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New BYU-made Facebook app looks at family trees

Published: Saturday, Aug. 27 2011 12:41 a.m. MDT

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Finding new friends on Facebook is major part of the draw of the wildly successful website, but with a new app developed by BYU students, Facebook users can now see who they are related to.

Mike Nelson, Willard Hagen and more than a dozen other undergraduate computer science students developed the the Facebook "Relative Finder" app, which connects a Facebook account with new.FamilySearch.org.

The app was inspired by a web version, RelativeFinder.org, originally created by the student's professor, Tom Sederberg, as a standalone. Nelson suggested taking it a step further and using it in conjunction with Facebook.

"Facebook is becoming so popular, it was a natural mechanism for people to exchange information on how they are related to each other," Sederberg said. "We also see this as a fun way for people to get involved in genealogy... within five minutes you can quickly see how you're related to hundreds of famous people and friends on Facebook."

Nelson said he wanted to use his programing skills, while also getting work experience and when he heard Sederberg was seeking a research assistant he jumped on the opportunity. The project was done as part of Nelson's honors thesis for his computer science degree.

The web version of the app already has 14,000 users, according to Hagen, and the professor and students anticipate the Facebook app will be equally popular.

"Yesterday we had about 1200 people run reports," Sederberg said. "And we are able, right now, to handle 20,000 in a day."

Those already with a Facebook account can sign in to new.FamilySearch.org, which they will only have to do the first time, and this is done using their LDS account login and password. Currently, the app, considered a prototype app, is only available to members of the LDS Church, as it does require the use of new.FamilySearch.org, which is not officially public yet, according to Sederberg.

However, once the search is open to those outside the church the app will work for them as well, which Sederberg said could be soon. There is an option to begin the registration process for those outside of the church, but it cannot be completed yet. Though, because the search is based on ancestral file data, many outside of the church won't have a lot of data included, and once it is is open it will take some time to build up the data and tie into family trees. Sederberg himself, a first generation Mormon, had little ancestral data, but once his data was entered, it took looking back eight or nine generations to find connections.

Once a new.FamilySearch.org account is created, or logged in to, they can invite fellow Facebook friends and see if they share common ancestors.

Hagen said the app looks at the connection between two people by searching each family tree, through new.FamilySearch.org. Once a common ancestor is hit, they can determine the relation.

"We (also) have some built-in groups," Hagen said, "to see if you are related to (LDS) prophets and presidents or famous people."

Those with extensive family history records and generations in the church will be able to find many relatives, according to Sederberg, and some connections may even surprise them. "From our experience, for those who have been in the church for a while, it's certain you'd find a lot of relatives," Sederberg said.

Besides creating an interest in genealogy and the fun of finding unknown relatives, Sederberg has found the app to be particularly gratifying as "people will see these famous people that they are related to, sometimes even closely, and had no idea, and it contributes to their sense of identity and makes them feel more closely tied," Sederberg said.

Another Facebook family-connecting app includes the Family Tree app, which uses FamilyBuilder.com, a genealogical website, to create a family tree, locate and connect with relatives, as well as preserve family history.

EMAIL: awhatcott@desnews.com

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