Family History With a Flourish: Video-Mapping Your Ancestors

Single frame from a family history map of the British Isles. Coloured pulses in blue and yellow indicate the location of birth events for the paternal and maternal sides of the family.
Snapshot from a dynamic timeline in Flourish, yielding the bigger picture on a family’s geographical spread. Try video-mapping your family history to understand how all those branches came together to form you.

Imagine you’re at an art gallery, looking at a picture that’s caught your attention. But instead of seeing the entire masterpiece, you’re standing so close that your nose is practically touching the canvas. You’ve got a very detailed view of one tiny section of the piece, but you have no idea what lies beyond. In fact, if someone asked you to describe what the piece looks like, you wouldn’t be able to tell them.

Genealogy can sometimes become a little like this when we get caught up hunting for one particular name, on the trail of that elusive ancestor. Whilst poring over the fine details, we can forget to examine the bigger picture formed by all those separate strands. Remember that you’re not just researching an individual, but the story of an entire family.

Late-Victorian sepia print of a family group, with six seated figures and three standing.
Remember: you’re searching for the story of a family. Heritage photograph of Sidney and Beatrice Webb with Margaret Hobhouse & Family, 1900. Image c/o LSE Library.

Seeking the Bigger Picture

Once you examine how a number of events in your family history fit together geographically in time, you gain a broader perspective on your family’s narrative. Maps are an incredible medium for achieving this.

So, in a departure from my usual articles about research methods here on TPR, and following on from my previous maps article, today we’re going to explore dynamic mapping. This is a how-to guide to creating stunning animations, providing a renewed vision of your work. It’s time to make your research visual!

So allow me to introduce you to Flourish, a data visualisation site with some fantastic tools, which you can use to produce striking-looking movies of your family history.

Click here to see a Flourish animation of the known birth data for one family between 1800 and 1920. Coloured pulses show births on maternal (yellow) and paternal (blue) lines. From this animation, we observe how the maternal lineage is much more dispersed than that of the paternal side. Zoom into the map to inspect regional details!

The instructions below focus on visualising birth information, but that’s just one possibility. You can easily extend this method to other types of event – marriage, death, burials, baptisms, or – if you’re feeling energetic – all of the above!

Dynamic mapping has several benefits:

  • an enhanced understanding of your genealogical narrative: how & when various branches converge, location variety;
  • data curation encourages self-checking of your existing work;
  • an eyecatching, engaging way to share your research with relatives;
  • spot errors or unusual points in your research more readily.

Doesn’t this sound like a fantastic way to enhance and advance your genealogy research?

If you’d like to explore selected births in the British Royal Family from 1744 onwards, take a look at this single-colour simulation. Several events occur in London and have been geocoded separately. Zooming in on the map resolves London into birth pulses at distinct addresses.

Free vs Paid accounts

A paid account on Flourish works out pretty expensive (a personal subscription will set you back £49/mo at time of writing), but they do offer a free option. This comes with one caveat: any simulation you publish, and its associated data, will be publicly viewable. I don’t find this a problem at all – it’s a great way to share research – but be aware that you are responsible for stripping out any data about living individuals before your dataset goes anywhere near Flourish.

Mapping Your Tree with Flourish: 1 collect data; 2 curate dates where necessary; 3 geocoding; 4 upload to Flourish and configure.
From collection to configuration, map your family history in Flourish in four easy steps.

Making your movie will require four main stages, as shown in the schematic above. We’ll start by talking about data collection. Then we’ll move on to how to curate those data, how to geocode the locations, and finally how to bring all the details together in a beautiful Flourish video.

The tech-savvy amongst you will find this a breeze. Admittedly the process is a lot easier if you’re confident with spreadsheets/Excel, but even if not, I’ve included how-to links so you can pick up the vital skills you need. Excel tips can be found in the orange-coloured boxes as we progress.

So whether you’re a tech wizard or a first-time data-cruncher, let’s get started!

