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  • The Computer Genealogist: A Look at Global Positioning Systems and Genealogy

    Rhonda R. McClure

    Published Date : July 9, 2004

    Genealogists are always looking for ways to make research easier. The computer has produced some amazing results for the field, but many genealogists seem to limit their computer use to the genealogy program into which they enter their ancestors’ names, dates, and places. In truth the technological field offers much more that can be used not only to record, but also to identify, ancestors, ancestral homes, and final resting places.

    GPS — What is it?

    GPS is the acronym for global positioning system. This system’s history began February 22, 1978, when the first Block I Navstar GPS satellite was launched for the military. As with many other military advances, though, it would be many years — seventeen to be exact — before the system would be fully operational in 1995. Today there are twenty-four satellites orbiting the earth and working in conjunction with five ground stations. This one-way communication allows military personnel and civilians to identify their locations on a map, even if there are no obvious natural or man-made landmarks from which to make that determination. Originally intended for the deployment and location of troops, GPS now is used by civilians for everything from getting to an appointment in an unfamiliar neighborhood to finding an island while crossing the Atlantic on a pleasure boat.

    The applications of GPS for genealogists only now are being explored, but as more genealogists begin to use GPS devices, it is likely to be embraced quickly.

    What can be done with GPS?

    Once the genealogist has the proper GPS receiver and a software program that triangulates the incoming signals from satellites, it is possible to use these tools to determine the user’s location through maps provided with the software program.

    GPS systems are now found in many rental cars to aid travelers in navigating an unfamiliar city. The systems provide directions, sometimes even verbally alerting the driver when a turn is coming and the direction in which to go. Provided the destination has been included in the maps, it is possible to navigate anywhere once the GPS software has established the user’s starting location.

    For genealogists often traveling in new cities and counties, GPS systems offer time-saving features. Whether driving from home or renting a car at the airport, GPS identifies roads to take, turns to make, and estimated time until final destination.

    The GPS offers not only a route to your destination, but also a means of identifying a location so that it is possible to return. The place could be the family homestead, or a tombstone in an exceptionally large cemetery. The GPS can even be used to trace the trail of a family who traveled on the National Road or took a wagon to Utah or California, especially if there are details in a diary or memoir.

    Deciding on the best package

    A number of GPS systems are now available for the consumer, including portable units — those that connect to a PDA (personal digital assistant) or laptop computer — and larger devices that permanently attach to boats and other vehicles.

    The choice of a system depends largely on your purpose. For users trying to identify gravestones of ancestors, a system that works with a PDA might be the best option. Such an application could be used by a genealogical society when walking a cemetery. In addition to transcribing epitaphs, longitude and latitude coordinates for each tombstone could be included — supplied by GPS. Some rugged PDAs (RPDAs) are even designed to take outdoors; they are waterproof and often have built-in GPS, thus eliminating the need for a separate accessory. Although too pricey for many individuals, a genealogical society perhaps could justify the cost since many people might use the device, especially when transcribing a large cemetery.

    Many individuals use an inexpensive GPS that can be connected to a laptop computer through either a serial port or (now more often) through a USB port. However, whenever the researcher wants to use GPS, he or she also must carry the laptop computer — not always practical in a cemetery. With a bigger screen these systems often are easier to use in a car. The GPS receiver itself is usually less expensive than some other models. The connection between GPS receiver and laptop computer is not new — many people have been using their laptop in this way for five or more years. It is easier and safer for a passenger to take charge of the laptop computer, but — like some GPS systems installed in rental cars — the laptop software can be set to talk, alerting the driver to upcoming freeway exits or turns.

    PDA – Taking it along

    Some genealogists are beginning to embrace the personal digital assistant (PDA) for day-to-day appointments and contacts. However, today’s PDAs offer genealogists much more — it is now possible for the researcher to carry along his entire family pedigree! Although the PDA GPS options are often more expensive (software and receiver bundles sometimes run in the $300 range), they are also the most compact versions. In some cases, these systems can be used with a laptop computer. For example, if the GPS receiver uses a Compact Flash card slot on the PDA, then it may be possible to do so with a laptop through the use of a PCMCIA card adapter. The unit remains portable but the user benefits from the larger screen when driving.

    One advantage of having maps stored on a PDA is their portability. They often can often be used on trains and boats. The GPS receiver must be able to “see” the sky to interact with the one-way stream of data from the orbiting satellites, and requires feedback from at least four satellites to establish the receiver’s location. Because the receiver for a PDA GPS is much smaller, it may have a booster or antenna to aid in capturing GPS satellite signals (so that the PDA can remain nearby instead of having to sit on the dash).

    One disadvantage of the PDA version of GPS is often limited space for map storage. Whereas the laptop computer can handle maps of many states or all of the counties of a region, the PDA versions may be more limited. Newer PDAs offer expansion card slots; it may be possible to use one of them, such as SD Card or Memory Stick slot, for the maps, while the GPS receiver connects to the PDA in a different way.

    In addition to space limitation, the other major problem with the PDA-style GPS systems is that you must verify the compatibility between the GPS system and the PDA in question. Most GPS developers that sell PDA versions offer lists of compatible PDAs — or provide a means to verify that a specific PDA model will accommodate a specific GPS system.


    Stand-alone GPS systems are designed to run off batteries or a cigarette lighter adapter. Because the antenna is built into the device, they usually sit on the dash of the car and slide around as the vehicle turns. Some GPS developers have designed mounts that prevent this sliding. Some mounts are permanent, while others rely on weight. Beanbag mounts use the weight of beanbag-filled pockets to hold the GPS secure in the car. Unfortunately, these mounts are not available for all stand-alone systems.

    The stand-alone versions interact with a computer to transfer data on GPS coordinates to a laptop for permanent recording. Stand-alone systems used to be much less expensive, but the extras offered with today’s versions — verbal guidance, color maps, etc. — raise the cost to equal or surpass those that connect to a PDA or laptop.

    GPS developers

    Each of the following developers offers many types of GPS systems that work by themselves or when connected to a PDA, laptop, or computer. Most offer much identifying information and good customer support to ensure that users purchase the most appropriate system.

    •  Deluo
    •  Destinator
    •  Garmin
    •  Lowrance
    •  Magellan
    •  Navman
    •  Pharos
    •  Pocket CoPilot
    •  TeleType

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