30 June 2011

Server Switch Tonight

Tonight between 9:00 and 10:00 p.m. MDT (GMT-6), BillionGraves.com will take a short break from service and migrate to a new server. This server will be faster and larger than our current server, and it will be very easy to increase its size to accommodate the growing photo and record database indefinitely into the future. During the move, your contributions will be safe and all the information will be retained. The only difference is that we’ll be better able to preserve your future contributions and continue to make them available to your fellow researchers.

If you’re out collecting photos during that time frame and try to upload them, the upload will fail, but the photos will still be on your phone. Wait out the server switch (it shouldn’t take too long) and try the upload again later. Once the new server is ready, the upload will go through and we’ll add your photos to the database.

Thank you for your patience during the move. It’ll be only a short break, and then the site will be up and running once more. The new server will be a better home for for your contributions.

29 June 2011

Transcribing Tips & Tricks

Transcribing photos on BillionGraves is a fairly simple process. You put as much information as possible into the appropriate fields (Given Names, Family Names, etc.), and you then put anything that doesn’t fit into the free-text boxes that appear after you click “Add Description.” There are instructions on how to handle special cases on our transcription help page. Overall, it isn’t tricky. But there are a few things you can do that will make transcribing even easier.

Foreign Grave Markers

First, if you don’t know the language of the headstone and aren’t familiar with the way it is laid out, pull up Google Translate or some other quick reference. While transcribing Swedish headstones, I discovered that “hustrun” is not an extremely common given name, but rather a title meaning “wife” (it may also be in the possessive case, Google isn’t clear on that, but it clarifies that it is not a given name, and that’s what I as a transcriber need to know). There are still many headstones that aren’t in my native English that puzzle me—which is why I take advantage of the “skip image” function. If it’s a headstone from a country foreign to me, I know that there is at least one person registered with BillionGraves who understands the area, because he or she uploaded the photo in the first place. As more people participate in the BillionGraves project, the number of people who understand diverse grave marker types and languages will grow, and they can help with markers that may not be familiar to you. (You’re helping others right now, by transcribing the photos that make sense to you.)

Transcribing Shortcuts

Once you’ve made sure you can understand all necessary information on the stone, there’s nothing to stop you from quickly filling out the form and moving on to the next photo. But if you happen to dislike using your mouse, we’ve set up a several keyboard shortcuts for you to make the process faster for the mouse-averse. We mentioned two of them before, but we’ve added many more since then. This is a complete list of our current shortcuts:
  • Add an Individual: CTRL + I 
  • Open the Description Box: CTRL + D 
  • Rotate the Image: CTRL + R (rotates the image 90 degrees clockwise) 
  • Zoom In on Image: CTRL + + 
  • Zoom Out from Image: CTRL + - 
  • Scroll Image Up: CTRL + Up arrow 
  • Scroll Image Down: CTRL + Down arrow 
  • Scroll Image Right: CTRL + Right arrow 
  • Scroll Image Left: CTRL + Left arrow 
  • Save the Transcription: CTRL + S 
  • Go to Next Image: CTRL + M

Reporting Photos

When a photo is impossible to transcribe, either because the photo is bad, the stone is too worn, there’s nothing to transcribe, or it’s in a language that isn’t supported yet, remember that you can report the image by clicking the red button beneath it (sorry, no shortcut for this). You can then select the reason you’re reporting the image and it will be sorted so we can take a look and decide what the best solution is for each photo.

If you have any tips for your fellow transcribers, please post them in the comments.

    27 June 2011

    Top the Leaderboard: Track Your Stats

    The Android app isn’t the only thing we’ve been building over the past few weeks: we’re also improving the way we track photos, records, and cemeteries. A lot of what we’ve done keeps the database running smoother and you’ll never have to see it. But one fun part about our tracking everything is we can now acknowledge those of you who have participated above and beyond expectations. Yesterday we launched the BillionGraves Leaderboard (you’ll need to be logged in to see it; there’s also a link to it from your dashboard).

    Click on the photo to enlarge the board for June’s leading transcribers and photo collectors (as of 10:10 AM MDT). A special congratulations to Catirrel and trishkovach, who each are currently topping either the photo or the transcription list. And an extra thank you to crex and Hokie374, who both are into the Top 10 for both categories.

