all GPS is not created equally:

Either GPS is faulty, or the cemetery is REALLY full.

Now ... to the website.  On first visit, you are asked to register.  So I did.  Here's the home page, or "dashboard":

It is clean, simple, and easy on the eyes.  You are given 3 choices from this screen: (1) download the iPhone app; (2) Start transcribing; and (3) Search for cemeteries or people.

I chose to head straight to "FAQ" down at the bottom.  Under "How Can I Help?" I was told:
At, everyone can participate and contribute to this monumental project. No matter your circumstances, you can drive the project forward. If you have an iPhone, download the BillionGraves Camera app from the iTunes store, go to your local cemeteries, and collect headstone photos with the app.
But ... "What if I don't Have an iPhone?"
If you don’t have an iPhone, we still need your help! The images are almost useless—they’re too hard to search, too difficult to access—unless they’re transcribed. Instead of helping us collect photos, you can look at the photos and type in the names and dates recorded on the headstones.
It bothers me that you can ONLY upload photos from an iPhone (or potentially Android).  What about people who don't have either of those?  Are they doomed to only be able to transcribe the photos others have uploaded?  I think BillionGraves is shooting themselves in the foot by doing this - not to mention alienating a large portion of the potential volunteer pool (roughly only 1 in 4 people have a smart phone - and that's including ALL smartphones, not just iPhone and Android).  The photo-taking volunteers won't be able to keep up with the transcribing volunteers!

I personally don't ever use my phone to take pictures intended to be uploaded to a website.  I'd much rather use my 16mp camera with 21x zoom.  Turns out it takes way better photos than my 5mp phone camera with 1.75x zoom.  Maybe it's just me.

I honestly found the entire site to be rather clunky.  Let's start with the search feature:

You can search for a cemetery or a specific person.  However, if you get 28 results, but click on the wrong one, there is no way to return to the search results or to modify your search.  Using the back button forces you to perform another search, which is glitchy, to say the least (I had to refresh my page 3 times before it would let me choose a state).
Notice - no "return to results" button
The lists of cemeteries by country, by state and by county are not alphabetized, which is incredibly problematic, in my opinion.

I did take a look at a couple of the listings in Alpine Cemetery.  It is beautiful in its simplicity, and I like the fact that no single person "owns" a listing.  

I also took a moment to look at the "transcribe" option.  There are 32 photos that need to be transcribed, and they are obviously the "problem" photos.  Seriously ... there's a close-up photo of what looks like someone's car seat upholstery. 

I'm guessing most of the photos left to transcribe are the result of the inability to post more than one photo per person, because there are some that are obviously additional photos (backsides of headstones, different angles, etc.).  I certainly hope they remedy that issue soon (and have some sort of admin periodically checking the photos that are added).It's just sad that there is no way to add any information other than name, birth date, and death date.  There's not a place for an actual transcription of the headstone.  You can't even link parents and children or spouses.

One thing that did make my eyes bug out just a little was when Phillip mentioned in his post that as of June 1, the app will actually COST people to download.  $1.99 each!  So ... not only do we want you to volunteer, but we're going to charge you to do it!?  Sounds like a great plan.  (I know it's not a huge amount of money, but it's the principle).

I think I'll be sticking with Find-A-Grave, thanks.


Incidentally, as I was typing this blog post, I received an email from BillionGraves asking me to reset my password.

The link took me to this screen:
Now I don't know if I'm being hacked or if this is a genuine request to reset my password.  I know I didn't ask for my password to be reset.  If anyone else has gotten this email, please let me know if it's safe to do.  In the meantime, I'll just leave it in my inbox.


DianaR said...

Well said - couldn't agree more!! While I would LOVE a geo-tag ability on Find A Grave from my smart phone...which is NOT an iPhone...I much prefer taking quality pictures with my camera and being able to upload more than one. Often I will take a picture of the stone and then also one focused in on the name - depending on the stone.

Jenny Lanctot said...

