Shake That Family Tree Event

Blog Post Banner for "Shake That Family Tree" Event

On 14 October 2023 the Howard County Genealogical and Historical Societies and the Howard County Public Library System organized the “Shake That Family Tree” event at the Miller Library in Ellicott City, MD. This was intended as a beginner-level event, but there was certainly great information for all the genealogists who attended.

I was delighted to have been invited to host a table about military research and my books. All day long there were interesting talks, and a room full of tables with representatives from local history and genealogical societies who were eager to share information about what they were doing and offer help to genealogists at all levels.

Many of the people who stopped by did not know if they had ancestors who served in WWI. The best place to check is the FamilySearch database for the VA Master Index, which has been covered in this updated blog’s post “Did My Ancestor Serve in WWI?” to reflect the changed search interface.

The Howard County Genealogical and Historical Societies and the Miller Library hosted a wonderful event, and it is certainly my hope that this might become an annual event!

"Shake That Family Tree" tables

Back to School: Genealogy Style

Blog Post Cover: Back to school genealogy style

When autumn comes, we think of going back to school. Genealogists are always learning, and webinars are a great way to do that. Presentations give us information, introduce us to new techniques or provide a new way of looking at our research. These resources in the blog post offer great classes and more.

The Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library hosts the Periodical Source Index (PERSI) and has many recorded webinars available on its YouTube Channel. You can even send them an email if you have a question.

ACPL Genealogy Center Home Page

The Midwest Genealogy Center at Mid-Continent Public Library offers a variety of resources. You can even request an Appointment with a Genealogy Consultant. Be sure to check out their upcoming and register for them on their events page. You can view their recorded talks on their YouTube Channel.

The Midwest Genealogy Center at Mid-Continent Public Library Home Page

BYU’s Harold B. Lee Library offers new webinars every week. They also offer a large library of recorded webinars.

BYU Library Webinar Page

Of course for the more adventurous, consider a class at your local community college.

When everyone around is going back to school, join them!

Artificial Intelligence: Google Bard vs. ChatGPT

Blog Post Banner: Google Bard vs. ChatGPT

It is inevitable that similar AI tools will be compared. This blog post takes a look at comparing OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google Bard.

When Google Bard was asked how it was different from ChatGPT, it answered that its training data contained images, that it could access the internet, and that it was a more general AI rather than a text-generating AI. Bard also told me that while ChatGPT was creative, it was more creative.

Google Bard has an interesting approach to answering prompts. Unlike ChatGPT, its training and knowledge does not end at 2021. It can go out and get content from the web to generate its answers.

Like ChatGPT, Google Bard can also hallucinate and authoritatively state inaccurate information. The “Google it” button found under a Bard response can help comfort you that the answer is not a hallucination.

These two AI tools do have some differences.

ChatGPT offers multiple conversations so that a user’s conversations can stay organized. It also has the ability to present previous conversations and pick up where it left off. Google Bard holds one conversation. It allows users to return to their previous prompts by selecting their Bard Activity from its menu. The responses to the prompts have to be selected at the time, and cannot be recalled.

Bard responses can contain images returned from the web. The responses, without any images, can be uploaded to a document in the user’s Google Drive or into the text of a gmail. ChatGPT responses are text-only, and need to be copied and pasted from the browser into a document. (Note: browser addons or plugins to capture responses are not discussed in this blog post. Any code you add to your browser this way should be researched thoroughly!)

Given that the content generated by Bard is not owned by the user, I will probably use ChatGPT for generating text and explaining concepts. (Of course, what ChatGPT generates should be verified!) I do prefer that responses are saved, and that different chats can be active.

It is possible that I might lean on Google Bard more for research questions, and will ask Bard for its sources. Undoubtedly the “Google it” button will be used in those efforts.

Of course, we can expect that Google Bard and other AI tools will continue to evolve at a rapid pace.

Based on the versions available at the time of this blog post being written, below is a table comparing features of OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google Bard that I found notable.

Genealogy and AI: Google Bard

Blog Post banner - Genealogy and AI: Google Bard

Although Google Bard states that it removes personally identifiable information when using conversations to improve the model, DO NOT INCLUDE PERSONAL INFORMATION IN YOUR CHATS.

This week I spent some time working with Google’s challenger to OpenAI’s ChatGPT. Google Bard is a Language Model for Dialogue Applications (LaMDA), and I was working on the day that Bard began to bring images from Google Search into its results. Bard advertises that it helps you plan, solves complicated problems and supports your creative process. When it quotes content, it will cite where it found the material, or the computer code repository that was used.  

In this article you will notice that I do include screenshots of answers, as I did for ChatGPT. That is because Google owns the generated content. If anyone wants to publish the content, they have to get permission from Google; at best Google and the user might share the rights to material. (In comparison, when you generate content in ChatGPT you own the rights to that content.)