    The Leaderboard results can be viewed according to the current month or all time, and they update constantly. It’s not much, but it’s our small way of recognizing everyone who is working so hard to contribute to the BillionGraves project.

    In addition to the Leaderboard, we’ve made several subtler improvements to existing aspects of the site. 

    Report Images

    For transcribers, there’s now a much improved Report Image function. If you click the red button beneath a problem photo, you’re given several options as to the reason why you’re reporting the photo (this helps us know what to do with it):
    • This photo is blurry or unreadable: For poorly taken photos that need to be redone.
    • The headstone is unreadable: For headstones that are too hard to decipher.
    • This isnt a headstone!: Just in case something that isn’t a grave monument gets past our image checker.
    • Theres no information to transcribe: For monuments or photos that don’t contain anything you can transcribe.
    • Non-Latin characters (Arabic, Chinese, etc.): For monuments with non-Latin letters. In the future these will be supported, so we want to keep these stones separate for future transcribing.
    • Other: Because we can’t think of everything.
    Before you mark a photo or stone as unreadable, please make sure it actually is. There are many photos and stones that may be less than ideal, but are still legible with a bit of zooming, squinting, and informed thinking.

    Shortcut Keys

    In case you aren’t already aware, I want to let you know about our shortcut keys for transcriptions. CTRL+S will save your transcription and CTRL+I will add an individual. We plan to add even more of these so transcriptions can be as quick and easy as possible.

    Add an Individual to a Saved Transcription

    There have been a few instances in which a transcription was saved before all the individuals in the photo were recorded. Unfortunately there was no way to add an individual after saving. That has been remedied, so you can now add individuals regardless of where you are in the transcription process.

    Basic Error Checking

    We’ve introduced some basic error checking (someone’s birth or death date cannot be recorded as tomorrow, for example). We intend to make these more sophisticated as we go along so we can improve the quality and accuracy of BillionGraves transcriptions.

    Thank you to everyone who has already downloaded the Android app this weekend and started using it. You’ve given the swift-fingered transcribers a lot more to do.

    24 June 2011

    Now Available for Android

    For everyone waiting on the Android app, it’s here! The app is free in the Android Market (and it will be in the Amazon Appstore for Android very soon). The app has all the essentials: it will find cemeteries that are close to you and you can collect and upload photos to your heart’s content. The Android camera is speedier than the iPhone’s, so mapping out a cemetery is even more efficient.

    Getting this out to you took us a little longer than we wanted it to, but that’s because Android devices vary so widely. We tested it on all the devices we could possibly get our hands on. The app only works with phones that have true GPS systems. At the bottom of this post is a list of the phones we know it will work on, as well as those we know it won’t. If your phone isn’t on either the Yes or No lists, we either weren’t able to test it or we couldn’t get a straight answer from the producers’ product help desk (phones we know of but aren’t sure about are in the Maybe list). If you download the app and you find that it doesn’t work on your phone, please contact our support team and tell us what went wrong, what type of phone you have, and what version of the Android OS your phone uses. Then we can either fix the problem with your phone or, if your phone does not use true GPS, add it to the appropriate list. Please also let us know if it does work if your phone isn’t already on the Yes list: we’d love to add it.

    Once you’ve downloaded the app and it’s working for you, remember that the same photo-collecting rules apply:
    • Avoid casting partial shadows on the stone. The dark shadow against the light stone can make it unreadable.
    • Clear everything that is covering the headstone information. Move flowers and such away from the stone. You can always put them back. Just in case grass clippings or dirt are on the stone, you may want to bring a soft brush of some sort to clean the stone. (Don’t scrub stones or use anything abrasive; you may damage the stone.)
    • Include all the headstones information in the photo frame—even if the words seem to small on the preview. Remember, there is a zoom function on the website now, so even small words can be magnified. It’s more important to get all the information available.
    • Try to take photos in the mornings or evenings. Direct sunlight can make collecting photos problematic. It’s not always feasible to avoid the sun, but if you have a choice, choose a time with more indirect sunlight.
    If you’re planning to spend more than an hour or two collecting photos, bring a portable charger. The app is constantly updating your GPS location so it can get the best tag possible, and that tends to wear on the battery a bit. But with a little foresight this isn’t much of an issue.

