BYU students help others connect through family history application

Computer science professor Mark Clement and his students work on handwriting recognition to help with their work in the Family History Technology Lab. (BYU Photo/Rebekah Baker)

A Relative Finder application built by students in BYU’s Family History Technology Lab recently hit one million users.

Mark Clement, manager of the Family History Technology Lab and computer science professor, said users can create custom groups of people and find out how everyone in the group is related with this application.

“The big thing is connecting people,” Clement said. “Helping them to feel the Spirit of Elijah and then help them be motivated to do other family history.”

Users sign in with their Family Search ID as the application uses Family Search’s data. Users can then start searching and finding relatives in various categories, such as famous authors, prophets or astronauts. He said the application is used frequently by wards for activities.

Relative Finder can also be used to connect with people who are physically nearby. Clement said the application was once used in Brigham Square during a RootsTech Conference and the approximate 700 people there were able to connect and form relationships with their new-found relatives.

This function of Relative Finder is similar to Family Search’s “relatives near me” function. Relative Finder, however, does not require physically nearby individuals for it to calculate relationships.

When a custom group is made, Relative Finder will automatically show the relatives and relationships between the individuals in the custom group regardless of where the users are located, or if they are even using the application at the same time.

The Family History Technology Lab at BYU created a Relative Finder application 20 years ago that just hit one million users. Students from different computer-based majors help maintain and improve the website. (Relative Finder)

The application was built 20 years ago and has been continually maintained and improved upon by information systems and computer science students over the years.

Information systems student Joseph Steed is one of the project managers for the finder application. He said when the application was first created, it was the only one that could accurately calculate relationships. Since then, students have improved the interface, expanded abilities and functions and innovated new aspects of the website.

Relative Finder is “a bridge that allows people to actually bring people into their family and to collaborate on things they normally wouldn’t,” Steed said. A Facebook group has even been created by users of Relative Finder to help open conversations and make more relative connections, Steed said.

Computer and data science student Lawry Sorenson said working on this project is “a really nice meeting place” for two things he is passionate about: family history and computer programming.

Using Relative Finder and Family Search to find out how his friends are related to him has been a bonding experience for Sorenson. He hopes this application and other projects in the lab help lower the entry point and get others more interested in doing family history work.

Working on this project as a student has been surreal for Steed. He said it is exciting, but he feels a lot of pressure and responsibility. The website has gone down a few times; one time he was accidentally the one who brought the website down.

The students and the professors working on this finder application, however, all use it as a tool to learn. Clement has helped Steed and other students to be less self-critical when they make a mistake and to focus on making things better when mishaps happen.

Steed said the reason the application is so good today is because the students weren’t afraid to make big mistakes in trying new things. Working through the crashes and issues that arose helped them make the application better than it was before and into what it is today.

Those involved in Relative Finder hope the number of users continues to grow so they can keep connecting people and making the website more user friendly.

Currently, Sorenson and the rest of the students are working on moving Relative Finder to a new infrastructure and system to make it easier to maintain and update.

Additional family history resources can be found on BYU’s Family History Technology Lab website.

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