Google Bard can be found at:

I also recommend viewing the Frequently Asked Questions.

You can select to save your Bard Activity, but even if that option is deselected, your activity is saved for up to 48 hours so that the feedback can be used. You can also select whether or not your activity is auto-deleted after 18 months. In my Bard Activity I could see the prompts that were given, but could not retrieve Bard’s responses, so remember to SAVE the responses. At the time of your session you can copy-and-paste them into a document or use the upload function described below.  

The menu for Google Bard appears on the left hand side of the window.

At the bottom of each response were buttons to like, dislike, upload the response, or “Google it”

bottom of Google Bard response

When you select to upload a response, you have options to upload it your Google Drive or draft an email in Gmail. The uploaded response will include text but NOT include the images you see in Bard.

Google Bard upload options

I decided to ask some genealogically oriented questions, as I had done when testing ChatGPT.

“What are good resources for genealogy?” The answer to this prompt was a reasonable list of record databases, websites and societies.

“How can you help me with my genealogy?” This prompt was answered with ideas about genealogy research, finding resources, interpreting data and help create a family tree.

“How did someone travel from New York City to Newport, RI, in 1850?” Google Bard answered that the travel would have been by stage coach and steam ship, presenting me with images and data from the web along with its answer.

I asked what its sources were for this information, and it was listed sources. It also shared that it used its own knowledge to fill in the gaps.

When I asked how to find the source material, it provided links to places to buy a physical copy but did not provide a link to the source on Google Books. It did tell me that the book was available to view and download from Google Books. That resource was actually a very interesting discussion on travel to Newport between 1800 and 1850.

Since the user does not own the generated content, and the web is used to help answer prompts, this AI tool may be more useful to me as a research assistant.

You can always give it a try!

ChatGPT and GEDCOM Files

Blog Post Banner ChatGPT and GEDCOM Files

Before I was a professor, I was a flight test engineer. My love of testing systems goes back to my early days working in a lab during college. My particular gift was always find a way to “break” hardware or software through use. My desire to investigate the use of ChatGPT in genealogy has definitely coincided with my enjoyment of testing. In this blog post, I take a look at what ChatGPT knows about GEDCOMs, how it builds one and how it can create a narrative when given an individual’s data formatted in a GEDCOM.

The technical jargon in this paragraph is available for those who want a slightly deeper understanding. In computer science, data can be grouped together in meaningful representation of things that live in the real world. A data structure is a way to group fields in a specific order for a program to input data, manipulate it, and output it. The way that genealogical data is formatted and shared is the GEnealogical Data COMmunication (GEDCOM) standard.

GEDCOM (Genealogical Data Communication) is a file format used to exchange genealogical data between different genealogy software programs. It is a standard format for saving family tree data, and it allows users to transfer their family tree data from one program to another.

GEDCOM files are saved with the extension “.ged” and are made up of text-based data that includes information about individuals, families, and events such as births, marriages, and deaths. The data is organized in a hierarchical format, with each record containing information about a single individual or event.

GEDCOM files can be used to create family trees, research family history, and share information with other genealogists. They are widely used by genealogy software programs and online genealogy databases. For example, you can export a GEDCOM from your family tree program or download a GEDCOM from

NOTE: DO NOT ENTER PRIVATE OR SENSITIVE DATA INTO ChatGPT. Your data is used for training, and is reviewed by OpenAI to verify that content complies with their policies and safety requirements. They may be used for training purposes.

I asked ChatGPT what it knew about GEDCOMs with prompts: What is a GEDCOM file? What is the GEDCOM standard? What are the fields in the GEDCOM standard?

ChatGPT answered reasonably well, except that it confidently stated the latest version of GEDCOM being used was 5.5.1. This is understandable because ChatGPT’s training ended in 2021. (As of the writing of this blog post, the current version  is 7.0. For more information see the FamilySearch wiki entry for GEDCOM.)

Knowing that ChatGPT was using GEDCOM 5.5.1 was not a problem for these experiments.

Creating a GEDCOM

I would not choose to build a GEDCOM in this manner, but I could see how entering a narrative about ancestors into the prompt and let ChatGPT build the relationships from written language could be helpful. Beginning a family tree or adding a separate branch could be done by ChatGPT, then imported into a family tree program.

Investigating how effective ChatGPT was at creating a simple GEDCOM, I asked it to:

Create a GEDCOM file for James Charles McMahon, born 10 Oct 1920, father Joseph Francis McMahon, mother was Ella Small.