    The most important rule? Have some fun while you’re at it. I’ve never enjoyed visiting cemeteries as much as I do now that I can help others while I’m there. (That’s saying something, because I’ve always loved visiting cemeteries). Though I may say things like “we’re hard at work testing this” or something similar, that’s not entirely true. Testing is the best part, and we have fun doing it.

    And now for the device list. To see if your phone works, look in the Yes list for your phone’s producer (Samsung, LG, etc.) and then look for your phone model. If it’s not there, look in the Maybe and No lists.

    Yes, it works
    HTC Sensation™ 4G.
    Droid Incredible 2
    HTC Thunderbolt
    G2 by HTC
    HTC EVO™ 4G
    HTC Aria
    HTC Incredible

    Samsung Galaxy Indulge
    Samsung Galaxy Prevail
    Samsung Epic™ 4G
    Samsung Fascinate

    Droid 2
    Droid X
    CLIQ 2


    Sony Ericsson

    Optimus C
    Optimus M
    Optimus U
    Optimus S
    Optimus T
    Optimus V



    It might work (please try it out)*
    myTouch® 4G
    HTC Desire
    HTC Hero
    HTC Wildfire

    Nexus S
    Nexus S 4G
    Galaxy S™ 4G
    Samsung Captivate
    Samsung Showcase
    Samsung Vibrant
    Samsung Acclaim
    Samsung Continuum
    Samsung Mesmerize™ i500
    Samsung Gem (verizon)
    Samsung Transform

    ATRIX 4G
    Cliq XT
    Droid Pro


    Sony Ericsson
    Xperia Arc
    Xperia Neo
    Xperia Pro
    Xperia X10 Mini
    Xperia X10 Mini Pro
    Xperia X8


    Anything but the Garminfone

    No, it doesn’t work

    myTouch 3G (Slide and non slide)
    T-Mobile G1

    Droid Charge
    Samsung Dart
    Samsung Gem (generic)
    Samsung Gem (us cellular)
    Samsung Gravity
    Samsung Indulge
    Samsung Infuse
    Samsung Intercept
    Samsung Replenish
    Samsung Showcase™ i500



    Sony Ericsson



    *Most of these “maybe” devices use what is called assisted GPS. Assisted GPS can mean dozens of different things, and some versions of assisted GPS work while others don’t. Occasionally it will take a little longer to get a GPS lock with assisted GPS, so be patient if it doesn’t get a lock right away.

    20 June 2011

    Make the Most of Your Cemetery Visit

    When you visit a cemetery, you’re usually looking for or visiting someone specific. This someone is most likely near and dear to your heart, or at least marginally tied to your blood. It makes sense that you’d want that specific someone to be recorded so as not to be forgotten. But when you’re visiting a cemetery and you have the BillionGraves app along with you, don’t miss your opportunity to record all the people surrounding your specific someone. The app is quick and easy, so it shouldn’t slow you down much to collect photos of the headstones you pass on your way into or out of the cemetery. There are a few photos uploaded to the site that look awfully lonely—only one or two pins mark the only photos collected from a particular cemetery.

    Next time, take some extra time and record the surrounding stones. You don’t need to map out the whole cemetery (heaven knows that some cemeteries are too big for hours of mapping out, no matter how fast the tool), but map out the chunk you have time for. Each one of those headstones belongs to a specific someone that another researcher or descendant has ties to. Help them find their connections.

    Below are a few wonderful examples. The first is East Lawn Memorial Hills in Provo, Utah, USA. The clump of pins is only part of a cemetery, but it’s a grouping that took one person just over an hour to do. It would be easy to map out this chunk, leave, and come back to finish when you had more time to spare.

    This next example is from Skållerud (Bränna) in Mellerud, Sweden. The individual working on this cemetery added it to our database and mapped out what appears to be the entire thing—250 photos. Two-hundred fifty photos is not an incomprehensible number when we’re talking about using the smartphone app, but it took this person special time and attention to map out this small cemetery in Sweden.

