Thursday, October 8, 2015

AncestryDNA: A Year Later

As some of you may recall, I did a post about my initial experience with the AncestryDNA test. That post is more than a year old now, and AncestryDNA has undergone two major changes since then. There are new features to consider, and how they have fundamentally changed my experience with their DNA test.

Like last time, I wanted to give myself ample opportunity to use these new tools before doing a follow-up review. And unlike last time, I have something else to which I can compare my experience. Not only have I been using, I’ve also uploaded and unlocked my free trial matches at Family Tree DNA. While my experience with these sites have informed my perspective, I will try to save my comments on each of these sites for their own respective posts.

I won’t be reviewing the Ethnicity Estimates again, because my opinion of them has not changed.

Cousin Matching: C-

My experience with cousin matching has improved significantly. The first impact my DNA test has had on my tree came from using the tools at AncestryDNA. I began the process using the surname search, which is one of the best tools on AncestryDNA. It allows me to search through my cousin matches’ trees for a surname, a location, or both at the same time.

An example of the surname search, using the surname Halsey

I reached out to one of my cousins, then decided to compensate for her lack of response by researching her family tree for her. Thanks to what little information she provided on her parents, I was able to use obituaries and newspapers to trace her family until I arrived at our common ancestors. I never knew where they went after the 1920 census, and the answer was with her line of the family. They moved to Somerset County, Maryland. Her ancestor was the youngest sibling in a family I’d never realized had more children—the only ones still living with them ten years later at the time the 1930 census was taken.

The names and new census records were added to my tree—and my cousin is none the wiser. Which is probably for the best, because I don’t know how to explain to her what I did without using the words, “Don’t freak out, but I stalked you a little bit.”

A general lack of communication is still one of the predominate issues with DNA testing. This was my chief complaint in my previous review, and over time I've come to understand that this isn't a problem unique to AncestryDNA. With every DNA testing service to which I've been exposed, responses to inquiries are rare and wait times are long. It's the human element of the equation that no DNA testing company can control.

The surname search, plus some extra elbow grease, was enough to find the match between us. AncestryDNA deserves credit for that--and the maps, surname lists, the search functionality, and all of the other tools they've come up with to analyze your cousin match. But the set of tools AncestryDNA provides is still incomplete. The single greatest thing they can do to improve the cousin matching experience would be to have a chromosome browser. I still believe it's unadulterated stubbornness that perpetuates their refusal to build one. A chromosome browser, together with the other tools they provide, would make their DNA test a tour de force of unstoppable discovery.

I understand that people take DNA tests for different reasons. Based on my experience with reaching out, I'd say that more than half of the people with any genetic connection to me have no interest in collaboration. That means that more than half of the messages I send will never amount to anything. This makes me think that some people come into this relationship already knowing they don't wish to contribute. But rather than wasting my time lamenting about it, I'd rather we simply created a way to be upfront with each other.

What reaching out to DNA cousin matches feels like
In my mind, this situation could be handled with a single check box--either as part of the registration process, or a prompt to every person who is part of the AncestryDNA system. “I am currently interested in collaborating with other researchers for the purpose of finding our common ancestors.” Check yes or no. I envision this as a status update type of feature, where we all can act like grown ups and communicate our intentions from the outset. I'm even envisioning that after a person hasn't been active on AncestryDNA for more than 3 months, that status is automatically changed to "No."

Imagine being able to filter your cousin matches by the people who are actively using their DNA tests. No more wasting time sending messages to people who never had any intentions of responding to them. If we can't change other people's behavior, we can at least communicate the behavior we all intend to exhibit.

DNA Circles: C

This was the first of the two newest features to the AncestryDNA test since my last review. A DNA Circle is where AncestryDNA points out the people who share DNA with you, as well as a common person in your trees.

I questioned this feature when it first launched, because all it takes to throw it off is for several cousins to have the same wrong information in their trees. While the DNA Circle links people together with shared DNA, the DNA Circle does no good if the ancestor it claims to represent is wrong.

