Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Enhance Your Genealogy by Uploading Custom GPS Coordinates

Today I'm featuring a post by guest blogger, Ed. Ed recently left a comment on one of my blog posts where he described how he uploaded custom coordinates to his GPS.  I was fascinated by the concept but knew nothing about how to go about it. Ed is going to share not only how beneficial using gps coordinates are to genealogical research but also specifically how to upload the information to a gps.

A few years ago I was preparing for a trip to visit three generations of my ancestors, the Smith family, in their family cemetery which I had never visited before in eastern Iowa. From descriptions I found online, it was described as being in the middle of a field a quarter mile from the nearest road, not visible from there and in general very hard to find. However, with today’s modern technology that is widely available, I found it easily on my first try.

The first and hardest part is to find the place you want to find using Google Earth which is a free program you can download from the internet. Once you have found your target, in my case Smith Cemetery, add a ‘placemark’ by clicking the pushpin icon on the toolbar at the top of the screen and placing it over your target. Google Earth will give you a chance to name your placemark and more importantly, will give you the GPS coordinates.

My GPS device requires any coordinates input into it to be in decimal format (instead of degrees, minutes, seconds) so depending on your GPS device, you may have to change the settings in Google Earth to have it output the coordinates in the same format. In my case since I needed decimal format so I clicked on Tools, Options and choose that option on the 3D View tab as shown below.

Once I had the coordinates, all I had to do was input those into my GPS device, tell it to go there and followed the directions. That worked great but I often found myself visiting areas of the country for reasons other than my interest in genealogy, which also happened to be an area where my ancestors lived. But due to my lack of foresight, I didn’t have the GPS coordinates with me. I started looking for ways to keep that information with me right on my GPS unit.

Customizing Your GPS

My GPS is a Garmin and has a Points of Interest or POI Loader that you can download for free from their website. This program allows you to upload your own custom files onto your portable GPS device and access them through the touch screen interface. All you need beside the POI Loader is a spreadsheet program like Excel and the USB cable that came with your GPS unit.

In an Excel spreadsheet, enter the longitude in the first column, the latitude in the second column and the text you want to appear on your Garmin screen inside quotes in the third column. You can enter multiple locations by simply adding new information on new rows. For example, I have the locations of all my ancestor’s gravesites within one spreadsheet, another spreadsheet for homesteads and a third for other genealogy related sites that I might want to visit someday in the future. Once you have all the information entered, save your file to your computer using the Save As command and selecting Comma delimited or CSV format. The Garmin POI Loader website has numerous examples of how to create these spreadsheets and load them onto your Garmin GPS.

Once you’ve uploaded the file or files to your GPS device using the POI Loader software, your file name will then become an item under Custom POIs on your Garmin GPS that once selected, will list all your targets along with the usual direction and miles it is from your current location. Select the one you want and away you go.

Another advantage to getting familiar with using GPS coordinates is that it is a very easy way to give ‘directions’ to other tech savvy people to locate a gravesite of an ancestor for example. So many times I can find the cemetery and know my relative is buried in block C, row 3, 4th plot from the left and without a map, still spend hours walking around looking for their grave. Once I have located the grave, I write down the coordinates of the headstone, update the data on my CSV file and reload it on my GPS device when I get back home. Then if someone wants the information, I can give them the coordinates and by following their GPS, the can get within a couple feet of the desired target saving them a lot of searching and allowing them more time to visit. The possibilities for using this system are endless.

Ed is an amateur genealogist who was inspired to know more about his ancestors as a child after seeing someone else's family tree but only started actively researching about five years ago. He occasionally writes about his latest genealogical findings on his blog, Riverbend Journal.

Photos courtesy of Ed.


  1. This is very helpful - I hadn't figured out how to use the POI... this could be extremely useful. Thanks for having Ed do this - and I've added his blog to my Google Reader.

  2. Wow! Helpful is right. Thank you Ed! And thank you Marian for asking Ed to write a guest post. I've added his blog to my Google Reader also.

  3. I already have a list of 113 GPS co-ordinates in an xml file, generated by my work in GeoSetter. Can this also be uploaded to a GPS device? Don't actually have a GPS device, just wondering. It would be redundant to add them to a spreadsheet.

  4. JL - I'm not familiar with other devices but Garmin will only accept CSV (comma separated value format) or GPX (GPS exchange format) files. Microsoft Excel can open XML format files and save in CSV format so you should be able to convert it using that with minimal work.