    On a slightly smaller scale, here is another new contribution from Vaucluse, Australia. The person working on this cemetery added it to our database and mapped out a few rows of grave markers. It’s 122 photos, and it’s already an awesome start on South Head Cemetery. It’s a substantial number of stones, and it’ll be easy to come back and finish the rest later.

    Thank you to everyone who records stones with the BillionGraves app, but a special thank you to those who take the extra time to record not only those people you’re looking for, but the ancestors of others who can use the work you’ve completed.

    14 June 2011

    iPhone App Update

    Version 1.1 of the iPhone app was approved by Apple yesterday, and here’s what it has under the hood:

    The camera will not take photos without an accurate GPS fix. This will ensure you have the most accurate GPS location possible for all your photos because you won’t be able to start collecting until your phone has a good fix.

    More accurate GPS settings. Along with the prerequisite fix, we’ve tweaked a few things to create a more accurate GPS tag.

    Cemetery map improvements. The map now uses the satellite view from Google maps, which means you can zoom in closer to the cemetery and see the actual terrain instead of streets. It also groups the marker pins better so you get the best information possible for the level of zoom you have. If you’re zoomed out too far to see the pins well, they’ll group together and a number will appear to show you how many pins are in the group.

    Improved photos view. The process of viewing, editing, and uploading your photos is more streamlined.

    If you already have the app on your phone, you can get the update by tapping on the App Store app and either uploading all the pending updates you have or selecting the BillionGraves app specifically.

    10 June 2011

    Photo-collecting Tips & Tricks

    Today some of us went to out to test the Android app and some updates to the iPhone app (both are looking sharp, and it shouldn’t be too much longer before we can release them). On our lunch break we shuttled to the Orem Cemetery, scoped out a section that seemed reasonable, and each picked a row of headstones to start on.
    The crew lined up and ready to go.
    After someone finished a row, they’d leap-frog everyone else’s rows and start the next one. Since Android devices generally take photos even faster than iPhones, we were all moving along as a fast clip. Because of the position of the sun, we didn’t have to worry much about our shadows getting on the stones, there were no grass clippings obscuring the names and dates, and most of the Memorial Day flowers have been removed, so they weren’t blocking anything either.

    We’ve realized that turning the Auto Upload setting off (you can do this in your Settings menu) extends the phone’s battery life. When the phone is constantly updating the GPS to ensure the most accurate coordinates the cell service will provide, it’s already working pretty hard. But with the Auto Upload off and our simple organization, we finished our section long, long before we needed to use the car chargers we brought with us. Fifteen minutes after we started, there were almost 550 new photos for BillionGraves.com, and we’d done more than the section we’d initially targeted.

    The western grouping of pins were what we captured today.
    Jacob & Casey Moncur, two of the Android
    developers, race to get the most photos.

    Admittedly, there were a few of us who were racing to see who could get the most photos before we finished, so that added to our speed, but most of us were going at a casual pace through the headstone rows. We were going to take some time to demonstrate tips for taking fully legible photos, but the environment at Orem Cemetery was particularly cooperative today and we didn’t need to get too creative. But I’ll point out a few do’s and don’ts and then mention a few other things we’ve found helpful.

    The first image below is a picture I took before I cleared the headstone. It may seem a little obvious that the important things on this stone aren’t being recorded by the picture. After all, half of one person’s name is covered by a flower pot. But when you’re moving along at a quick clip, sometimes you forget to treat each stone individually; you forget to make sure each one is legible. This has been the case with a few photos that have been uploaded to BillionGraves.com. The second photo shows the same headstone, but with the flowers moved off the stone and far enough away that the shadows won’t make it difficult for a transcriber to read.

    Speaking of shadows, you should always try to keep your own shadow off the stone. The photos below show another headstone, one with the photo taken incorrectly and one taken correctly. Both of these photos are at least somewhat legible, even with the shadows, because we had some favorable light today. But there are other days (and times of day) that aren’t so friendly, and shadows can come out as a solid black mass marring the headstone. Even when they don’t, it’s a lot easier to read an un-shadowed headstone.

    Sometimes you’ll have to take a photo upside-down to keep your shadow off the stone, but you can always rotate it afterwards either in the app or on the website (sometimes we take the photos upside-down if one stone is oriented differently than the rest in a row—it lets us keep our rhythm).

