100 years later: Find out who in your family was a World War I veteran

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Moroni Seth McConkie

Joshua Seth Hunt grew up knowing he carried the namesake of his great granduncle, Moroni Seth McConkie, who was killed in a French train accident while serving in World War I.

“My middle name to me not only serves as a reminder about my great granduncle’s service to preserve peace, it also serves as a reminder to me of all those that came before me and their hard work and service,” said Hunt, a BYU computer science major.

Hunt is part of a BYU team who — in time for the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day — just released Vet Finder, a Web application that will tell people who in their family tree are veterans of World War I. For the project, computer science professor Mark Clement, economics professor Joseph Price and four other computer science students spent the past five months creating a machine-learning feature to scan more than 32 million 1930 census records (for nearly 137 million people).

The census had been previously indexed, but much of the data had been left out, including individuals’ veteran status and the war they were veterans of. So the team created handwriting-recognition programs (a challenge, with such a range of handwriting styles) that would ultimately link veteran status to a person’s name and other already indexed info (birth date, birth place, death date, death place and relationship).

“This does something to give more visibility to the sacrifice of veterans,” said Clement, who has three people in his family line who served in World War I. “One of the purposes of our lab is to get people interested in family history, so this is another thing that hopefully helps them to learn more about their ancestors.”

Students on the team — Hunt, Maxwell Clemens, Jesse Williams, Iain Lee and Adam Warnick — were supported by mentoring funds from the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences.

“It’s so easy to generically think and study about the past,” said Hunt. “But this project helps us understand how we connect to it. The fact you can figure out that you have an ancestor who gave service like this helps you more deeply understand the importance and significance of their service and the war as a whole.”

Because the team to this point has focused on census records, people who were killed in the war aren’t yet linked with this application, but within the next few months, team members will have those records included as well.

This project offers a glimpse into one specific element of an individual’s family history, Clemens said, but handwriting recognition will increasingly help computers more quickly and efficiently provide significantly more family history data.

-Andrea Christensen, University Communications

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