Thanks, Diana! I like to take a photo of the stone, then a wide shot of the area of the cemetery where the grave is located. What if the headstone is for two people? You almost have to take one close-up shot of each side, and then one shot of the entire stone. What happens then?

Anonymous said...

I was intrigued by the idea of this new app (FREE to download, btw) and since I have an iphone, and it was the weekend, I decided to give it a try at a local cemetery. I like looking at gravestones anyways and before I knew it I had take over 200 pictures. I chose the auto-upload feature.

I came directly home (5 min drive) and logged on. Almost half of the graves had already been transcribed!

There are minor problems with the data entry process though but I hope they will be ironed out with time. Btw, it is possible to enter multiple names for one gravestone.

The cemetery I entered graves for is Mt. Pleasant Cemetery in Seattle, WA.

If you look at the grave locations done by GPS, you see some problems. One grave is shown in a backyard adjacent to the cemetery - it definitely is not located there!. But the bigger problem is all the graves are offset a bit to the North. I worked in the extreme SW corner but the locations do not reflect this.I stayed south of a line drawn between the cars and the far left blue dot.In any case, even though the locations are a bit off, it is better information than none if one wants to visit the actual gravestone location.

I too have used alot (and volunteer taking pictures) and have mixed feelings about whether this new app will replace it or not. I have an open mind at this point.

Jenny Lanctot said...

Anonymous, thanks for commenting. As for the app being free ... it's my understanding that June 1 (tomorrow) it will be priced at $1.99. I hope the information is inaccurate. I guess time will tell.

Did you have to enter any information (name, cemetery, etc.) when you uploaded the photos? I'm just curious to know how they will weed out duplicates (because you know there will be some eventually).

I'm also curious to find out if a person gets to a remote cemetery and discovers they have no cell service ... can you still take photos and upload them later, or will it geotag them with your current location? Sounds like it might be another drawback to an "on-site only" upload option.

Kristy said...

Jenny -

I work at BillionGraves and I wanted to thank you for your feedback. I'm sorry that aspects of the site were problematic for you, but thank you for putting the issues out here so we can find and fix them. I'll be passing your feedback on to the developers.

To explain the free vs. paid issue for the app, allow me to explain: The app is, as of today, priced at $1.99. We debated over this for a long time and thought the free-for-a-time was a decent compromise. We're definitely not expecting any sort of profit from the app--the price is too low for that anyway--but we wanted to set a price that would discourage those who are not interested in the project from downloading the app. As you've seen, not even all the photos from interested users (i.e. those who were able to get word of it during the week it was free) are usable photos. We are working to weed those out, but if we also had photos from uninterested users, that weeding process would undoubtedly become much more time consuming and would distract us from being able to improve the BillionGraves tool. Hopefully $2 isn't anything that will deter someone interested in the project, but at the same time it is much less inviting to an uninterested user than a free app. The price is more of a quality control than anything else.

Again, thank you for bringing up the issues you did. We appreciate it, and we hope to be able to provide a tool that will become useful to you in the future.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this review. Although I had not heard of BillionGraves, it's good to hear from someone about their initial impressions.

Dee @Shakin' the Family Tree

Glenn Wallace said...

Word to the wise regarding transcripting information off a gravestone and posting it on the Internet... DON'T DO IT unless you're willing to look up that person's information on (or other established resource websites) to VERIFY the names, dates, and places. SO many genealogists are getting misinformation because of typos and lazyness. Please approach transcriptions as the very last legacy of the person lying in the ground. Would YOU want your information wrong from all eternity?

Jenny Lanctot said...

Glenn, unfortunately the act of "transcribing" entails copying exactly what is on the grave marker. To do otherwise would be wrong.

I agree that the information on markers is frequently inaccurate, but a good genealogist will verify the information with thorough research.

Thanks for commenting!

ljr ancestry said...

I'm sure you would want to continue with since you can create 1000's of memorials to people you never knew about and can not possible contribute any personal information abou them. And when family members come forward to ask for the transfer of these memorials maybe not you but a good portion of your fellow contributors refuse to transfer the memorials. is a scam that in my opinion is akin to grave robbing.

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