In a century-old Templar building in the quaint village of Wilhelma (Bnei Atarot) near Tel Aviv, I discovered the savvy people of MyHeritage.com, who are changing the way we do family history research.
In a few minutes, a powerful genealogy search engine pulls up, from more than 400 databases, more than 13,000 instances of a few variations of my rare name. Other components include an elegant, free, downloadable family tree builder, a family website builder and a just-for-fun facial recognition technology (FRT) game popular on the Internet. No commercial ads, free and user-friendly, the sophisticated package is a one-click linked group of components.
A genealogist since age 13, CEO Gilad Japhet, now 36, was working full-time in hi-tech while still a Technion student. When he married at 30, he decided to take six months off for family research, visit archives and interview family members. “I was aware of available genealogy software, but what I wanted was missing,” he recalls, adding that what was out there was not innovative or was too commercial.
As Gilad pursued his roots, he visited relatives around the world, armed with a portable scanner and other equipment. He rescued some 2,000 photographs found in albums, shoeboxes, shelves, attics and garages. Most weren’t labeled; their owners weren’t sure of the pictured individuals’ names or relationships.
He talked to many elderly people, conducted video interviews, and he began to see the face of humanity and relationships. Gilad’s dream was to “let people upload pictures to a central site, teach the software who the people were and, then, ask it to find the same people in other photos.”
In 2003, he took his passion and started MyHeritage.com. Gilad saw the future – that genealogy as a leisure pursuit was becoming increasingly popular and would continue to grow. He looked for investors, but nothing clicked until he found two backers who are not only experienced businessmen but also genealogy fans. Today, his staff numbers 24, some internationally-based.
You may have seen Gilad’s innovation. His “Find the Celebrity in You” game, introduced a few months ago, is sweeping the Internet. Based on face recognition technology developed for genealogy, some 20,000 facial photos of 3,200 celebrities – actors, politicians, scientists, artists and others – were scanned into a database. Users upload their own photos and the FRT system scientifically finds famous people who resemble them.
The craze is on, more than 790,000 people have registered to try this (up from 580,000 when I visited Gilad’s office a week ago), and someone new registers every two seconds. According to Gilad, they mostly come from the US, followed by the UK, Italy, Turkey, Sweden, Finland, Canada, France, Germany, Poland and Spain – with only 1 percent from Israel.
In about two months, the site will allow matching people with other users’ photos and a new direction in genealogy research will open up, he says.
FRT, researched at universities like Haifa’s Technion, started out as a valuable security industry application. Today, thanks to Gilad’s vision, it has extensive uses for genealogy and photography, in addition to being fun.
Genealogical applications are obvious. One example: We all have unlabelled photos of unknown people at all stages of life. If we could match the images, we’d know more. Gilad says his matches are in the accuracy range of plus/minus 10 years.
What’s in a name?
A common problem is finding name variations on relevant genealogical databases. Fortunately, with my rare name – Talalay – I know there are about 30 variations (Talalai/j/y, Talolai/j, Tololay/j/i, etc.), with more on databases using faulty record transcriptions.
This search engine offers the most likely 30 spelling options, and users can try 10 each time, soon to be 20. Gilad expects that 100 variations, ranked by likely match, will be available, and users will contribute synonyms. The secret, he says, is to use the best variations.
While some focused genealogy megasites search a handful of databases simultaneously, returning up to several hundred results, a general search engine will return thousands of hits for the Talalay process for foam latex mattresses – a family connection but not relevant for my research – and relatives’ films, books, broccoli sprouts and more.
The MyHeritage Research engine, www.myheritageresearch.com, searches some 430 databases (more are being added) looking for selected variants. In a matter of minutes, those aforementioned 13,000 Talalay (and variations) appeared. I also retrieved 36,659 results from 52 databases in a fast search on three variants of Tollin (the name many Talalay adopted in America).
A quick scan showed that not every hit was relevant to my interests, but there were new ones in unusual places, and that can make all the difference! A caveat: Although the search looks concurrently inside hundreds of databases, some, like Ancestry.com, require a paid subscription to retrieve the data.
The future holds more, says Gilad, “We expect to have 500 databases soon and 1,000 in six months.” The full version, soon to go live, will enable users to save searches for instant retrieval and schedule recurring searches with email alerts to find names in new databases. In a few months, a place search will also be available. Perhaps it will help me find my missing Vorotinschtina and Zaverezhye (near Mogilev, Belarus) landsmen.
The system will also indicate others researching the same name. Perhaps a cousin in Argentina, whom I haven’t been able to contact, will find the site and we’ll finally connect. A blind email system will enable researchers to contact each other without revealing emails unless the parties decide to share them.
San Francisco’s genealogy guru, Dr. Stephen Morse, a household name in both general and Jewish genealogy circles for his One-Step (www.stevemorse.org) pages for accessing Ellis Island, census, passenger arrivals and much more, recently tried the search engine. He wrote to Gilad, “I must confess your searches are amazing. This is certainly very beneficial to genealogical researchers.”
My visit revealed all the components, and as I looked at pages, functions and features, the operative word was “Wow!”
The MyHeritage Family Tree Builder (FTB) is an attractively designed, easy-to-use program for building family trees. It is free, downloadable from the website.
Besides the lack of ads and the no-charge bottom line, FTB works in 12 languages, including Hebrew and even Yiddish. Data entry is simple, user-friendly, intuitive; available reports and chart designs are a cut above.
The interface (“the page look” for non-techies) can be in any of the languages while data entry can also be in any available language, with bilingual translation in various fields. It comes with a rich language-specific database of built-in names and vocabulary and users can view the pages any way they want, selecting designs, styles and colors.
The amazingly easy photo handling will appeal to non-technical people (the majority of researchers) – no photo editing courses are required. FRT automatically captures the face and, with one click, or drag and drop, users can link the face to each individual. It can label group photos with the names of each individual – just float the mouse over any face to see the name.
A family affair
In the MyHeritage Family Pages, which will go live in April, anyone can build a user-friendly, multi-lingual family website for free in the basic version (larger storage areas will bear a charge). Again, no technical knowledge is required; content and family trees can be imported from any program.
Materials can be posted in their original languages. For me, it means including a Minsk archive report in Russian, a Barcelona researcher’s discoveries in Catalan and an English database.
Features include a family address book, a family event calendar (with options to choose holidays of most countries and religions), a message board, news and a “today in history” cultural element (according to language selected). With one click, FTB data can be published online to the family site, which can be used as a meeting place, an archive of memories, events, blogs, images – whatever people can imagine.
Options include password-access for private sites, public sites, or mixed sites where sensitive data is only accessible to family members, with the rest public. Automatically, if desired, living people’s names and data are omitted for strangers, but not for visiting family members, which Gilad calls “dynamic censorship.”
In these days of identity theft, researchers must be careful about publicly posting names of living people or using their first names, although they may want the same data in private areas for relatives. Privacy options can be set according to preference.
Cast a wider net
Searches can be made across the entire MyHeritage community. Users can search all public family trees and photos, request membership in other sites, connect sites, open as many sites as desired or join as many as they wish.
Comments, valuable for genealogy research, may be added by any user in any component, and are included in site searches.
Importantly, members are automatically associated with family trees, thus anyone visiting a family site sees a personalized display – a “where am I in the family tree?” For every person in any photo, the system explains how s/he is related to the viewer.
In a few months, all MyHeritage components will go live, including services for restoration of historic photos, printing digital photos and family tree posters. “Then,” says Gilad, “we won’t stand still, but continue to innovate, and listen to what our users ask for.”