01 January 2015

Success at last!

We are going back over records from Alleghany County, Virginia, where Sherry's Dad's family comes from. We want to find a birth record for her grandfather, which we've never been able to find. So we are reviewing everything from Alleghany County.

We were reminded that Sherry's Great-Great-Grandmother, Cornelia Helmintoller, was supposedly buried in the Johnson-Helmintoller-Plymale Cemetery, which we spent some time in a few months ago and documented in Virginia Stones.

At the time, we didn't think much of it, and we didn't notice any Cornelias, or any Helmintollers or McKenneys we recognized. But Sherry double-checked that I photographed every stone, and called me back with the camera after I was ready to leave. She had found a headstone broken in half, and wanted a picture of it, so she supported the top half with her legs and I took the photo you see here.

Today, we were again reminded that Cornelia remarried after her first husband (Sherry's GG GF) died. She married a John O Fridley. And what this stone actually says is "Nelia, wife of J O Fridley". So not only did we find a picture of Sherry's Great-Great-Grandmother's tombstone, but it was a picture we took months ago without even realizing it.

Global Positioning

When Sherry and I decided to volunteer with Find-A-Grave to take pictures of gravestones, we felt that it was important that we have a record of the location where each picture was taken. Since digital cameras typically produce JPEG files, and the JPEG format can include header data with GPS location, we felt it was simplest to find a digital camera that included GPS that it would stamp onto each picture as it was taken.

It turns out this is called "GeoTagging" and is fairly common among a younger crowd. Younger than us, at least. At any rate, when we looked for GPS-enabled cameras last year, there were two kinds - GPS add-ons to expensive digital SLR cameras, and "tough" cameras. I found this whole new niche of digital cameras I didn't know existed - they are waterproof, shockproof, and geotag-ready. They even take pictures underwater!

So we got one, a Pentax model WG-3 GPS, which we've been very happy with. It takes a couple seconds from when you turn it on until it locates a GPS satellite and then every outdoor picture will be tagged. At home, I can examine the GPS tags and map where the grave location is on Google Maps.

Okay, now we know that GPS for cameras is probably only accurate to about ten feet. But even if the GPS gets you within 20 feet, it has really narrowed the area you have to search for a grave.

We leave the geotag information in the header when we upload the pictures to Find-A-Grave. On purpose.

Here's why.

I feel that the biggest next step for Find-A-Grave has to involve some kind of spatial proximity among graves. When we go to a cemetery to get genealogical information, one of the biggest ways to get information is to look at the graves around the one you already knew about. Maybe Uncle Joe is buried next to his parents. Or his children. Or the "significant other" he spent the last twenty years of his life with after his wife passed.

Find-A-Grave currently allows you to enter plot information. Sometimes this is useful, in larger, more organized, active cemeteries. For the smaller places Sherry and I frequent there isn't any plot information. Even in many of the larger cemeteries a plot number doesn't pinpoint the grave very well, unless you know all the intricacies of how to read the cemetery's cryptic markers.

Find-A-Grave also allows you to enter GPS coordinates for each memorial. This is done as an extra step. If it is a memorial you have created, you click "Add Plot" and enter the latitude and longitude from the photo, after extracting them and converting them to the right format. If the memorial was created by someone else, and you are just adding the photo, you have to send an edit request to the owner/creator of the memorial with the latitude and longitude. Probably if they notice that your name matches the photo, they will accept the edit without question. If they are still active in Find-A-Grave, of course.

Anyway, the point of the above rant is that it would be much simpler if Find-A-Grave decides to examine the GPS tags in the JPEG files themselves. They can automate the process of extracting the coordinates, converting them to the right format, and updating the location of the grave. And maybe by the time they get around to that, they will also address how to display grave positions so that their users can see what graves are nearby the grave of their loved one.

-- David, blogging from 39°08'40.4"N 77°24'45.0"W

Update, 17 Jan 2015

Find-A-Grave now has an "Upload and Transcribe" option in Beta form. You have to go to a link, http://www.findagrave.com/enable-beta, and then it shows a Transcriptions section on your member page, and on each cemetery page.

The idea is that you upload gravestone photos for a particular cemetery, and then you go in and transcribe the gravestone data directly into cemetery records. It's still Beta, so there's the occasional bug, but it seems very well done. You can enter one or more persons data for each stone, and if they already exist in the database it pulls up the existing entry. You have a week from when you upload the photos to transcribe them, and then they are released into a general pool where anyone can transcribe them.

As a side note - I've found that I still want to do a little pre-processing on the photos before I upload them. Usually I just crop the photo close to the stone, adjust the brightness/contrast, and compress.

All of that is fantastic on it's own, and a great improvement to the site. But in the spirit of this blog post, they actually pull the geotag data from the uploaded photos and attach it to the memorial records. Here's a link to one that we uploaded, and you can see the GPS info: Walter P Broyles

There's a Cemetery Photo Map link from the cemetery page, and that sounds very promising, but it doesn't seem to work yet. But as we know the GPS data is already in the system, so when they get it working it should be able to map the photos we are transcribing today.

Thank you, Find-a-Grave!