However, this is not entirely AncestryDNA’s fault. Relying on member trees as part of this process is necessary. Research will always be a part of genealogy, including genetic genealogy. It’s on us to do a better job with our research, so the matching algorithms can do a better job of connecting us together. Being more exact is a necessary part of that process.

Moving forward after my DNA test, I made a lot of changes to the way I used my Ancestry member tree. I created a second tree in which I placed biological relationships only. I removed all extraneous information, including photos, to streamline my work with this DNAonly tree. I expanded the scope of my research for this tree to include all descendants, all siblings and half siblings, second marriages--anyone with a biological link to my direct line ancestors. At the same time, I cleaned up the dates and places in the Facts section, since these drastically improve the Map tool for the cousin match tree comparison. If we want better quality DNA Circles, we each need to participate in some aggressive housecleaning.

What I dislike is how the DNA Circles come with a page for the common ancestor, and that page is a random assortment of stuff from the trees of everyone in the Circle. Photos, Stories, Facts, dates, and names become an unattractive, oftentimes inaccurate jumble of ugliness.

There are no source citations, no criteria for anything that is placed automatically on that page. Being able to clean up and correct these DNA Circle pages is a much needed feature. Unless we're trying to create the world's largest (and worst) Ancestry member tree.

Rather than seeing an assemblage of what everyone has collected on the DNA Circle, I’d rather start with a blank slate, to which my cousins and I may add information. Provide us with the ability to collaborate, allowing us to choose what to add to this ancestor's page. Make valid source citations a requirement for submitting anything to an Ancestor's DNA Circle page. Otherwise, it becomes a compounded source of ignorance instead of providing genuine insight.

In fact, increasing the quality of the DNA Circle ancestor pages and Ancestry member trees could go hand-in-hand. currently provides shaky leaf hints to member trees, which have a certain reputation for being garbage. These hints and copying data from other member trees is how errors spread and become entrenched in the family consciousness. Instead, why not hint everyone to the DNA Circle page? Let it become the single, authoritative source for researchers as they assemble their trees together--whether they've taken a DNA test or not. I'd much rather be introduced to cousins who haven't tested yet this way. If/when they do take an AncestryDNA test, I'll already know who they are!

I'd also like to see some better communication tools for the purposes of DNA collaboration. With each DNA Circle page, I envision a Google Hangouts-style interface which would foster online meet-ups/family reunions, group research discussions, and individual conversations between descendants. These meetings could be private, or publicly stored as part of the DNA Circle page.

A DNA Circle as it stands now seeks to reconstruct the identity of the dead. In order to do the greatest good, it should foster communication and a sense of kinship among the living.

Ancestor Discoveries: C+

Of all the new features on AncestryDNA, this one has me the most excited. This feature has done great things for me already, despite the accuracy shortcomings of the DNA Circles. Over time, I imagine this being one of AncestryDNA’s biggest assets—the thing that sets them apart from other testing services and websites.

So imagine a DNA Circle has been formed for an ancestor. It’s well established, and there are plenty of cousins all matched together. The only thing missing is you, because you share the same DNA as everyone else in the Circle. But the matching algorithm hasn’t matched you to the Circle, because you don’t have the ancestor in your tree yet.

Bummer, right?

Not anymore!

Ancestor Discoveries is intended to do exactly that. It has already done this for me. My Greene family is a hot mess. That’s what happens when the courthouse that services your ancestors burns down… Twice. I was stuck on Henry Greene for ages, until the Ancestor Discovery for his grandparents came along. I did the research to back up the information, because I know better than to believe people on the Internet. I had to go into some unusual places to find the evidence I needed, but finding it was a direct consequence of my Ancestor Discoveries. In terms of results, it really has delivered.

Part of why I like the direction AncestryDNA is going with Ancestor Discoveries is because the lovely so-and-so's with private trees are included. If they fit into a DNA Circle, they become a part of my potential Ancestor Discoveries. Everyone else with a private tree that isn't connected to a DNA Circle can be triangulated via the Shared Matches tab on their cousin match page. I now expend less effort on figuring out where these people fit into the puzzle, and move on to other research problems. AncestryDNA is figuring out ways to avoid giving me an inferior product because of someone else's privacy settings. As one of my chief complaints from my first review, the privacy settings of other users is one of AncestryDNA's areas of greatest improvement.

