Filling in the Tree: BYU’s Record Linking Lab

Family history has been a staple of BYU’s academic focus since the establishment of the Family History Program in 1962. Since then, the department has developed into one of the most robust and premier genealogical programs in the nation—and the only Family History major in the US—hosting numerous conferences, working in conjunction with top genealogical institutions, and providing outstanding research support to both academics and the general public. Over the years, numerous faculty members and campus organizations have participated in or supported family history on campus, including economics professor Joe Price. 

            Price runs the Records Linking Lab, a research team that works to combine machine learning and family history to “help gather every one of God’s children onto the Family Tree at familysearch.org,” says Price. He further explains that “the three main things we do in the lab are auto indexing, record linking, and tree building.”

            Price discovered family history as a personal hobby and wanted to integrate that interest with his research at BYU, saying “I discovered that many economists and other social scientists have been using machine learning to link records. I realized that we could create a lab at BYU to combine machine and traditional family history tools to hasten the work.”

            The lab allows the team to address current events in the context of family history. As COVID-19 continues to shake the world, Price and his team have been working on an auto-indexing death certificate tool. One of the functions of this tool allows users to see who died of influenza or pneumonia during the 1918 Pandemic. Price furthers explains how “we’re now using this data to learn what we can from that pandemic that might provide insights about the current pandemic.” The Linking Lab is using the tools that have been utilized and improved over time to help the community better understand COVID and its effect on society. 

            Beyond the pandemic, the lab has been successful in discovering powerful ways to extract text from historical images. They have also crafted what Price calls a “wide set of tools to link people across multiple records,” and “created ways that humans and computers can work together to dramatically increase the cover of the Family Tree.” These accomplishments carry over into research, where the team has been examining “the relationship between education and lifespan, the inter-generational correlation of lifespan, the long-run impact of prejudice, and the long-run impact of your college roommates,” Price explains. 

            All this work, however, could not be accomplished without a dedicated team of students and volunteers. The lab enjoys the help of over fifty undergraduate assistants, who comb through an enormous amount of information to create databases that the public can use to build their personal family trees. The lab is working to increase the accessibility of these tools to as many people as possible. “We are building tools that match the difficulty of the task to the ability of the user and then help them have ways to practice and increase their ability to take on new tasks,” says Price.

The Record Linking Lab team

            All of this is done in an effort to “help change the way people talk about family history research. We sometimes talk about the people on the Family Tree at FamilySearch as ‘my tree’ or ‘our tree’ but it really is God’s tree and we are all part of it…All of our volunteer experiences are built around helping grow the Family Tree for others.”

            Price looks forward to the future of the lab with optimism. Though the team has already accomplished a great deal, Price has additional goals for the project going forward, including: 

(1) Link together the 217 million people that lived in the US between 1850-1940 into a single Census Tree that will interact with the Family Tree to provide hints and other discovery experiences

(2) Increase the coverage of Black families on the Family Tree

(3) Create a pipeline that will allow the lab to auto index historical records that have handwriting on top of a pre-printed form

(4) Create a discovery experience for museums

(5) Make it possible for every new convert in the US to find 100 family names to take to the temple 

These five goals lead to the ultimate aim of the Record Linking Lab, which Price says is to “help ensure that each of the 107 billion people that have lived on earth have a profile on the Family Tree and are linked to as many records and family members as possible.”

         The Record Linking Lab is going strong and provides great opportunities to volunteer with family history research. To learn more about their work and how you can support the lab, visit their website at https://rll.byu.edu . 

Photos courtesy of BYU Economics