The RootsTech conference has challenged developers to mashup social media and family history APIs in the hopes that developers will recognize genealogy as rich area for exploitation.

Here's the challenge: use any open social media API, like from Flickr or Facebook, mash it up with any of the APIs from the five genealogy companies that offer them to create something which "demonstrates increased value to family historians."

Although professional genealogists are up on the online offerings that can help them do their jobs, developers are not nearly as up on the challenges facing everyone from PhDs to grandma when they trace the long chain of family relations. So although the immediate goal is to to produce a tool of value to genealogists, the real point of the exercise is to capture the imagination of developers.

Fast and Dirty

RootsTech itself is pretty much the first of its kind, quickly arranged and feeling its way along. So its sponsors, Family Search, put the word out with only 48 hours to spare, a sort of bar camp or hackathon approach.

Unfortunately, the developers who did attend did not seem comfortable with that quick-fire development approach. One dev in the audience stated in no uncertain terms that 48 hours was not enough time to produce anything functional. However, as Jim Ericson, the Family Search marketing manager in charge of the challenge, said they "didn't want to pull developers out of the sessions." It showed.

Out of the 45 or so developers who came to the initial challenge session, only six or seven individuals or teams signed up and today, only three came to the session. Of those three, only two had functional mashups and, frankly, neither were worth covering in any detail.

One was a mashup that pulled down genealogical information onto your desktop from Twitter, but the hashtag gymnastics were pretty awkward and the question stuck out: why pull information onto your desktop at all given the increasing primacy of the cloud. Even if you did want to do so, wouldn't an RSS feed and right-click save-as be easier? The other presentation felt like a commercial for the developer's software company. If there was a mashup in there somewhere, I couldn't find it.

The Take Away

For me, the take-away from this challenge was a renewed realization that if you want developers to take an interest in your industry, in your conference, in your passion, especially if it is one that is under the normal developer radar, you need to court the community. You need to get out in the community and make yourself known. You need to invite and entice. You need to vet the participants. You need thought leaders to act as attractants for other developers. You need to get the word out. And you need to sacrifice session attendance if you want a lot of quality developers to jump in headfirst.

The baby boomer generation is growing by the day and its members are moving into genealogical activities. Developers who are already in the genealogy space, or who get in soon, and who create appealing applications that make family historian's work easier or more efficient, will see their users grow. But next time, RootsTech will need to make them a priority.

Programmer photo by Cory Doctorow | BarCamp photo via Wikimedia Commons

Editor's disclosure: RootsTech covered Mr. Hopkins' airfare and hotel.