My only complaint regarding the Ancestor Discoveries is one specific place I've seen it fall apart. To put it delicately, I come from Southern communities in which endogamy was a common practice. I'm one of the lucky ones whose ancestors moved away before the family tree got too tangled, and our current generation is far removed from it. But some of my cousins who are still living in these communities haven't been so fortunate. I connect to them in a multitude of places. We have multiple sets of common ancestors. How well do the Ancestor Discoveries reflect situations like these? Because I know just enough about the science of how the relationship estimates are calculated to know this effectively hoses the entire thing. And some of the Ancestor Discoveries I'm getting suggest the matching algorithms are struggling.

And don't you all go making fun my endogamy. There are two types of people in this world: people who are inbred, and people who don't know it yet.

In situations like these, having segment data matters. I need to see the exact length of the DNA segment. Comparing it to standard genetic inheritance estimates is crucial to properly calculating my relationships to my cousins. I can't judge how skewed my inheritance is without the numbers--data that AncestryDNA does not display as part of its test. While I'm able to use to get this information, I would love so much more to have it as part of my Ancestor Discoveries. Localizing these connections, as well as analyzing them for accuracy, would be so much simpler with the segment data than it is without it.

Final Grade: C

AncestryDNA has made promising progress. I no longer consider it the worst $99 I ever spent. I still encourage anyone who is planning to take a DNA test to consider all of their options before purchasing one from AncestryDNA. Understand that you are making sacrifices of functionality no matter which testing company you choose, so be sure you choose the one that aligns with your reasons for testing.

Regardless of which testing service you use, your plans should also include uploading your results to As a more open source option, it provides many of the analysis tools and data AncestryDNA is currently lacking. While there's a bit of a learning curve to using GEDmatch, it's time and effort well spent. If you need a beginner's guide, be sure to also check out our Genetic Genealogy for Beginners video series.

Good luck, and happy testing!

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Historical and Genealogical Society of Tomorrow

As a child, I grew up watching old school cartoons--especially those by Tex Avery. I remember sitting on the floor in my grandparent's second story apartment in rural Maryland, eating carrot sticks and watching the bizarre antics of politically incorrect animals. Among my favorites was the World of Tomorrow, the satirical look into the new century through the lens of the 1950s.

It's in that same tongue-in-cheek, yet curious spirit that I find myself asking what the historical and genealogical societies of tomorrow will look like. This question is largely inspired by my interactions with many different genealogical and historical societies over the past few months. I've had experiences both good and bad--both of which indicate where these societies will strive and struggle to find their place in the future.

With that, I present to you... The Historical and Genealogical Society of Tomorrow!


If a genealogical society is still spending money on sending paper newsletters through the mail, their organization is trapped in 1998. And if their website hasn't had any sort of major overhaul since then, I rest my case.

Social media, blogging, and email will take the place of paper newsletters in the genealogical society of the future. There are too many other important, meaningful ways their financial resources could be used than by sending out paper. Because paper newsletters are usually disseminated monthly or quarterly, to be heard from so infrequently is a losing battle for relevance. And as conserving natural resources grows in importance, unnecessary uses for paper will become increasingly unconscionable.

Throughout the years, many societies have tried to cut costs with low budget websites, and have avoided making real investments in their web presence. But it isn't enough to stick a Facebook badge on the old website and to call this the future. The HTML relics of yesteryear, complete with technicolor Comic Sans font and Clip Art bouquets, need to be given a proper burial. Today and tomorrow these websites need to be replaced by smarter solutions, especially for storage and security.

Because genealogical and historical societies of the future will take their place on the front lines of digitization, their websites need to become robust repositories of information. Becoming an online community trust means providing original records, transcribed indexes, photos, maps, better catalogs and directories for newspapers, books, periodicals, and vast collections of other records. Becoming the first providers for all legally available records is a market just waiting to be created.

