Site notes

Updates on site development

Visualizing my family’s migration

Genealogy applications and software have gotten a little boring lately.  With all the fascinating technologies surrounding data visualization, machine learning, and otherwise, most people choose the path of least resistance and hand their data over to  And while Ancestry has some interesting visualizations for family trees and relationships, the closed-platform nature of it pretty much places users at the mercy of whatever Ancestry’s engineers think is a compelling way to display data.

I’ve been watching applications on Tableau’s public site for some time, and really like the free visualization tools it provides for experimenting and sharing.  My first try at visualizing  family data with Tableau is to track the growth and migration of my family lines over the past ~500 years.  It’s a pretty straightforward set of inputs: Births, deaths, and other life events along with their locations in longitude and latitude.

You can see the results below, or on the Tableau site.  It shows the growth and migration of family lines from 16th century England to around the world today.  For simplicity, I’ve not added a filter to look by surname, but that may be a future enhancement.

Blossoming trees

Welcoming the 1% (who aren’t trying to hack this site)

Reviewing the traffic stats for this site is like taking a trip around the world.  From Iran to Russia, and all over Asia, visitors flow in from around the globe.  What are they looking for?  A review of security logs indicates roughly 99% are looking for holes to hack and take control of my humble little site.

And lately they’ve succeeded.  Much to my irritation, a hacker recently wrested control, took down the site, and replaced it with a shopping site for Japanese sportswear and industrial goods.  Actually, it was more a vehicle for some black hat SEO to try and build link juice for Rakuten.  Having regained control and restored the old pages, I’ve been sensitized to the modern reality that every site is worth hacking, and every site will be hacked, or at least be attacked.  Basic security tools have given way to more elaborate protections, which only seem to increase the frequency and aggressiveness of attacks.

The world of online genealogy has changed quite a bit in the 11 years this site has been live.  Ancestry has led the way in bringing personal histories and family trees online for others to see and reference, but I find their approach to content ownership and privacy problematic.  More so even than Facebook or LinkedIn, Ancestry takes the work and content created by others, claims it as their own, and aggressively monetizes it.  This may be a good business model, but I choose not to support that beyond a basic level of participation.

What’s next on the technology horizon?  The deeper integration of DNA data and research is accelerating the disruption of traditional research tools, and it’s only a matter of time before a platform emerges that effectively merges modern and classic genealogical data.

I’m keeping my eyes open for a new vehicle for cataloging and displaying genealogical data and biographical content.  But until then, I’ll continue to welcome traffic from around the globe, particularly the 1% comprised distant relations and family researchers.

Suspicious minds and questionable family lines

Every family has secrets. Lots of them. Entire lifetimes can be colored by efforts to keep criminal records a secret, hide out of wedlock births, or bury marriages that ended unhappily. And in some cases, those secrets are maintained by subsequent generations, with only the occasional whisper between those in the know, until anyone and everyone who might have some inside knowledge has passed away.

My third great grandparents, Francis Austin and Eleanor Whitten, surely had many secrets. They had a rough life, and moved at least a half-dozen times between 1820 and 1855, migrating west from Vermont to New York, Indiana, and, finally, Illinois. Along the way they had at least 13 children.

George Washington Austin, house on 4th Street, Hollister, CA, early 1920s

George Austin early 1920s

Or did they?

My gr-gr-grandfather, George Washington Austin, was born in 1848, the youngest of Francis & Eleanor’s 13 children to survive past childbirth. But if Eleanor and Francis really were the parents, Eleanor would have been 47, and the next youngest child would have been born more than five years earlier. After giving birth to at least 12 other children, while it’s not impossible George could be Eleanor’s son, it does seem questionable.

George Austin clearly resembles his siblings. And as the 1850 census shows him as a member of the household, there’s nothing to indicate he was anything but a member of the family from day one. Is it possible George’s mother might actually be one of his older sisters?

George Austin and Brother_edited-1

George Austin and Harrison Austin

Of Francis & Eleanor’s 13 children, six were girls. Of those who would have been of age, only one, Susan, was living in the household at the time George was born. That she would have been 15 at the time could be further grounds for speculation.