1. Find Your Tree & Extract Your Data

First up, the data collection phase. To create a movie of your ancestors’ places of birth, you’ll need to start from a single spreadsheet with columns containing the date of birth (DOB) and associated birthplace for each person you want to include. We’ll modify this and add more information, before uploading the file to Flourish to build a dynamic map.

Of course, there’s nothing to stop you from opening Excel, working through each ancestor and manually adding their birthplace and date of birth to a spreadsheet, but that is likely to take a LONG time, and I really wouldn’t recommend it.

Screenshot of Export Custom Report interface from MyHeritage Family Tree Builder. Interface reads: Export a custom spreadsheet on people in your Project. Select which people and fields to export.
The “Export Custom Report” feature in MyHeritage’s Family Tree Builder.

If you’re reading this, then chances are you maintain a digital copy of your family tree. You might use a desktop package such as MyHeritage’s Family Tree Builder, or you might develop your tree through a user account on one of the commercial sites such as Ancestry or FindMyPast. Either way, you need to extract this information and get it into a format which is compatible with Excel (usually a CSV file).

Some platforms or software will allow you to write a CSV file out directly, one such example being Family Tree Builder (by making a “custom report” as shown here). A CSV file can be opened using a standard spreadsheet package such as Excel, and you can work with the data from there.

Many platforms don’t offer a straight-to-CSV output, instead providing you with a GEDCOM file generated from your family tree. Developed by the LDS Church to store family tree data, the GEDCOM file format isn’t compatible with Excel. So if your platform only provides GEDCOM output, you’ll need to use an extractor program to make a CSV from that GEDCOM to use for Flourish mapping. A number of programs exist to do this for you, and you can read about some suggestions for freeware GEDCOM to CSV conversion in Windows.

I actually use GedScape for GEDCOM-to-CSV conversion. This one isn’t free (the software will set you back £45) but the price does include product support for a specified time, and I find it quick and easy to use.

For clarity, it’s usually best to write out the minimum number of data fields you need: in this case, the forename, surname, birth date and birth place of each individual in your tree. Once you’ve transformed your tree into a CSV file of names, DOBs and birthplaces, it’s time for some data curation.

2. Curating Your Data

Open your CSV within Excel (or an equivalent free package such as Open Office Calc). Depending on how you’ve produced your CSV file, some of the data may be all bunched up within one column. Separate that now if you need to.

TOP TIP: Use Excel’s “text-to-columns” feature to separate one column of writing into multiple columns.

Provide a colour coding column

If you’d like your movie to distinguish between distinct branches of your tree, then Flourish requires a column of numerical data to indicate what colour the pulse should be for each event. If you skip this step, the movie will still work but all pulses will be the same colour (as in the royal births example above).

If you want to colour your pulses, add a new column header to your spreadsheet, “Colour Code”. For a simple maternal-paternal split, all events need to be coloured 1 (paternal) or 2 (maternal). Fill these in for each birth event. Sorting the spreadsheet entries alphabetically by surname should speed this up.

TOP TIP: Guidance and a how-to video for Sort and Filter using Excel can be found here.

Confront missing birth dates

You may not have a DOB for some ancestors, particularly if they were born prior to the start of civil registration. First, try to rectify this through some additional checks. Where might you find your ancestor’s date of birth?

  • Civil registration birth certificates. Online birth registration indexes (whether free services such as the GRO, FreeBMD or commercial sites including Ancestry and FindMyPast) only indicate the quarter and year of registration. To obtain the actual date of birth, you will need to order the corresponding certificate.
  • Baptismal registers. After Rose’s Act of 1812, baptismal registers in England and Wales adopted a prescribed form, which included a column for the date of baptism, but not for the date of birth. In some parishes, the incumbent or the parish clerk chose to squeeze in the DOB as additional information, so it’s worth hunting down your ancestor’s baptismal record just in case!
  • Family bibles. Congratulations, if you’re lucky enough to have one of these and your diligent forebear listed each of the family’s new arrivals inside the front cover. Don’t take all the dates at face value though – your ancestors could still make mistakes, and it was not uncommon for the entries from an earlier bible to be transferred en masse into a new one, which could result in copying errors.
  • Birthday books, greetings cards or letters amongst family papers can also yield useful birth date insights.

