New software preserves the past for a new generation...
Couple unearth high demand for their 'Google maps for graves' technology, which helps pinpoints plots quickly to give up-to-date records, Clare Weir writes
Leona McAllister was bored on maternity leave when her husband Sean was asked to survey a graveyard for a nearby parish.
She offered to give him a hand and together, the couple discovered that there was a huge gap in the death record management market.
Now, the McAllisters are aiming to replace ancient ledgers and old-fashioned spreadsheets with the latest technology, or as they like put it, 'Google maps for graves', for the smallest country churchyard, to big American super-cemetery chains.
Through their companies, Discover Ever After and Plotbox, they provide management software and genealogy resources to help pinpoint grave sites fast – even using aerial drones to map and photograph large, rambling cemeteries.
The technology is proving a big hit with local authorities across Ireland – and relatives can now find their ancestors in minutes, rather than hours, days or even months.
The Plotbox software can provide names, dates, photos and other information in seconds and through Discover Ever After, users can add photos and comments online to create a lasting tribute to their loved one or ancestor.
Already, a number of cemeteries across Antrim and Londonderry are using the product.
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Mrs McAllister commented: "Sean was asked by a local parish to produce a map of the graveyard.
"We took pictures of the headstones and then transcribed the data.
"In doing this, we found that there was a larger market for services like this and also found that the problems surrounding the collection and distribution of information scaled as the cemetery scaled.
"The more operational and administrative functions there were, with so many details around every plot of land, the more complicated it became." As a result of this, the application of their idea became wider.
"Whilst our target market is the larger scale organisations who manage cemeteries and crematoria, our solution spans a range of organisations in this industry, including community groups, by protecting the heritage of the records and creating the opportunity for tourism.
"We cater for the small-scale parishes as an operational tool, right up to to the large-scale local authority and private chains who need a more 'functionality rich' software."
She added that anyone with a username and a password can access the information recorded by Plotbox.
"When a customer buys Plotbox, the first thing that happens is that they get an email from us – all the records are uploaded onto the cloud and can be accessed by anyone with a username and password," she said.
"Everything that the parish or local authority would have already, like books or maps, can be transcribed or scanned and stored, as well as any other new information, and then details of the lay-out of the cemetery and who is buried where – and who is booked to be buried in future. It's all there/
"The information can be accessed by as many people who require it."
As a surveyor by trade, Mr McAllister could see that the whole process of mapping maze-like old cemeteries could be vastly improved.
"We decided to hire drones. While once the mapping process took 100 hours, we can now do it in two hours.
"The drone takes aerial photographs and those can be uploaded straight away, rapidly capturing all the data that we need in a fraction of the time it used to take.
"At the moment, we are still hiring drones and investigating which models best suit our needs, with a view to purchasing one of our own.
"We also have a number of other processes and technologies and work that we can do in the field which no one else is doing."
He added that these new technologies were simplifying what had once been a painstaking task.
"In the past, if you wanted to find a grave, you had to go into the office and staff of the council or the parish would have to look through old ledgers, which could take a lot of time and man hours," he said.
"Our software will preserve all that heritage through scanning or transcribing, yet allow for much quicker location of graves and free up resources."
He added: "We would say, if you are a small parish or just a person trying to preserve an old graveyard, the software can be obtained on the smallest budget, but we can also scale it right up to a multinational chain of cemeteries which needs a super-management system." Mrs McAllister said that their first small project had now inspired the couple to seek customers all over the world.
"I suppose we started off by building a small database to preserve records, but we have realised that the format is repeatable and scalable," she said.
"The death industry in America is worth around $20bn (£12m) and we are looking to those larger markets.
"Already, we have won a contract with Dún Laoghaire County Council, which runs Deansgrange Cemetery, which is 62 acres, and Shanganagh Cemetery.
"We are working on another contract in the Republic which we are not allowed to discuss yet, which would involve over cemeteries and almost 300 future burial plots and we have also done a number of proposals in the UK."
The couple added that the potential is there for those running cemeteries to benefit from the increased interest in genealogy.
But Mrs McAllister said: "We don't want to operate like Ancestry.com [which charges £99 for 12 months membership] or similar sites.
"Most of the parishes we would work with want to keep records free and we totally understand that."
There are other funeral industry innovators in Northern Ireland as well as Leona and Sean McAllister.
Ian Milne of Milne Funeral Services in Co Armagh open days at his funeral parlours and goes into communities to give public talks.
He has also developed mobile phone apps which enable smartphone users to obtain information on the deceased by scanning a code attached to a headstone.
Green Coffins Ireland specialises in the manufacture and supply of environmentally friendly coffins and urns in Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Established by Colin McAteer in 2009, the firm also operates Ireland’s only ‘natural burial ground’ in Co Wexford through The Green Graveyard Company.
George Fawcett Carriages based in Saintfield provides horse-drawn hearses, which are drawn by either a pair or four Friesian horses and were perhaps most famously employed for the funeral of Belfast snooker legend Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins.
Plotting the next move
Looking ahead, the McAllisters are hoping to hire software developers to join their team and are preparing for an American road trip courtesy of the StartApp competition.
StartApp, which aims to identify the most ambitious Irish start-ups, was founded by Irish entrepreneur Philip McNamara.
He takes companies to Silicon Valley to meet innovators, researchers, investors and industry.
Mr McAllister said: “We’ve got a month’s accommodation and a car, and the option of a mentor and office space at RocketSpace for three months in San Francisco.
“We’re hoping this will help us make some great connections.”
Earlier this year Plotbox scooped the company of the year prize, sponsored by Danske Bank, at Invest NI’s Propel Programme awards ceremony.
The firm has also won a place in the final of the Northern Ireland Science Park’s CONNECT Invent 2014 awards for new innovations.