Artificial Intelligence for BillionGraves Transcriptions
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is changing the way BillionGraves transcriptions are done and we are so excited to tell you all about it!
Sooo Many Transcriptions
A few years ago, if I uploaded my gravestone photos while I was at the cemetery, they would be transcribed before I could drive home! In just 15 minutes hundreds of the records would be transcribed! Seriously. Volunteers typed every name and date on every gravestone in just a few minutes. It was amazing! BillionGraves volunteer transcribers are AWESOME!
This was possible at that time because there were many more transcribers than photographers. But over the years, the photographers began to outnumber the transcribers. This change meant that when I uploaded photos, they often just sat there, waiting and waiting. Sometimes it was a year or more before the names and dates were transcribed!
Yes, I could have transcribed my own photos. But I live in an area where photos desperately need to be taken before the gravestones deteriorate so I felt that, for me, taking photos was a more important goal. I also love being outside in the cemetery.
I just hoped that others would transcribe my photos soon. Fortunately, there are other people that LOVE to transcribe!
Angela Pecoraro of Meriden, Connecticut is one of BillionGraves’ top transcribers, having completed more than 68,500 transcriptions so far! But eventually, even Angela felt the weight of trying to transcribe so many headstones.
More than a year ago, Angela wrote to us with concern, saying, “The reality of over 2 million stones waiting for transcription is daunting. I’ve done 60,316 and helped 9,800 people as of today. As a genealogist I wish we could get more people to transcribe that’s for sure.”
Working Toward a Solution
BillionGraves’ tech team took the need for more transcriptions seriously and began to look at using artificial intelligence (AI) to help with the problem.
Eek! Did I just hear some of you in the background shouting, “NO, AI!!”
Oh, dear. I get it. It’s hard to adapt to new technology. Past generations have resisted giving up their horses for “horseless carriages” (cars) or giving up typewriters for computers.
You may have even heard on the news – or read on the internet – that some people have been using AI for evil purposes. That’s true. But it also can be used for good and pure purposes such as helping people find their ancestors and grow their family trees.
Using Artificial Intelligence to Transcribe Headstones
Besides, you have already been using AI for a long time, you know that right?
You tap on the microphone on your phone, speak, and your voice is converted into written text. That’s AI at work.
You type something on your computer a little too fast and it is spelled wrong. Then suddenly, without you doing a thing, it is spelled correctly. That’s AI again.
So why not use AI to transcribe headstones?
Is it Perfect?
AI still has a long way to go. It’s not perfect. But it is helping tremendously to be able to transcribe millions of BillionGraves’ headstones quickly and efficiently. In the first few weeks, AI had completed more than half a million transcriptions (including many of mine, hurrah!).
BillionGraves tech team is finding that the transcriptions are “spot-on” about 80% of the time. But the rest of the time, we need your help! Human volunteers are needed to do quality-control checks on the transcriptions that were done by AI.
Technically, It’s “Machine Learning”
Technically speaking, BillionGraves is using “machine learning” to transcribe. It’s a branch of AI.
Here is a dictionary definition of “machine learning”: “the use and development of computer systems that are able to learn and adapt without following explicit instructions, by using algorithms and statistical models to analyze and draw inferences from patterns in data.”
So every time you correct a transcription, you are helping the BillionGraves tech team to make the machine learning process better.
(By the way, there aren’t really robots sitting at computers transcribing. That’s just a picture I created using AI. But you knew that, right? Just checking.)
An Example Where Your Help is Needed
Computers are faster than human brains but human logic can do what machines will never be able to do.
Take this gravestone for example. The name “Alice” has been transcribed by artificial intelligence as “Lice”. Oops! That’s awkward! (Sorry, Alice!)
The letter “A” at the beginning of Alice’s name was a bit faded so the AI did not transcribe it.
Here’s where you come in (or some other human transcriber). Just select the red pencil icon on the left and the “given name” field will open.
You can then change “Lice” to “Alice” by adding an “A” and then selecting the green “save” icon on the right.
The rest of the information completed by AI on this form is correct so all you have to do is continue to select the green checkmark icons for every field and then select “save” when you are done.
Sometimes It’s a Real Mess!
Sometimes AI makes a real mess out of the transcriptions. (We’re SOOO sorry!!)
So at the bottom of the transcriptions form, there is a disclaimer that reads:
“This record was transcribed using machine learning. Sometimes machine learning algorithms make mistakes. You can correct small mistakes by clicking on the pencil icon for each field. If the algorithm misread the records completely, click the button below to reset the transcription and start over.“
So if you come to a record that just makes no sense at all and it will take you longer to fix the mistakes than it would to transcribe them “from scratch”, just select the button labeled “reset transcription” and it will clear the entire form.
(Take heart, the machine learning will continue to improve over time.)
Another Transcription Blog Post
BillionGraves has made some exciting new changes to the format on the transcription page. To learn more, click HERE.
And keep your eye out for a blog post to be published soon about transcribing on your phone!
Are Your Transcriptions Done? Please Go Take Photos!
If you are used to doing all of your own transcriptions, you are welcome to continue doing that. We would also love to have your help with “2nd pass” quality-control checks. Or better yet, grab your phone, head to your local cemetery, and take photos!
We need you!
We need your help with taking gravestone photos to help preserve history! When photos are taken with the BillionGraves mobile app, each picture is automatically tagged with GPS coordinates.
This allows families to easily find their ancestor’s final resting place at the cemetery so they can grow their family tree. It also allows future volunteers to see exactly what has already been photographed and what still needs to be done.
If you would like to volunteer to take gravestone photos with your smartphone click HERE to get started. You are welcome to take photos of gravestones at your own convenience, no permission from us is needed.
If you still have questions after you have checked out the resources above, you can email us at Volunteer@BillionGraves.com.
Would you like to lead a group in documenting a cemetery? Email us at Volunteer@billiongraves.com and we’ll be happy to send you some great tips!
Happy Cemetery Hopping!