    Another way to handle unfavorable shadows is to make sure the entire headstone and your phone are in the shade. This can be a little tricky—for us it typically involves two people standing next to each other to create a large enough shadow and then holding the phone within the shade (it would probably be easier if we just remembered to bring an umbrella). If the phone and the headstone are in the same patch of shade, the photo’s exposure and contrast will be set up for the lighting within the shadow, so it will be uniform and legible.

    Organizing group trips is our favorite way to collect headstone photos. If you’d like to organize a group to map out one of your local cemeteries, get your fellow family historians together and pick a date—then let us know if you want us to announce the trip on our Facebook and Twitter accounts to you can meet up with other BillionGraves users in your area. Afterwards, tell us about your experience and let us know a little bit about your area, or about some of the people whose headstones you collected. We’d love to share your story and your cemetery with the rest of the genealogical community.

    06 June 2011

    In a Dozen Days

    It’s always interesting to see your progress, regardless of the task at hand. So we’re posting a progress report for BillionGraves. Here are our numbers after the first dozen days of work:

    Photos: 8084+ (variation allowed for the time it took me to write this)
    Records: 11108+ (the number keeps changing each time I check it)
    Photos awaiting transcription: 500–600 (this number also keeps changing)

    There are more records than photos because a record refers to one individual’s information. So a couple that is buried under the same monument produces two records, one for each individual. Some of these individuals, like Carl J. Anderson (Provo City Cemetery, Utah, U.S.A.), I wasn’t able to find on the major grave registration sites. Now they’re available for current and future descendants. While these numbers are still relatively small, they represent a strong 12-days introduction.

    We’re not sure how many cemeteries have been added to the database since the launch because once we approve an added cemetery, it becomes identical to the cemeteries we originally had on file. I can, however, tell you about the cemeteries we have in the queue for approval. There are currently 16 of them.
    • 13 are in the United States, and they come from 8 different states.
    • 1 is in Ontario, Canada.
    • 1 is in United Kingdom, England specifically.
    • 1 is in Croatia.
    (Side note: The approval process goes much faster if cemeteries are added with phones that are currently in the cemetery.)

    Together, everyone using BillionGraves has, on average, made the headstones of 925 individuals available to descendants worldwide each day the site has been up and running. I wish I could thank you all individually for the contributions you’ve already made, both in photos and in transcriptions, but for now a sweeping “Thank you all” will have to do. We’re hopeful that more and more people will find and contribute to BillionGraves, and the numbers can only go up.

    03 June 2011

    Free App Options

    We’ve heard from a few people who feel our charging $1.99 for the app is wrong in principle. From most of you, we hear that yes, it’s only $1.99, but the principle of charging any money when you, our users, are volunteering to provide content is unreasonable. Well, know that we’ve gone through that same argument ourselves.

    First and foremost, $1.99 for the app is not making us any money. Forget about profit: it’s not even going to offset any startup costs. Charging $1.99 is not significantly helping us.

    Before we released the app, we went back and forth on the idea of charging for the app. You’ve already hit on the reasons we had for making the app free. But our rationale for setting a price on it may not be what you’d expect. We’re concerned about ensuring you get the best content as fast as possible. In developing other apps before BillionGraves, we’ve learned that free apps get downloaded by the casual passerby—and often don’t end up being used, or end up being used improperly. With most apps, that isn’t much of an issue. But BillionGraves is a camera app, and the content gets uploaded to a site with a very specific purpose. To the casual passerby, who does not necessarily understand or have a particular passion for finding and preserving the names of the dead, it may seem fun to take pictures of a dog, the front lawn, a car, a dresser—the possibilities for inappropriate photos are endless. As you may have seen already, sometimes these types of photos end up coming to BillionGraves because of an honest mistake made by someone who is interested. Cemeteries, which require individual approval to ensure accuracy, can be added incorrectly. All this faulty input has to be managed, and to conserve resources and put them to better use, we need to mitigate the amount of faulty input. The more faulty input we get, the longer it takes to make good photos and cemeteries available, and the longer it takes to make the improvements and additions you’ve requested.

