Mobile App Official Beta Release!
After a long wait, I am VERY excited to announce that The Family Nexus mobile app is officially in beta testing mode! This means that we are ready for other users to begin using the app and providing their feedback. To make the best app possible we need as many people to use the app as we can possibly get. As a beta tester you get an early look at the app before it can be downloaded in the app store AND your feedback will directly impact the features and functionality in the app.
You don’t have to be a researcher to appreciate this app! In fact, it delivers your family history to your fingertips so you can make amazing discoveries about your family WITHOUT doing any research yourself!
Interested? Then here is what you need to know.
What you need to know
- You must have an iPhone with iOS 9 or above. Technically an iPad will work, but there are some UI issues.
- You must download the “TestFlight” app from the Apple store. This is an app published by Apple for beta testing new apps.
- You must have a free FamilySearch account.
- You must be willing to share your experience, thoughts, and reaction in addition to reporting any bugs/defects. Beta testers should provide feedback via email on January 6th and January 13th (or earlier).
What does the app do?
We have an exciting road map for The Family Nexus mobile app, but we want to get some core features out to the public as soon as possible. Your feedback as a beta tester will directly impact which features we work on next. Currently the main functionality that is available includes the following:
- Integrate with FamilySearch to download YOUR family tree data to your device.
- Automatically plot life events on an interactive Google map. We plot birth, marriage, death, and burial events.
- Explore the map and tap on map pins to learn about the events in your family history that took place at that location.
- If available, download a thumbnail portrait of your family members.
- Search for People in your family tree by name to view details about their life.
- Search for places and see events that took place in that area.
- When the app is open (active), if there was an event that took place on this day in your history you will receive a notification telling you about the anniversary.
- When active or in the background, the app will notify you if you get close to a event in your family history.
- Under menu, you can select Notifications to see all notifications you have received in the last 2 weeks.
- Share a “Life Event Card” on Facebook or Twitter to tell everyone the fun things you are learning about your ancestors.
- Under Settings, you can configure the default zoom level (used when searching for places), you can mute location-based notifications from 1-100 miles from your home (the app allows you to specify where “Home” is), and configure how far away from an event you are when the app notifies you of something nearby.
There are a few issues we are already aware of, but we want to get the app in your hands for your feedback. So here are a few things we already know about. This information will help you in your testing, and limit your frustration.
It can take 30-60 minutes to download the 8 generations of data from your FamilySearch Family Tree to your device. We do this in “chunks” so you can begin using the app right away, but it does take a lot of time. You will want to be on a fast Wi-Fi network the first time you install the app and begin to use it to speed this process up. You only have to download the data once, though, so we think this is OK.
We are working on ways to speed up the download.
Update 1/17/17: We have significantly improved the download time. We have reduced it to 7 generations and improved our methods so that it should be complete in 15-20 minutes!
The app currently uses FamilySearch data from an area called “beta”. This is essentially an old copy of the “‘live” production data on FamilySearch.org. There are some limitations and other constraints that effect this, however.
- First off, it most likely does NOT contain all the “up-to-date” information in your Tree. As an older copy, it will not match your Tree in the Production environment exactly. In fact, because it is an area for FamilySearch and its partners to test new functionality it may have considerable differences. In my case, for example, someone had pruned my grandpa’s branch and grafted it to some Polish ancestors! Don’t stress about this! It does not affect your “Production” Tree in any way.
- There are no portraits in the beta site. In our experience, at least, the links to any uploaded images in your Production Family Tree are broken in beta. If you want to see The Family Nexus mobile app use portraits of your ancestors you will need to upload them to the beta site. This is easy to do and works exactly the way it does in Production.
Update 1/17/17: We have moved to Production FamilySearch site as of “build (11)” which is being published today.
Location-based Notifications and “Geo-fencing”
One of the coolest features for making new discoveries about your family history is the alert or notification you receive when you get close to an event in your family history. This works using some complicated wizardry that many users are becoming quite familiar with from other apps. First, the app keeps track of your current location. This data is never stored permanently, and the company has no way of tracking your movements or history. We simply use that information to calculate your proximity to locations in your family history.
