Measuring FamilyHistory: Participation Versus Output

Many organizations in the genealogy world want to engage more participation in the work for altruistic or financial reasons. There is nothing wrong with wanting to increase the number of people involved in family history. For many years, I have sought to inspire more participation regardless of how it personally benefits me. I know family history has brought me many blessings and comforts and I want to share this with others. Wanting more individuals engaged in capturing and preserving their family's story is valuable. The question then becomes how should this be measured?

Family History Editorial

As I started thinking about this, two camps seem to have little overlap when put into practice ... increasing participation versus increasing output. My mind then filled with a few related quotes that drive this issue.
"That which is measured improves. That which is measured and reported improves exponentially." - Karl Pearson 
"When performance is measured, performance improves. When performance is measured and reported back, the rate of improvement accelerates." - Thomas S. Monson 
Right after my mind caught hold of these quotes, another one slipped in.
"The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can't do." Jack Sparrow
What? The measurement quotes support the topic, but the words of a fictional pirate seem out of place and make no mention of measurement.

Maybe I stopped the quote too soon. CAPTAIN Jack Sparrow continues,
"For instance, you can accept that your father was a pirate and a good man or you can't. But pirate is in your blood, boy, so you'll have to square with that some day." 

This would make sense if I were talking about accepting that not every tree is full of honorable stories we love to share. There are scoundrels and scallywags as well.  Some good people did scandalous things. But, in pursuing the rest of the quote, I feel like I'm on a tangent. How does what Jack says relate to the measurement quotes and the topic of participation versus output?

FamilySearch has hosted several Worldwide indexing events including an indexing event in 2014, a Spanish Indexing Day, and an arbitration drive in May 2015 event with FamilySearch. Many Latter-Day Saints face indexing challenges from their wards and stake.

What do nearly all of these difficulties measure? Output. How many names did you arbitrate or index? The challenges rarely measure how many people participated in the event. If the ultimate goal was to index a bunch of names, then mission accomplished.  If the goal was to involve more people in indexing, well, there wasn't anything reporting that outcome.

If the goal was is to index a bunch of names, what tends to happen? In a group of 100 people issued a challenge, 1-5% do 90% of the work. 50% or more do nothing. Additionally, to meet the output goal, the projects that will produce the most number of names in the shortest amount of time are targeted. Projects that have fewer names or take longer to process are ignored. It would be interesting to see the mean and median number of names indexed by each person during these challenges, as well as the average and median difficulty level.  I suspect that you would find the median is far below the mean (meaning that a small percentage of people are doing the bulk of the work) and the difficulty level is low for both  (meaning that most everyone is trying to do the easy names).

Measuring the output increases production. Reporting the output in a short amount of time increased the production exponentially. However, these metrics can not measure the difficulty (and perhaps the value) of the names indexed and arbitrated. The index of a birth certificate or marriage certificate with names, spouses, parents, ages, and even dates surely would have more genealogical value than a typed passenger list that contains only a surname and first initial. That does not mean that the passenger list is useless, but by itself, it provides few relationship clues and only a single piece of event information (i.e. the person was alive at the time the vessel sailed). No birthdate, no marriage, no family ties. But an indexed passenger list will net the person 40 names in 10 minutes while a batch of birth certificates may only provide 15 names in 10 minutes. So it would appear that these challenges serve to get the least valuable records available first.

I would love to see challenges that give weight and importance to the records that are more difficult to index and arbitrate. I'd like to see challenges that ask folks to index the script rather than the typed items. The typed items are great, but typed documents are a recent invention in the history of record keeping. If we say not everything is online, we must also start saying not everything is typed.

I'd also like to see challenges that invite increased participation. Many hands make light work. And, increasing the number of people who participate may lead to more 'genealogy bug' biting moments. FamilySearch has several billion records with many millions more added each year (it's hard to tell since you really don't know how many "records" you have until you index them - some pages may have 0, others may have 20).  I have seen estimates that at the current rate these would take anywhere from 30 years to never to index. That sounds like we need a lot more indexers. FamilySearch is reporting about 100 - 125 million records indexed each year.

I have witnessed how exciting a challenge focused on increasing participation rather than output can be. Not surprisingly, the overall output was even higher than I expected if we just set an output goal.

Additionally, I like the challenges that focused on steady participation rather than big pushes and the burn out after. I like the idea of A Batch A Week. What would happen if a genealogical society decided to ask all members to index a batch a week? This would be the ultimate 'pay it back' activity for such a group who know the value of the harder to read projects. If all members indexed A Batch A Week for a membership year, then they can all do something super fun to celebrate!

What would happen if the family members who 'aren't into genealogy' committed to indexing A Batch A Week in honor of the family genealogist? Then family members could work on the projects that match their skill set. A family genealogist would ADORE the gift as they won't feel alone in the work. It's an intangible measure, but one strongly felt.

I know that many people issuing challenges and measuring the work are good people. I know that we all want more records to be available and searchable online. I do know that if we take a look at the participation versus output debate, perhaps a mixture of both will be a better overall benefit than focusing only on one aspect of the issue.

I'm still struggling to wrap my thoughts around this issue. I would love to discuss this topic and see things from a variety of angles. If you wish, feel free to post a comment below. You can also send me a message through my Facebook  page or Twitter account.


  1. Very interesting post, Devon!!! I have sent it onto 4 more of my sites!
    I am on Genes Reunited as Barry Dickinson from Lancashire with over 1800 names recorded.
    I personally have enjoyed the last 12 years researching trees of my wife Dorothy & myself... taking us all over the world! ... India, North america , India, Australia Ireland continental Europe as well as all parts of the UK.!
    I find WWI interesting, also a Napoleonic war veteran ancestor ! and much more ... on my website
    >> menu>> family tree
    Barry & Dorothy Dickinson

  2. Devon Lee, are you saying the number of people who index records are equal to the number of people who are interested in participate in preserving their family history?

    1. If I implied that, I am sorry. What I'd like to see is more people indexing consistently rather than indexing drives that focus on indexing 1 million names, 4,000 names per person or something similar. When the output is focused on, the things that are indexed is the 'easy to do a lot in a little time.' When participation is the focus, then all records are the focus and if I decide to do 5 names of a difficult record set rather than 1,000 names in an easy set, then the value of my participation is equivalent. Does this make sense? Is there a way to be more clear?

    2. You are right that it needs to be more consistent rather than a short intense period of time when people line up to index records. Over time we'd see better results.

    3. I noticed that FamilySearch is hosting an indexing event focused on participation numbers. They call it "Fuel the Find." It is right in line with what I was thinking, though I wasn't aware of it when I made this post.


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