Genealogy Resource – GPS

A genealogical resource (or tool) that I’m currently under-utilizing is GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) technology. There are just so many ways this technology could help with genealogical research, and I have only been taking advantage of a few of them.

First, it pretty much goes with out saying that if you have the address of a courthouse, genealogy society, library, etc, you can plug that into a car GPS unit to get you where you need to go without worrying about getting lost. But suppose you want to go to a cemetery, homestead site, mill ruins, or some such place and you don’t have a street address. If you can find the general location on a map, you can use an application like google earth to find the lat-long coordinates. If your car GPS has the capability (which many do), you can enter the lat-long of your destination instead of the street address. Once again, you’re good to go.

This is all fine and can be really useful, but what I would like to do is actually go a step further and record things like individual grave locations. For this, a car GPS doesn’t work so well. You need to have a hand-held model. I have a hand-held Garmin GPS unit that I originally bought a few years ago for geocaching. Theoretically, it can pinpoint a location to within 1-3 meters. Practically, however, there are a lot of factors that affect the accuracy and generally the margin of error is a little greater. Still, if I am looking for a grave in a large cemetery, I would be happy if I could use a GPS unit to get me within a 10, 20 or even 30-foot radius. It could really help.

Using my example of recording grave coordinates, one method is to go to the graveyard and find the grave of interest. Once you’re standing in front of it, you can use a hand-held GPS unit to set a waypoint. Now the coordinate is stored in your GPS unit and you can retrieve it when you get home. This probably would work pretty well if you are only interested in a couple of graves. But if you’re interested in many grave locations there is a much less tedious way. It involves photographing the graves and then geo-tagging the photos. It’s actually easier than it sounds! All you need is a digital camera, a hand-held GPS and free software.

First, make sure the clock time of the GPS unit and the camera are in sync. Now when you go to the cemetery, turn on the GPS and have it capture a “track.” Your GPS unit will have instructions on how to do this if you don’t already know. Now as you walk through the cemetery your GPS is capturing your path. You just need to stop and take pictures as you walk by the graves of interest. This will work best if you hold the GPS so that the antenna is pointing up (toward the sky) as you walk. In other words, I wouldn’t recommend keeping the GPS in your pocket.

When you get back home, you will need to transfer photos from the camera to your computer. You will also need to transfer the track from the GPS unit to your computer. (Instructions should come with the GPS unit.) Once you have both of these on your computer, you can use a program which will read the GPS track and using timestamps figure out where you were standing when you took each picture and store the coordinates in the photo’s EXIF data. There are several programs that will do this, but the one I use is geosetter.

Now, if you upload the photos to an online service like Flickr, your photos are linked to a map. People that view them can see on the map where the photo was taken. Back to the cemetery example, if you are creating Find-a-grave memorials, you can add the lat-long information in the plot field. (Note that since the lat-long is in the photo EXIF data, you will need to open the photo in something like geosetter in order to retrieve it.) Ideally, I would also like to store this in my genealogy database (Legacy), but currently I would only be able to store this in the notes. I am hoping eventually they will have a special field for this.

There are probably other ways GPS technology can aid genealogy research, but this is where I am currently focusing. If you’d care to comment, let me know what you think.


One response to “Genealogy Resource – GPS

  1. Pingback: Geotagging Tombstone Photos - I wish I would have! « Janis’ Genealogy Blog

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