If these searches still haven’t yielded a DOB for your ancestor, then remove their birth entry from the spreadsheet. If you don’t at least know the year, then you can’t include them in your movie. On a positive note, flag this as a suitable point for future research.

TOP TIP: If you’re new to Excel, here’s how to remove rows.

Now for a Flourish-specific note...

In order to map your data, Flourish requires a full date for each ancestor, not just month-year or a year by itself. So you have two choices when making your simulation:

EITHER

1: Only include events for which you have a precise date. The information you’re visualising will be more precise, but may produce a more sparsely populated map. If you’re examining an era prior to civil registration, you’ll have to work harder to secure those DOBs.

OR

2: Approximate DOBs you don’t have in full. Tell a more extensive story by retaining birth data, even if only as a year, or month-year. Although approximation is unsatisfying and shouldn’t be a first resort, it won’t particularly skew the end simulation because it’s the flow of data through years that really matters here. If you’re taking this option, be careful how you approximate. My tread-carefully tips include:

  • Create a separate spreadsheet solely for your Flourish visualisation. This way, the approximated data won’t contaminate the rest of your research process;
  • Be consistent. When you only know the year of birth, I’d suggest inputting 01 January as the day and month, making the approximated dates easy to spot in your list. You might choose to add an extra column into your spreadsheet to identify these entries (that way, those ancestors who genuinely have a 1st January birthday don’t lose out!);
  • Never switch in a baptismal date to compensate for an unknown DOB: births and baptisms should always remain separate to avoid confusion. Furthermore, baptisms could take place years after a child’s birth, and register entries even exist for adult baptisms, so the christening date isn’t necessarily a good approximation for the birth date.

Once you’ve worked through your list of individuals and ensured each of them has a Flourish-compatible DOB, that’s step 2 complete! You should now have a spreadsheet (hopefully re-saved as an .XLSX or equivalent) containing a forename, surname, colour code, DOB and birthplace for each event.

3. Geocoding

Every single point on the earth can be uniquely identified using its coordinates of latitude (North-South position) and longitude (East-West position). Once each event has a latitude and longitude associated with it, Flourish can pinpoint where it is on a map of the world.

The process of transforming a list of places into pairs of latitude and longitude coordinates is known as geocoding. The best way to do this is by using the tools at LatLong.net.

Diagram of the globe, indicating the equator, meridians of longitude and parallels of latitude.
Geocoding provides a unique identity for every point on the globe, providing one coordinate for latitude (North-South position) and longitude (East-West position).

Go to LatLong.net and register for a free account. This allows you to geocode up to 30 locations each day (beyond this, you’ll need to pay). In the interests of showcasing free resources, I’ll focus on the manual tool. If you’re working with large datasets or would simply prefer to avoid the tedium of manual geocoding, I’d recommend paying a small amount (only a couple of pounds) to use LatLong’s batch geocoding feature.

Type the city and country of birth into the search field (e.g. “Blackburn, U.K.”) and press enter; the system will generate longitude and latitude coordinates for you.

Interface of LatLong's Latitude and Longitude finder, a simple interface with a field for Place Name and a Find button. Results for lat and long are returned in two separate boxes below the search field.
The simple Latitude and Longitude Finder at LatLong.net: a fantastic, free tool to help you turn birthplaces into coordinates.

LatLong is a fantastic site, but as with any data tool, use it with a healthy degree of caution. Occasionally its search engine locates the wrong place, so always use the map within the geolocation interface to check your results. For instance, when I entered “Shoreditch, UK” I was given a location in Gibraltar – not quite what I was after! So always make sure the coordinates you’re getting out look sensible (and, for the record, you have to enter “Shoreditch, London, U.K.” to get the more familiar Shoreditch…).