If historical and genealogical societies want to participate in that market, they need to prepare themselves by stepping firmly into the future with their technology.


Preserving local history is a community affair. It requires interaction between organizations of all kinds, at every level. The historical and genealogical society of the future knows how to be the bridge between these organizations. Schools, colleges and universities, libraries and archives, courthouses and public offices, civic organizations, and businesses, and government offices of every kind, each play a role in this mission. Finding, protecting, digitizing, and sharing a community's history is a shared responsibility. Anyone can play a part, and successful societies recognize they can reach out to anyone.

Military participating in cemetery cleanup in Hawaii
Historical and genealogical societies of the future know how to create volunteer opportunities, both online and offline. They identify and exercise every resource at their disposal. If creating a new index means paying for scanning services, they're the ones to create and promote the GoFundMe campaign. Then they reach out online for volunteer indexers. When it finally comes time to build or expand the website for a new collection, they find the college students in web design who need an internship to graduate. These societies understand that when they unite diverse groups in a common love of family and history, they make their communities better places to live.

Collaboration in historical and genealogical societies of the future also means looking beyond immediate geography. Various historical records are no longer kept in the places that created them. Some of the most passionate historians do not live anywhere near the places they study. Societies will expand their reach to these places and people. Because these societies are looking to adapt, they will find ways to expand their membership offerings to those outside their communities, both online and offline.

Meetings are Old News

Gone will be days where the only way to attend meetings of these organizations is to actually live nearby. The genealogical societies of tomorrow will accept that the newest generation, in order to adapt to an ever-changing economy, has become one of the most transient in history. Their first cross country move is a rite of passage, their first experience living abroad a must-have. Especially for the minimalist urban living which defines the Millennial generation, the thought of a meeting that cannot be attended remotely is incomprehensible. Yes, including for genealogy, because hardly any of us live in the communities where our ancestors lived.

Webinars, Google Hangouts, and live YouTube events are the meetings of the future. It's what the new generation expects from any organization to which it gives its paying patronage. Attendance is not limited by geography, time zone, or day of the week. The most experienced researchers for a community may not actually live there, but they can be engaged and participating with the genealogical community who does. Because all that is required to create a YouTube channel is a computer, an internet connection, and a device that records video, anyone can do it. Google and YouTube have made all of the investment to make the software, the interface, and hosting the video available for free.

The only limitations for historical and genealogical society meetings of the future are a lack of imagination, and willingness to learn.

Generational Culture Clash

Historical and genealogical societies of the future understand that reaching my generation is crucial to their survival. Embracing new technology means bringing us into their organization by default. The environment the society creates by the activities they engage in will determine if we will choose to stay.

Reaching and retaining our generation is summarized in one word--inclusion. We want to feel included in every part of the society--decision making, leading projects, organizing events, spending funds, all of it. Our voices need to be heard, and have an impact. At the same time, we need to feel everyone else is included, too.

The most compelling way to attract our crowd in the future will be by preserving a more inclusive history. As the genealogical and historical societies of the future become the force behind creating new record collections, they need to include all types of people in these collections. Millennials are interested in minorities, the underdogs, the "forgotten" history not included in the history books. In many communities, the history of African Americans, Latinos, the LGBT community, and even women have received almost no attention by their local historical and genealogical societies. By collecting and preserving the records from these populations of their community, these societies choose to be inclusive. They become inviting places for my generation and our values.


The place where inclusiveness will fall apart most often for historical and genealogical societies of the future is the Paywall. Paywalls have made their way into the genealogical community, and their place has been unquestioningly embraced by many historical and genealogical societies already. 

But my generation hates paywalls. We hate them because they are not inclusive--they exclude someone from information, services, and a community based on their ability to pay. Because Millennials are the greatest consumers of digital media, we're the ones most affected by Paywalls. In staggering economies where we're also the ones most affected, we're the ones with the least disposable income. We resent paywalls both on principle, and out of self-preservation. 