GEDCOM file from ChatGPT

ChatGPT extracted the information from my request and filled in the fields. I only asked for a simple GEDCOM file, and had been very specific in what details to include. ChatGPT did fine with this request. You can see the button to copy the code so that I could store it in a file with a .ged extension that would be usable by a family tree program that conformed to the GEDCOM specification. In fact, it even warned me:

ChatGPT warning

By the way, the clipboard next to the response lets a user copy the whole response so that a user can paste the response into the document of their choice. When clicked, the clipboard turns into a checkmark momentarily, then returns to being a clipboard. The thumbs up and thumbs down allow a user to provide additional feedback. If the feedback is thumbs down, another version of the reply is generated and a user has the opportunity to share whether the new one or previous response is better, or if they were the same. Giving feedback is always optional.

ChatGPT feedback

NOTE: This is a representation of an individual in a GEDCOM format and is not a file that can be directly imported into a family tree program. The header and footer information is not present, however, I could give ChatGPT that information and ask it to update the GEDCOM to include it.

I tried again with a new prompt that contained more details about the person’s life:

Create a GEDCOM file for James Charles McMahon, born 10 Oct 1920 in Brooklyn, Kings County, NY, father Joseph Francis McMahon, mother was Ella Small. James Charles McMahon died on 28 Nov 1987 in New York, New York, New York, US.

The response was filed the additional data correctly into the GEDCOM:

Updated GEDCOM file from ChatGPT

Using the GEDCOM as input to a family tree program

I asked for the file in a couple of different ways, but ChatGPT gave me only the section of the file for an individual. Rootsmagic had problems with importing this and creating a family tree, but after a little experimentation, I found that was because the was missing the header and trailer information. This was quickly remedied by editing the file.

It was interesting how the placeholder text for the birth and date information for the individual’s mother and father was inserted into the GEDCOM to be interpreted by the program. Of course, this could be fixed later in the conversation by asking for an updated GEDCOM with this information. As the chat went on, I also gave ChatGPT their marriage information and asked it to update the GEDCOM.

Creating a narrative from a GEDCOM

For my next experiment, I copied the second GEDCOM that ChatGPT had generated and fed it back into the prompt, asking:

Write a narrative for James Charles McMahon given his GEDCOM information:

0 @I1@ INDI

1 NAME James Charles /McMahon/


[the rest of the file is not shown for brevity]

ChatGPT had learned details from our previous conversation, and inserted details about the individual learned from previous GEDCOMS. Starting the request in a new conversation brought its knowledge about the individual back to the nothing and the story included only the information from the prompt.

Of course, ChatGPT only uses what I told it. In reality, this individual was not an only child. Interestingly, after it writes that he grew up in a family of three, with himself and his parents, he was depicted as a beloved brother. This is due to large language models relying on their training to build the next part of their output.

Next, I checked if the format of the input mattered to ChatGPT, and made the GEDCOM data into one continuous stream, rather than distinct lines, in my prompt:

Write a narrative for James Charles McMahon given his GEDCOM information:

0 @I1@ INDI 1 NAME James Charles /McMahon/ 1 SEX M [the rest of the file is not shown for brevity]

ChatGPT did not need lines of the file to be formatted; it interpreted the data correctly then wrote a narrative. (This is also true when entering data from a table into the prompt.) Without information about the individual’s parents death, the model built the text that they survived him, and in the same sentence that they were deceased before his passing. ChatGPT can appear to loose its mind, so always proofread any output before using it.

Next, I carved out the lines for this individual from a GEDCOM that had been exported from a family tree program, complete with source citations embedded in the code. This text was used it as input to ChatGPT, and I asked it again to write a narrative from the GEDCOM. ChatGPT was successful in capturing the details it knew. It also created some generalizations like: “Throughout his life, James was a beloved member of his family and community.” It also added context without being prompted: “Though we don’t have much information about his specific experiences, we can imagine that he lived through many significant moments in history, including World War II and the civil rights movement.”

The tales that ChatGPT weaves from a user’s input can be a combination of technically accurate and fanciful. The facts that are input can be woven into a smoother and grammatically correct output. Any additional text that ChatGPT generates or additional contextual content it adds does need to be verified. ChatGPT is a generative language model that creates sentences without judgement, and those facts are presented as correct.  (Always check the details that ChatGPT adds, as it may “hallucinate”!)

ChatGPT generates text with an optimistic tone. The tales do all seem to end on a positive note, reminding me of appending “and a good time was had by all” to a story.

As with any tool, how we used the output matters. ChatGPT has the flexibility to regenerate a response to our prompt, and we have the ability to edit the text as we see fit. This tool could be helpful to a genealogist trying to get started on that family history they have been planning to write. ChatGPT can help someone get around a writer’s block by providing a starting place. It can also proofread what you generate. All you have to do is ask.

It was instructive to see how the narrative text that was put into the prompt was translated into lines in the GEDCOM file. I enjoyed peaking under the hood of the implementation that is at the heart of family tree programs.