We track your location using several methods. When the app is open and in “active” mode, we use your GPS information. This is the most accurate way of tracking your location, but it also uses the most battery power. This is why we only use this method while you are actively using the app. Knowing your precise location will allow us to give you turn-by-turn navigation directions to a historical location in the future. While the app is in the background we track your location more broadly using Wi-Fi information and cell tower proximity. As you move, your phone is “attached” to a cell tower so it can send and receive calls, etc. Your phone may also be connected to a Wi-Fi network. Knowing either of these pieces of information can tell us within a few miles where you are located. But we cannot know your precise location.
Based on your settings you can be notified of a nearby life event anywhere from 1 to 100 miles away. This setting effectively creates the radius of an invisible circle around each life event. This invisible circle is called a “Geo-fence.” When you cross that Geo-fence you get an alert. Pretty cool, huh?!
My head hurts! Why are you telling me this?
Whew! That is a LOT of background to tell you about one of the current limitations in the app. Right now you only receive a notification if you CROSS a Geo-fence boundary. Meaning if you are already INSIDE the boundary when you start the app you will not receive a notification. Or perhaps you are 20 miles away from an event, and then you change your settings to be notified when you are 25 miles away. The Geo-fence is redrawn at that point and you are inside the fence.
We are already working on a fix for this problem. For now, our experience is that it is best to keep the distance shorter unless you are going on a long trip. This keeps the Geo-fence radius small and you don’t have to travel as far to CROSS a boundary. Also, crank your “mute” all the way to the left so as long as you are at least 1 mile away from your home you will get notifications.
Update 1/17/17: The app now alerts you even if you start the app INSIDE the geofence! However, it does send you a separate notification for each life event. It does this in 20 notification batches each time you open the app, so you might be surprised when you open the app the next day (not having traveled anywhere) to get new notifications. We are working on this as well.
“Geocoding” your ancestors’ life events
The last issue that is worth telling you about is the magic of “geocoding.” When we download your Tree data we get the information about when and where your ancestors were born, married, died, and were finally buried. We then take the location information and try to get the latitude and longitude of that specific location. This process is called “geocoding.” The location information we get can be “good” data or “bad” data. So the old adage “garbage in, garbage out” definitely applies here. If your ancestor was born in “,,SC”, the system won’t be able to interpret that correctly. For a genealogist this means “[unknown town], [unknown county], South Carolina, [United States]” – but our algorithms just aren’t smart enough (yet?) to interpret this correctly.
Therefore, for best results your location information should all be “standardized” AND the text displayed in the white box in FamilySearch should MATCH the standardized text in the green box. This includes the country! I am confident that in the future we can still match the location without the country, but for now you need the country in there.
So what should I do?
You can fix this by opening a browser and going to beta.familysearch.org. You can login with your regular FamilySearch account and start “cleaning up” some of your data for testing purposes. Once you have made changes you can go to Settings and “Resync” your data for the app. The Resync process takes awhile as well, and doesn’t refresh automatically right now. So it is best to hit Resync then come back in about 30 minutes. If you can’t see any difference do a search for one of the people you corrected and see if the change is there.
Without standardized location information the app will do 1 of 2 things. 1) Not geocode the location at all. This means you won’t see a map pin, and from the Person Detail View you can’t tap on an event to go to that location on the map. 2) Attempt to geocode the location and get some comical results! So don’t freak out and think the app is junk because it tells you your grandmother was born in the Indian Ocean, please!
Between improving our geocoding algorithms and you standardizing place names we can get awesome results!
Update 1/17/17: Our algorithms are MUCH improved! I have seen a few cases where we didn’t match the location, but I just spent 15 minutes going from person to person in my app and ALL of them had properly geocoded locations. Hooray dev team! It is still helpful to standardize place names though!
Hopefully you are as excited as we are and can’t wait to be one of the first to get your hands on this cool new app! If that is the case, just fill out the simple form below to apply to be a beta tester! If you don’t have an iPhone but know someone that does, share this post with them!