Erroneous geocoding results for Shoreditch, UK, showing instead a map of Gibraltar.
Use caution when geocoding: no tool is completely error-free. “Shoreditch, UK” returns a coordinate in Gibraltar. Always check your results!

Each time you geocode a location, copy the latitude and longitude coordinates to clipboard and paste them into the appropriate cells in your spreadsheet. Before you start your geocoding, make sure your spreadsheet is properly ordered:

  • Order spreadsheet entries alphabetically by location, using the A-Z Sort and Filter option. If you’ve labelled your locations consistently, this should group together events with the same location.

TOP TIP: Guidance and a how-to video for Sort and Filter using Excel can be found here.

  • Once you’ve geocoded a location, employ Excel’s “drag and fill” facility to copy these details for all other events at the same location. For instance, if you have 7 birth events in Rotherham, fill in the geolocated coordinates for the first Rotherham entry. You can now copy the same coordinates down to the next 6 Rotherham entries.

TOP TIP: Fill cell contents and/or a formula down into adjacent cells in Excel, following Microsoft’s guide here.

Before you move on to the next placename, save your results to My Locations in your LatLong account. This handy space acts as a reference list of your geocoded locations, allowing you to reuse their coordinates without having to re-code each time.

By now, you should have a spreadsheet of all your ancestors for whom you know the date (or at least the year) and place of birth, with corresponding lat-long coordinates and a colour code. I prefer to anonymise everything at this stage, deleting the forename and surname columns. Now you can embark on the exciting process of seeing the mapping emerge!

4. Uploading and Configuration

Once your spreadsheet is complete, it’s time to get started with Flourish. Sign up for a free account, and you’re ready to make your first genealogical movie.

Create a new map animation

Interface from Flourish allowing you to select a 3D map animation. The animated points option on the far left has been circled in red.
On Flourish’s list of possible animations, scroll down to the 3D Map section. The Animated Points option should be the first in the list.

On the home page, click the blue button labelled “New Visualisation.” Flourish will offer you a dizzying array of different options for charts, maps and other graphics. Scroll down until you reach the 3D Maps section and select the Animated Points option, as shown in the image above.

Flourish has now created an unnamed instance of an animated point map. You may choose to give it a title now. This new animation will already contain test data, so you’ll need to delete this before you go any further.

Clear default contents and feed in your own data

Interface in Flourish for uploading data. A central tab ringed in orange is Preview and Data; a second ringed in yellow is Regions/Points/Insert Map Regions' a third ringed in red and offset to the left says Upload Data.
How to put your data into your animation? Facilities for (1) toggling between raw data/simulation preview, (2) navigating to the Points you need to plot birthplaces, and (3) data upload.

Use the Preview/Data tabs (shown in orange in the image above) to navigate to the raw data. Then select Points (shown in yellow). You may need to delete the example data from the sheet at this stage (click-select column headers and delete). Once the page is clear, upload your own data (red) from the spreadsheet you created earlier.

Tell Flourish where to find each data type

Data input interface in Flourish. Coloured columns show the uploaded data.
Make sure your Latitude, Longitude, Colour and Start Time assignments on the right-hand pane match up with the correct columns of your data.

If Flourish is to build an animation and plot points for each birth event, you need to navigate to the right-hand pane to tell it where to find information such as the place coordinates. First, delete any existing entries in this panel: they’re a hangover from the test data you just cleared.

Your spreadsheet should have four columns: colour code, DOB, latitude and longitude. If you’ve ordered your data like mine (as in the above example), then you need to fill in Latitude (C), Longitude (D), Colour (A) and Start Time (B). Other fields should be left blank. As you enter each column ID, the corresponding column will colour up to match, providing a nice visual check on your configuration details.

