Like anyone else who sells a popular product, Ancestry.com is always tweaking little things to improve the user’s experience. They’ve been working on some updates, some of which you may have noticed on the site over the summer and some of which are rolling out gradually over the next couple of weeks:
1. A simple search form with the check-box option to match all terms exactly.
2. Search results shown grouped by category. This is great–no more scrolling through lots of results when you’re looking for specific kinds of records. This sort feature also reminds us to check categories we may be overlooking, like city directories and local histories. These first two-features are opt-in: learn how to do it here and see what it looks like below:
3. A summary box at the top of search results showing what you’ve already attached to your ancestor. The list is sorted alpha-numerically so you can see easily which records have been found and where there might be gaps (see what it looks like below). You can collapse this list if you want to give you more room to see the search results.
4. A filter that removes search results similar to types you already found for that ancestor. For example, if you already have a death record for someone, the filter will remove other death records. “Smart filtering” is an optional feature, so you can still choose to see the full list. Read more about it here and see it here:
Ancestry says they will provide plenty of feedback opportunities for these new features. Don’t be shy: tell them what you like (and what you don’t) and why!
Ancestry.com has acquired FindAGrave.com, home of 106 million grave records. At this free “virtual cemetery,” users can create memorials for deceased individuals. Anyone may contribute photos, leave “virtual flowers” and submit data to these memorials. Genealogists use Find a Grave to locate gravemarkers, find hints about relatives’ lives and even connect with others who share an interest in their buy trichomoniasis medication relatives.
Find A Grave’s FAQ page about the Ancestry acquisition addresses what’s on everyone’s mind: how will things change for Find A Grave users and content? Owner Jim Tipton says things will pretty much stay the same: free, protected, and accessible. Read the details on Find A Grave.
The ideal genetic genealogy interface creates a seamless transition between genetics technology and genealogical research findings. Most currently available tools are either DNA technology without much genealogy, or genealogy without much DNA technology. AncestryDNA is really pioneering the genetic and genealogical integration with its newest AncestryDNA product update.
The goal of genetic genealogy is to aid your traditional research by verifying known connections and providing clues to as yet unknown ancestors. DNA was never meant to replace traditional research methods, nor has it ever claimed that ability. Rather, it is meant to aid your traditional research by verifying known connections and providing clues to as-yet unknown ancestors.
I admit, I dream of a future technology so precise that it pinpoints the locations of ancestors and defines our exact relationships to others. While we are not there yet, many have experienced a genetic test’s power to obliterate previously-held beliefs about relationship and heritage, and create new intricate and personal relationships where before there were only blank spaces. In this sense, genetic genealogy can be viewed as a kind of police force of the genealogy world, righting wrongs and taking names. But I digress.
For now, the ideal must remain a seamless transition between genetics technology and traditional research results, so that the two so completely complement each other that we can’t see where one stops and the other begins. Yet the two worlds are often separated by a chasm of misunderstanding and just plain ignorance. Of the three testing companies, two are making mediocre efforts at best to try to help you incorporate your genetics into your genealogy. They are basically dishing out a serving of genetics, offering a vending machine of genealogy snacks and calling it a full meal.
With one exception.
AncestryDNA has put genetic and genealogical integration at the forefront of its product. They are the only company making a serious effort to integrate your genetics and your genealogy. To be successful, they need two things: tons of people and their genealogy. The more people test, the better the database becomes. Not just in terms of the matches you find, but also in terms of statistics and the power that numbers have to solve complex problems, like relatedness.
So, how do they get more people interested in genetic genealogy?
This reminds me of my early days at Relative Genetics, one of the first genetic genealogy companies. I was fresh out of college and tasked with training our CEO, CFO, QA director, and marketing director about what exactly it was that we did as a genetic genealogy company. None of these men had any experience in genetics or genealogy. In those meetings as we were trying to figure out ways to grow our company in an unknown industry, I felt like I was the constant downer to the party. As a scientist I had been trained that there are no absolutes. Whenever we talk about outcomes it is always in terms of “most likely” or “less likely” and to never, ever say “always.” So when they would get excited about an idea and propose wording for an ad campaign, I was always reining them in.
After reading a recent announcement by AncestryDNA, I feel like their marketing department had a meeting on the day their scientific advisor was out sick and without his or her corralling, they started a stampede.
Which, of course, was exactly what they wanted.
In their press release, Ancestry’s Dr. Ken Chahine, SVP and GM of AncestryDNA said, “It is effectively a shortcut through time—you take the test today and we tell you who your ancestors were, for example, in the 1700s. You don’t need to research records or build a family tree — AncestryDNA now transports you to the past.”
Which is exactly what people want to hear, especially non-genealogists who are curious about their past, but don’t have the tools or know-how or interest in doing the actual genealogy work.
But is it true? Is genetic genealogy a short cut through time?
“Absolutely,” says the marketing team.
“Sometimes, and that depends on factor A, and factor B and situation C and…” say the scientists.
And they are both right. The trick is to hear them both as you review these kinds of new advances in genetic genealogy.