But that doesn't mean our generation isn't willing to part with money. We prefer to donate and give based on the value of what we feel we have received. We embrace payment options that allow us to give according to what we have. Where we can't give money, we're often willing and able to work, trade, or barter. 

More than anything else, we delight in proving that you can accomplish more by being less concerned with money. In order to appeal to the Millennial generation, embracing this philosophy will be a necessary part of organizational growth and transition.

As a matter of demographic disclosure, I am 25 years old. I have been actively researching my genealogy for ten years. I consider myself an advanced non-professional. I am a paperless genealogist, and I do the vast majority of my research online. As part of the first generation to grow up in the Digital Revolution, there was never a time where I had to do genealogy without the Internet. To put it bluntly, I am incurably hard wired to share because to me, that is what genealogy has always been.

I have also never joined a historical or genealogical society. I have nothing against them. But I have also never come across one that was interested in the communities I research, who also has much to offer as I have to give.

My most recent experience with a genealogical society demonstrates how much adapting there is to do--both for these groups, and for me and the denizens of tomorrow. I contacted a genealogical society, in search of plot information for a cemetery which has not been well digitized. It will take years to identify all of the people, especially those of African descent, who are buried there without headstones. This society's is the most comprehensive database that exists online for that cemetery. However, it is also behind a paywall. 

I attempted to negotiate, offering to trade information with them. If they had no information about my family's exact location in this cemetery, that confirmation alone would be helpful. At which point, I would gladly give their names, death and burial dates, and my original sources--to add to the database. My instinct is to share.

The person I spoke to insisted at first that I buy a membership in order to access the cemetery collection on my own. The society only offers an annual membership, priced at $30. Their website has no other collections pertinent to my research. I live hundreds of miles away, and cannot attend any of their meetings. The bulk of that expense is to create and send a paper newsletter I don't want, and is not relevant to my research. But this is the way things have always been done. 

We spend all of this time trying to figure out how to tear down our brick walls, and now we're finding better ways to build them between each other. 

And maybe it was foolishness, maybe it was desperation, but I asked the person on the other side of the wall if perhaps there wasn't a better way.

I didn't get an answer right away. I didn't expect to get one at all. But the person--a woman, come to find out--took a brick out of the paywall, and passed me a name for a missing daughter I had never seen before. She even threw in some contact information for the caretakers of the cemetery and its records--a contact I never would have found on my own. And true to my word, I sent the names, dates, and sources for the rest of my family members buried in that cemetery.

I tried to be an example of the change and collaboration--the future--I believe in. Part of envisioning the future in genealogy is being part of the changes you hope to see. And my greatest hope is that this type of common sense cooperation becomes the rule of the future, not the exception.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Free DNA Discoveries from

DNA testing is among the many technological revolutions taking place in the genealogical community. With a little help from AncestryDNA, 23&Me, and Family Tree DNA, you can connect with other descendants of your ancestors to increasingly remote corners of the globe. By collaborating with them, many genealogists are tearing down long standing brick walls and making incredible discoveries.

However, there are limitations to genetic genealogical testing--and not just the 8 generation window the technology gives us at this present time. These limitations instead come from expense, and the boundaries between testing companies. If the descendants to whom you need to connect have tested with a different company than you have, you may not see that match until one or the other of you takes a second test with the right company.

But does it have to be that way? In our day and age of open source software and good digital citizenship, there are no necessary boundaries between testing companies anymore.

Introducing is a website which allows users from each of these testing companies to upload their DNA test results. No matter where you live or which of the testing companies has performed your test, is free for you to use. You are then placed into a database, which includes users from each of the major testing companies.

Learning to use GEDmatch requires a little more than the average sit-down to learn how to use it. Because of that, we've provided a beginners guide with our Genetic Genealogy video series. This final video in that series provides a beginners introduction to GEDmatch, and the three most essential tools on that site: the One-to-Many match list, the One-to-One analysis, and the Admixture utilities.

Have you taken a DNA test and are still waiting to make the right cousin match? Check out and see what you can discover today!

AUTHORS NOTE: This is not a compensated endorsement. I receive nothing from GEDmatch for writing this post.