    So that’s the problem we’re facing. Charging $1.99 was the solution we settled on. Our logic was that $2 is not enough to deter someone who is interested in the project (hopefully). It would probably cost you more to get a bottle of water at 7-11 to take with you to the cemetery than it would to buy the app. But $2 is enough to make casual passersby think twice before downloading. If they then chose to download, it would most likely be with a more honest intention to satisfy their curiosity by using the app the way it was meant to be used.

    With the feedback we’ve gotten, it’s apparent that you’d like us to find another solution as well. The amount of the cost isn’t the issue: it’s the principle and we understand that. We’ve been brainstorming all day, trying to figure out a way for someone to prove honest interest and be rewarded with a way to download the app for free. But it’s difficult to find a solution that will work for both the iPhone and the Android. The capabilities and restrictions for the two stores are different. Nevertheless, we’ve settled on an option we’ll try, and we hope you’ll try it with us.

    If you register on the BillionGraves.com website and send us an email through the “Contact Us” page using your registration email address, we’ll buy you the iPhone version of the app and give it to you. Then we have the guarantee that you’re at least somewhat interested and you get the app for free.

    We’ll incur some costs in the process, but that’s okay right now. The trouble is, Android distributors don’t have quite the same options for gifting apps, so we’ll need to adapt the solution when the Android app comes out. We’ll try this method for the next two weeks, until June 17, at which point I’ll report back on how things are going and if we’ve found a good, more permanent solution. We’re actively looking to find a way to provide both the BillionGraves content and the means for gathering it for free while still maintaining speed and quality. For now, try this solution with us.

    02 June 2011

    New Features Already Available

    Yesterday two of the four features I mentioned last time went live: the new transcription form and zoom capabilities. The new form is still simple and easy to use, but is now more adaptable and can accommodate more types of information. The default form now has the following fields:
    • Prefix
    • Given Names
    • Family Names
    • Birth Month, Day, & Year
    • Death Month, Day, & Year
    By clicking “add additional info” in the lower right corner of the form you’ll also see these:
    • Maiden Name
    • Marriage Month, Day, & Year
    You can also click the blue “Add Description” tab under the form and you’ll get these:
    • Add Epitaph
    • Add Additional Information
    The “Add Additional Information” field is there for anything that isn’t easy to standardize. Some headstones list children, but many of them differ in how they go about it. Some mention parents, but sometimes only by initials. Some mention military service, but the format for units and such varies. With the free-text format of the additional information box, you can ensure all the information gets captured and recorded and nothing gets left out because it doesn’t fit a predefined form.

    If you have any questions about how to transcribe a particular headstone, visit our transcription help page.

    01 June 2011

    Future Features

    Thank you for making the launch of BillionGraves.com so fun to watch and experience. We appreciate all the feedback you’ve been giving us and we’re hard at work adapting the site and app so they work better for you. Here’s a look at what we’re working on right now.

    #1 - The Android App
    As we’ve mentioned before, this is our top priority. It was top priority before the launch, but now that so many of you have requested it as well we’ve redoubled our efforts on that front. If all goes well, we’ll have an Android version of the app out by the end of June. If you’re a registered user over at the website, you’ll receive an email as soon as the app is available in the Android Market.

    #2 - Additional Transcription Information
    A lot of the headstones that have been collected hold a richer collection of information than the transcription setup currently supports. Right now the essential names and dates get recorded; soon there will be options that will allow you to record extra snippets like marriage dates and children if that information is on the grave marker.

    #3 - Better Map Views
    Currently you can see the photos you’ve taken mapped out in a cemetery, or you can see an individual headstone mapped out. Soon we’ll have the map set up so it can show you where all the mapped out headstones in a cemetery are, whether you’ve collected the photos yourself or not. This will help you to know if a cemetery has already been done, if only a part of it has been done, or if it’s waiting for you to come chart it.

    #4 - Zoom
    Before much longer you’ll be able to zoom in on photos so you can better transcribe the information on them. This should make the searchable records more accurate and make it easier to transcribe older grave markers.

    There are plenty of other things in the works, mostly things that you’ve requested either in blog posts or emails sent directly to us, but these are the things you’ll most likely see the soonest.