Clearly, some more research is needed. By the 1860 census, Susan is nowhere to be found, and I’ve not been able to locate any record of marriage or death. And if George wasn’t a son of Francis and Eleanor, there was never any rumor or innuendo mentioned by his granddaughter (my grandmother, Vivian Ebi).

As the generations pass by, family secrets can turn into family mysteries. This certainly wouldn’t be the first case of a questionable family lineage, but hopefully new facts will emerge in the future to help better understand the real story.

A picture of my predecessors (and me)

I’ve been spending more time with a camera this past year, and less time doing genealogy research and website additions. This wasn’t a conscious decision, more a byproduct my professional time in 2013 and 2014 being consumed by development of a new website and CMS for my firm, GreenBiz, making ByrneFamily site additions and enhancements feel more a busman’s holiday. Pouring time into photography was also a great excuse to get outside and see some new parts of the world.

My newfound photo enthusiasm was such that I enrolled in a course at City College of San Francisco, and as part of the curriculum I was recently assigned to do a self-portrait. That gave me the idea to incorporate my longtime interest in genealogy with my budding enthusiasm for photography. Having recently read Christine Kenneally’s terrific The Invisible History of the Human Race, I’ve been contemplating how the lives and stories of my ancestors have shaped my own identity, which in turn sparked the idea for the featured photo, incorporating several dozen of the 1000+ family photos, negatives, and slides that grace/clutter my home office and garage.

The setup was a little challenging, and involved mounting the camera to a ceiling light fixture, spreading the photos across the kitchen floor on a bed of construction paper. More than once our dog, Cogswell, thought it might be nice to come lick my face (as dogs will do) resulting in a scurry to keep him from tramping all over the old photos. My goal for the final product was to present myself as one element in a composite of many identities, a unique entity who’s part of a larger tableau.

Overall, I’m pleased with the result. And while I think it’s a compelling visual, what brings meaning to me is knowing much of the life the stories of each and every individual presented. Their stories have become my story.

A Valentine’s Day card to my mother-in-law

Sally Byrne had been my mother-in-law for less than three years when she died suddenly and too soon on April 18, 2006 at age 68.

But in the seven years we’d known each other, we spent many pleasant hours chatting in her Palo Alto living room over cookies and coffee. We’d shared a table at family weddings and at Thanksgivings, taken walks beside tidepools, listened to Joan Baez albums and tried our hand at the sing-it-yourself Messiah in San Francisco, where we sang it, very quietly, to ourselves.

I am a newspaper reporter with the San Francisco Chronicle, who has written about education news for many years. My mother-in-law loved to read, preferring a quiet day at home to most other activities.

To my amazement, Sally seemed to consider my articles – many of them on topics of educational policy, like testing and bilingual instruction – to be material worth reading. I know this because she talked about the stories when we got together. She commented on them, asked questions and generally left no doubt that when she picked up her morning Chronicle, she’d not only start reading a story with my name on it, but she’d finish it.

On June 17, 2006, I sat beside my husband, Sally’s younger son, Hugh, in the chapel of the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Menlo Park, which my mother-in-law had attended for more than 40 years. We were still stunned at her loss. Then the minister asked each of us if we wanted to stand and say anything about Sally.

Nearly eight years have passed since that day, and I remain painfully aware of how unable I was, at that moment of possibility, to say what was in my heart. I hadn’t expected to be asked to speak, so that was part of it. Another part was that, as a late addition to the Byrne family, I felt intimidated – an unfortunate feeling that rose to the surface at just the wrong time.

I recently found a Valentine’s Day card that I bought for Sally in 2006 that I never mailed and which led me to think of all that had been left unsaid for so long. If I’d found the courage to stand up that day in church I would have said thank you, Sally. Thank you for spending time with me, for talking with me, for accepting and loving me. And thank-you, Sally, for reading my stories. I felt honored then, and I continue to feel so now, that you did that.

And I would say one more thing to my mother-in-law. I’d say, I love you, Sally Byrne.