Let me know how you do, and send along any questions.

ChatGPT May 3 Version was used for these experiments. Expect ChatGPT to change over time as the technology matures.

Please check out other posts about ChatGPT and Artificial Intelligence:

5 Ways to Use ChatGPT to Research an Ancestor

Getting Started with ChatGPT

Artificial Intelligence and Genealogy

5 Ways to Use ChatGPT to Research an Ancestor

Blog post - 5 Ways to Use ChatGPT to Research an Ancestor

You may have been wondering how ChatGPT can help with genealogical research. This is a first look at using ChatGPT for research about a specific ancestor. For simplicity our conversation focused on where to find information, rather than on more complicated topics. ChatGPT held its own in our conversation, and was a pleasant companion and offered answers based on its training.

You can view our other posts about Artificial Intelligence, Artificial Intelligence and Genealogy and Getting Started with ChatGPT for when you are ready to try it!

NOTE: DO NOT ENTER PRIVATE OR SENSITIVE DATA INTO ChatGPT. Your data is used for training, and is reviewed by OpenAI to verify that content complies with their policies and safety requirements. They may be used for training purposes.

1. Ask ChatGPT general questions. Unless your ancestor is notable or famous, your main benefit will come from looking for general information about individuals with similar origins, living conditions or professions.

In my ongoing research into using ChatGPT for genealogical research, I decided to focus on one ancestor who has been a brick wall.

I started by asking if ChatGPT knew my ancestor. I did not expect an answer for an ancestor who was not a public figure, but I thought I would ask.

I'm sorry, but I don't have any information

2. Forming questions/prompts is an important part of getting the most out of conversations with ChatGPT. Sometimes you need to rephrase or reformulate your approach to obtaining information.

I thought that ChatGPT might have more general information about immigrants from County Sligo, Ireland, so I asked a more general question::

What can you tell me about immigrants from Sligo, Ireland to the United States?

ChatGPT answered with general information about Sligo immigrants, sharing their reasons for emigrating and where they tended to settle in the United States, and which popular professions they chose.

3. ChatGPT cannot footnote its answers. It can give sources that were used to build its knowledge base.

When I asked what sources ChatGPT what sources it used for the answer about Sligo. Since it is a trained artificial intelligence, and not a lookup service, this is like asking a person on the street to cite the sources for the statements they make in conversation.

What sources did you use for the above answer?

In response, I reformulated my question:

What sources do you recommend for researching an ancestor from Sligo?

ChatGPT offered five suggestions. This was more successful, until it was not. The suggestions were solid, but the details behind them were sometimes general and may not be up-to-date. (Remember, ChatGPT knows nothing of the world since 2021 and is NOT connected to the Internet.) The description it offered for civil registration records did not include the fact that many can be found online for free. The census records advice was factual about when censuses were conducted, but did not relate that only fragments exist for other than 1901 and 1911.

  1. Civil registration records
  2. Church records
  3. Census records
  4. Local history resources
  5. DNA testing

4. Given a list of facts, ChatGPT can write a smooth narrative.

Next, I entered a text version of a timeline for Timothy Gilroy’s life. The text was copied then pasted into the prompt.

Below is a timeline of events

ChatGPT interpreted the data correctly, and fed back a narrative incorporating the facts. This was how I gave ChatGPT the data for my next questions.

Thank you for timeline

5. ChatGPT can make good research suggestions. Treat ChatGPT’s research suggestions as hints. Be ready to investigate the leads it gives, keeping in mind that it may not know every aspect of every record set.

Remember that you are having a conversation with ChatGPT, and it remembers previous input in the same chat.

Next I asked: Can you suggest genealogical research ideas for Timothy Gilroy

ChatGPT pleasantly answered with a list of ideas. (Details of each item are omitted for brevity.)

  1. Research his family in Sligo County, Ireland
  2. Find records of his immigration
  3. Locate records of his military service
  4. Explore his occupation
  5. Investigate his naturalization record
  6. Look for church records
  7. Conduct DNA testing
These are just a few ideas

Since these were just “some” ideas, I asked: Do you have additional ideas?

ChatGPT was more than willing.

  1. Explore the neighborhood where he lived
  2. Investigate the history of Irish immigrants in Newport
  3. Search for newspaper articles
  4. Consult with local historical societies or genealogical societies
  5. Utilize online genealogical resources

ChatGPT is ready and willing to help us research our ancestors. We have to be clear in our conversations, and be ready to ask questions from different perspectives. Overall, the ideas ChatGPT offered were sound. Of course, they were general and did not have all the potential constraints. ChatGPT stressed learning about context in many of the research questions, which was good. Of course, be sure to use its suggestions as just that, and not definitive facts.

The above conversation was with ChatGPT Mar 23 Version. Free Research Preview.