What makes the “absolutely” true is that one of the dreams of genetic genealogy is to use the DNA of living people today to actually reconstruct the genetics of our ancestors. So that their actual DNA profile is known. Then it will be easy to identify their descendants as we will be able to see immediately what part of our DNA came from which of our ancestors. Ancestry has demonstrated their ability to do this in a large scale study of the descendants of a 19th-century American and his two successive wives.
Now, time for the “Sometimes.” This full genome reconstruction hasn’t been done yet for your grandparents, or great grandparents. Right now the best we can do is use your DNA to link you to living individuals, then rely on your traditional genealogy to help you find your common ancestor. Ancestry is trying to help you do that using their DNA circles, and now with their New Ancestor Discoveries.
Remember that to be included in a DNA circle you have to have a “ticket” to the party, meaning both your genetics and your genealogy match with at least two other people in the database and a circle is created around the host of the party, who is your common ancestor.
With New Ancestor Discoveries, we are letting those with just a genetic ticket into the party. Meaning that if you share DNA with two or more people in a DNA Circle, the host of that circle is named as an ancestor who might be on your pedigree chart.
Did you notice how I said “might?” That this newly discovered ancestor MIGHT be in your pedigree chart?
As an idea, New Ancestor Discoveries is VERY EXCITING, don’t you think? To be able to find out using both genetics and genealogy that a particular person living 100 years ago might just be the one who belongs in that blaring blank space on your pedigree chart? And it will be. But right now, Ancestry needs to work out some bugs, starting with a stronger acknowledgement that the ancestor listed in the Discoveries is by no means an absolute, but just a hint.
In coming posts I will share with you how I am using the New Ancestry Discoveries to discover more about my genealogy, even if it isn’t exactly in the way Ancestry intended. For now, learn more by reading my recent posts: from the left side of the Genealogy Gems home page, search on the category “DNA.”
And click here to visit my website and learn more about how I can help you navigate the exciting world of genetic genealogy.
AncestryDNA announced last week that it has been able to identify six unique historic populations in West Africa. It’s a breakthrough they call a “finer-resolution genetic ethnicity estimate for individuals with West African ancestry.” They have even used this technology to start connecting the dots between those groups and millions of African-Americans whose ancestral paper trail was annihilated during the era of slavery.
For this latter development, the AncestryDNA team uses the “cluster genealogy” approach: the concept that people from the same location often migrated to the same areas. Of course, slavery forced apart families and other natural migration groups, both in Africa before the crossing and in the U.S. or other destinations. And the few records that remain of many of these folks and their enslaved descendants don’t include full names, place of origin or other data we rely on to make family connections. (Learn more about how to research African-American roots in Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 159 with Dr. Deborah Abbott.)
It’s encouraging to read that AncestryDNA has had some success hooking up regional groups of African-Americans with specific areas of Africa. “Though this project is still in its infancy, the science team has made some progress,” AncestryDNA reports. “First, we looked at the birth locations of individuals in the trees of all African Americans. Then, we looked for locations where, relative to all African Americans, there appeared to be an over-representation of birth locations in trees of individuals with a particular West African ancestry. For individuals with Senegalese genetic ethnicity, we found what seems to be an over-representation of birth locations in South Carolina and Georgia in the 1700’s and 1800’s.”
Ancestry.com has improved the ability of AncestryDNA to find good matches for Jewish, Hispanic and other ancestries that maybe weren’t so precise before. Here’s the lowdown, quoted liberally from Ancestry.com’s press release:
The problem: Predicting genetic relatives among customers of Jewish and Hispanic descent and some other groups. “In DNA matching, we are looking for pieces of DNA that appear identical between individuals,” says the release. “For genealogy research we’re interested in DNA that’s identical because we’re both descended from a recent common ancestor. We call this identical by descent (IBD). This is what helps us to make new discoveries in finding new relatives, new ancestors, and collaborating on our research.”
“However, we also find pieces of DNA that are identical for another reason. At one extreme we find pieces of DNA that are identical because it is essential for human survival. At the other, we find pieces of DNA that are identical because two people are of the same ethnicity. We call these segments identical by state (IBS) because the piece of DNA is identical for a reason other than a recent common ancestor. This, we have found, often happens in individuals of Jewish descent.”
“The challenge in DNA matching is to tease apart which segments are IBD, and which ones are IBS….Most Jewish customers find that we predict them to be related to nearly every other Jewish customer in the database….Detecting which cousin matches were real and which ones were bogus has always been a challenge for these populations.”
First step toward a solution: “By studying patterns of matches across our more than half a million AncestryDNA customers, we found that in certain places of the genome, thousands of people were being estimated to share DNA with one another–likely a hallmark of a common ethnicity. Our scientific advancements… have allowed us to effectively “pan for gold” in our matches–by throwing out matches that appear to only be IBS, and keeping those that are IBD.”
“While the problem was more pronounced in customers of Jewish and some Hispanic descents, we observed this problem across all ethnic groups. So, all customers will see increased accuracy of their DNA matches, and significantly fewer ‘false’ matches.”
AncestryDNA results with better matches found by this method “will be available in the coming months,” says the release. They plan to email existing customers when results are ready.