Found photos, found cousins

One of the pleasures of hosting a website filled with genealogical records is connecting with family members I might not otherwise know.  Neither of my parents were diligent about maintaining family connections, save for periodic trips to Santa Cruz or Los Angeles to visit my grandparents.  On very rare occasions, we would go on trips that might include a visit to a great uncle or aunt, but these were the exception, once in a lifetime events that were almost never repeated.  Consequently, I grew up able to count the family I knew on my fingers, unaware what I was missing in the common threads I shared with great aunts and uncles, cousins, and their various husbands and wives.

My recent post on Ryland Drennan led to a new connection that reminded me of the value of  shared heritage, and how delightful it can be to reestablish relationships with extended familiy.  A couple of weeks after posting the item, which lamented a lost family photo, my father’s first cousin, Janet Martini, paid one of her occasional visits to the site and spotted the post.  Janet mentioned she had several family photos of Ryland, which she subsequently scanned and sent to me.  In addition to a copy of the lost photo, she included an image I had never seen, featuring Ryland on the deck of a ship with his young nephew, Fernald Byrne.  Fernald died tragically at age 15 on the Giant Dipper roller coaster at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, and is somewhat of a family legend for that terrible event.

Walter Fernald Byrne and Ryland Drennan

Fernald Byrne on deck with his uncle, Ryland Drennan circa 1920.

Looking at the photo of Ryland, it’s a little less glamorous than I remembered, but still a striking image.  The cigarette in his hand gives evidence of just one vice which may have helped end his life at the ripe young age of 50.  But I’m more enchanted by the image of uncle and nephew sharing a happy moment together on deck, and grateful to have connected with a not-so-distant cousin, who went out of their way to share some materials that can now be seen by other family members.


The many CMS platforms I have known and loved

Choosing a new CMS

One of the main barriers to revamping this website was the challenge of integrating my genealogy data, which is powered by The Next Generation (TNG), with a proper content management system (CMS).  TNG is the most robust platform for presenting genealogical data, and is well supported by both its author, Darrin Lythgoe, and an active community of users who help drive new feature development, or create their own add-ons and enhancements for others to use.   In addition to doing a fine job of presenting family tree data in a flexible and reasonably intuitive format, TNG has valuable security and privacy features, which ensure sensitive and personal data is only visible to those whom the site owner chooses to make it available.

The Next Generation in genealogy site buildingShortly after launching the site, I set up an integration with TNG in a relatively obscure CMS called e107.  The reason for choosing e107 was pretty simple:  It was the only CMS that was supported by the TNG developer ecosystem with anything close to a native look and feel, and which also integrated the user roles and permissions so important to maintaining a safe and secure environment for publishing sensitive data. While TNG is best of breed for publishing genealogical data, it’s limited in functionality that supports other ancillary features (i.e. anything deviating from presenting your family tree research, such as a personal blog, media gallery, or other related applications).  Design templates available for standalone TNG sites are also lacking, and had a decidedly retro look even in 2006, when I first launched the site.

But relying on a CMS with only a small group of volunteers supporting the development of the basic codebase had significant downsides, which became painfully apparent when the lead architect for e107 left the project in early 2011.  This loss coincided with hackers identifying and exploiting serious security holes in the platform, taking down sites right and left.  It did’t take long before was targeted, and the ensuing hijinks prompted me to ditch e107 and revert to a bare-bones site.

The holidays, with a slower pace at work, gave me an opening to rebuild the site.  I’d been wanting to take a fresh look at the various open-source CMS platforms in use, and which might be the best fit for the genealogy applications.

I didn’t have to look far.  While Joomla, Drupal, and Media Wiki were all possibilities, WordPress was the obvious choice.  The ease of setup and administration, huge WordPress user/developer community, and existing integration plugins for TNG made the process nearly painless.  In fact, the main issues in migration and setup were primarily due to idiosyncrasies I’d created in the database and page templates during my e107 era.  Once those had been eliminated through a fresh install of TNG, the WordPress installation and integration was completed in short order, with no downtime, and only a few glitches and theming issues, some of which I’m still resolving.

The new features and functionality of having ByrneFamily running with WordPress have given me a new enthusiasm for adding to the site.  While many of my original uses for the site circa 2005-2006 (personal photos, family news, etc.) now have a wider audience on Facebook, Flickr/Instagram, I still enjoy the power and flexibility of publishing on a dedicated blog/website.