Sydney Jorgensen
Sisters Stephanie Rask, left, and Sher Huss, middle, met their fourth cousin Glenda Ferran, right, at the FamilySearch booth in the Expo Hall at RootsTech on Thursday. They stand next to a screen displaying the total number of cousins who have been found using the "Relatives at RootsTech" feature.

When a woman walked up to FamilySearch CEO Steve Rockwood at RootsTech 2018 and said she was his cousin, he looked at her with a huge smile and said, "Well, hello there, cuz!"

“I’ve got more than 300 (cousins) on my app,” Rockwood said during the conference. “Last night and today, I think I responded to at least 25-50 people. It’s been great.”

Relatives at RootsTech is a special RootsTech 2018 feature on FamilySearch's Family Tree mobile app. Once connected, the app allows users to see a list of their relatives — first, second, third, fourth cousins and beyond — who are also at the conference. Users can then click on each relative to see how they are related and direct message them.

A screen at the FamilySearch booth in the Expo Hall showed over 1.5 million cousins had been found through the Relatives at RootsTech feature as of Thursday afternoon. Out of 5,780 total app participants at RootsTech, 6,210 cousins had been contacted, 3,809 of which were second cousins.

When American Fork resident Glenda Ferran clicked on the “Find Relatives at RootsTech” bar on the top of her Family Tree app screen, she said she noticed something in her list of relatives that caught her eye: a fourth cousin named Sher Huss.

“I reached out because she carries the same last name in a line that’s just new to me,” Ferran said. “I sent her a message and she said, ‘let’s meet.’”

Ferran met Huss, from Taylorsville at the FamilySearch booth in the Expo Hall on Thursday. “As soon as I saw her, I just said ‘oh, she is a Huss,;” Ferran said. “There are so many pictures I’ve put in that I’ve found, and she looks like a lot of them.”

Huss’ sister, Stephanie Rask, was also there. Thanks to Relatives at RootsTech, Huss, Rask and Ferran have made plans to work together on the Huss line, sharing pictures and stories along the way, and find it a blessing they all live in Utah.

“We really want this to work with any group you belong to,” Rockwood said. “Imagine what this will mean when an elders quorum does this and finds out, or a Relief Society does this? We do treat each other differently once you realize there’s a connection. It’s very powerful. We are really thankful to the engineers who put this together.”

Ryon Bazzle, a BYU-Idaho graduate who works for the FamilySearch mobile team, helped with the design and user experience of the Relatives at RootsTech feature on the app. The feature was used at a previous conference, he said, but this one had to be designed to accommodate a lot more people for RootsTech.

Relatives at RootsTech is based off the already existing Relatives Around Me feature in the FamilySearch Family Tree app, Bazzle explained. The app user can open Relatives Around Me anytime, scan for friends, and anyone else with the app open in the area has the potential to be connected. He’s used it with a group of friends before to find out who is related.

Bazzle didn’t realize how much of an impact the RootsTech “cousins feature” he helped design would have on his personal experience at the conference. His last name is uncommon, he’s never been to a family reunion and “I never got that feeling that I was connected to something bigger,” he said.

“Then I opened up this Find Relatives at RootsTech and saw 298 people and it blew me away,” he said. “I would love to meet someone who knows my last name or my mom’s maiden name. … That would make my day. That would be as close as I get to a family reunion.”

“We’re all cousins and we’re all trying to figure it out,” he added. “This thing has turned into a big family reunion.”

Relatives Around Me is just one of many features designed to help users jump into family history, Bazzle said. He pointed to the app’s ability to directly upload photos to memories, use a person's location on to see a map of an ancestor’s life events, show a task list with hints for records and temple work and upload audio clips with pre-made prompts to answer.

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Todd Powell, FamilySearch senior product manager over the mobile app, said the app is growing because it’s “the easiest way to connect and share experiences with others.”

In 2017, 4 million persons were added and 4 million photos were uploaded to the app, he said. The number of attached sources quadrupled, going from 2 million in 2016 to 8 million in 2017. The app had over 190,000 unique users last week, and he expects that number be higher this week due to RootsTech.

“(Family history) is a collaborative effort, and the more people you can find to collaborate with, the more real people become,” Ferran said.