Other fields are non-essential for our example, but you can experiment with adding in new data columns to apply them if you choose. If you don’t specify an END TIME, that’s fine – your event pulses will remain on the map for the default time specified on the Preview settings panel.

Click on Points on the Points/Data toggle to preview your movie, which should now be up and running (if it’s not, this can be due to incorrect column assignments in your data config, or problems with date forms in the DOB column of your spreadsheet. Go back and check). Have fun exploring! Grab the map and move to observe particular areas, or zoom in to scrutinise clusters of points.

Once you enter the Points tab to view your movie, there is a dizzying range of aspects which you can configure, all found in the settings panel to the right (too many for me to go through all of them now). One example is the Viewport and Interaction section, as shown in the image above right. Want to change the angle or crop of the map? Navigate to the V&I Bounds tab and input coordinates a little larger or smaller than the min/max values of your geolocated data. The viewfinder now crops to a sensible window; I’ve also set the pitch to zero to view a flat, rather than angled, map.

TOP TIP: New to Excel? Here’s some advice on how to find the minimum or maximum in a range of cells.

Single frame from a family history map of the British Isles. Coloured pulses in blue and yellow indicate the location of birth events for the paternal and maternal sides of the family. Map has been angled flat and a timeline at the bottom indicates the progress through the simulation.
Viewing the finished simulation: a cropped, non-angled map; coloured pulses for birth events; and a timeline underneath to indicate the year we’re viewing.

It’s time to publish…

Once you’ve completed the configuration and named your animation, it’s time to hit the Export & Publish button at the top-right of the screen. This will make your animation and its data available online. Before you do this, run a final check to ensure you have no data on living individuals at this stage. Congratulations – you now have a public simulation which you and others can use to understand the birth patterns in your family history!

Revisit my examples of a two-tone and single-colour animation, or take a look at selected births for the British Royal Family to explore a movie spanning several countries.

Make Your Research Visual & Reap the Benefits

Now you’ve made your map, I’d recommend using it to gain maximum benefit from having made your research visual…

Absorb the bigger-picture narrative of your family tree. If this is the first time you’ve seen your work mapped at this scale, it might be a lot to take in. It’s a golden opportunity to explore the birth dynamics of separate branches of your family, back before they met and merged. Write down any thoughts or questions that come to mind: why did the ALSTONs move up country in the early 1800s? Do the movements of the BROWN line track along the Nottingham & Beeston canal network? These are all aspects you may not have noticed when you had your nose pressed up against that painting.

Cast a critical eye over your map. Are there any points which look really strange? If so, scrutinise these. It could be that a geolocation error has crept in, or you might have a case of mistaken identity which needs reviewing.

Share your map animation with your family. Once published, you can send relatives a link to the map’s page so they can enjoy the movie too. It’s a fantastic way to engage them with your work, and may provoke questions about particular branches of the tree which they’re meeting for the first time.

Hopefully I’ve persuaded you of the benefits of taking the time to map your ancestral narratives. Even if you’re not as confident with tech tasks, I hope the guidance has helped you step through the process – and it will get quicker and easier each time you return to modify your animation or make a new one.

Young boy using a computer
Sharing your animation with relatives young and old can be a great way to get them interested in your work. Who knows, perhaps you’ll even inspire some budding genealogists in the next generation?

So for a family history that’s richer; for a format which helps you to question the motivations of your forebears and track them around the country; for a medium which you can share with your nearest and dearest and capture their attention – there’s nothing like mapping. Give it a try today and start reaping the benefits.

And on reflection, I think you’ll find your genealogy work a bit more comfortable if you step back once in a while and take your nose off that painting. Your eyes, your back and your research will thank you for it!

If you’d like to share the insights you’ve discovered with my dynamic mapping methods, or if you’re interested in attending an online seminar stepping through how you can use Flourish for your family history, please let me know by leaving a comment below!

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