BYU professor works to connect ‘entire human family’ through genealogy research lab

BYU-Pathway Worldwide president Brian Ashton recently visited Joseph Price, far left, and his Record Linking Lab. The lab regularly collaborates with BYU-Pathway and FamilySearch. (Photo courtesy of Joseph Price)

Economics professor Joseph Price said he believes it is possible to love a billion people. He grows that love one day, one handwritten to-do list and one census record at a time.

Price and his team of more than 50 students work at the BYU Record Linking Lab to grow FamilySearch’s genealogical tree through record attachment, the development of auto-indexing technology and other projects.

Price’s passion for family history began several years ago as a hobby. “I was at BYU Education Week, gave it a try and just fell completely in love,” he said.

Before long, he was spending 10 to 15 hours per week working on family history, he said. It was not until a conversation with a colleague at an economics conference that he said he realized the potential of technology to accelerate family history work.

“This little light went on in my head. I just wondered what would happen if we brought the two approaches together,” he said.

Price said he created the Record Linking Lab in response to this perceived gap at the intersection of economic research, machine learning and genealogy. 

The RLL partners with FamilySearch, a genealogical database operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to grow the site’s family tree.

One of the lab’s earliest projects was focused on linking records of families with children in the 1910 census, which Price said is “getting really close to complete coverage.”

Since then, the lab has expanded its reach to other censuses and other continents. One of Price’s recent and fast-growing efforts has been with BYU-Pathway students in Papua New Guinea and nine African countries. 

Meg Wright, a sophomore economics student from Tri-Cities, Washington, leads the team that collaborates with Pathway students. They currently employ 200 students abroad but hope to increase their workforce to 10,000 by the end of the calendar year, she said. 

Pathway student employees attach digitized census records to the family tree, Wright explained. “FamilySearch likes having humans involved. What machine learning does is suggest possible matches, and then humans make the final decision,” he said.

Wright described her work in the lab as altruistic and fulfilling. In her year with the RLL, she said she has realized the significance of helping others discover their ancestors.

Wright said she decided to study economics because she recognized its potential to change the world. Her experience with Price has solidified that vision.

“He is a force of nature, and he gets so much done. Every single conversation with him is so personal and inspiring,” she said.

Price has also started working with Catholic church records in Argentina, where his son is currently serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

While he waits for official project approval from FamilySearch, Price has been personally growing family trees for the surnames of recent converts to the Church in Argentina. “That’s pretty meaningful to me because you can actually do temple work for someone who has your surname in the place where your ancestors are from,” he said.

Price explains his own “heart-turning” experience in regard to family history work. He has moved beyond his own family tree to help others, which he says has helped him develop greater faith in Jesus Christ. (Emma Everett)

Price said he hopes to change the current paradigm surrounding genealogical work in the Church. For members of the Church with well-documented family trees, it can be discouraging to participate in family history work, he said.

“You can find a place on the tree where you could be successful,” he said. “It’s neat that the love you feel for your own ancestors can be expanded to potentially the entire human family.”

In the few years since Price discovered a passion for family history, he said his love has grown beyond his own ancestors to now include Chile, where he served his mission, Argentina, Uruguay and Washington State, where his children served their missions and Oregon, where he grew up.

Price described the love he feels as “a refining process that happens as you do the work. They’re real people, and as you serve them, you love them.”

Price’s lab students have caught his vision. Junior electrical engineering student Kevin Richins leads a team of programmers within the RLL. He said Price asked him to grow the tree in any way he could.

“There’s no group that’s done what we’re doing. He gives me the tools to build and be creative,” Richins said.

Richins and his team have added more than 22 million people to FamilySearch’s tree. He said Price inspires and lends valuable perspective to their work.

“I never thought I could have this kind of impact, but BYU made it possible for me,” he said.

Tommy Morgan, an economics student from Ogden, Utah, also recognizes the unique position the RLL holds in the world of economic research. He and his team collaborate with other universities to provide historical data.

“We have a niche, in terms of the cool data we have access to. We’re able to help FamilySearch grow the tree and further their goals, and they help us do cool research with that data,” Morgan explained.

Morgan has interacted with Price in many settings: classes, the Record Linking Lab and department advisement for Ph.D. candidates. These encounters with Price have shaped his undergraduate experience, he said.

“There’s almost 60 people in the RLL, and Dr. Price is the kind of person who’s trying to have in-person interaction time with all 60 of them, plus teaching his classes, plus working with co-authors and talking with FamilySearch and other stuff,” he said.

Price, left, attended the Fulton Conference with his research assistant Tommy Morgan, second from left, who was recognized for his work in the RLL. Morgan and his 17-person team currently have 36 projects in various stages of completion. (Photo courtesy of Joseph Price)

Morgan said Price can often be seen holding a handwritten to-do list as he moves from one task to another. Price said he plans to continue projects with the RLL until all 107 billion members of the human family are gathered — which he claims is a monumental task.

“I’ve had things in the past that I’ve done research on … but I kind of think this is the thing that I’m going to do forever, because it’s so much fun,” Price said. 

Ultimately, Price is inspired by people. His service extends beyond the walls of his classroom and beyond the grave, he said.

“I’m motivated by two things,” Price said. “One is to gather the human family, and one is to provide meaningful experiences to my students so that they have a heart-turning experience.”

Individuals and groups interested in supporting the Record Linking Lab can find volunteer opportunities here

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