Sunday, March 1, 2020

New Toys!

Whether you were one of the twenty-thousand-plus brave ones to face the crowds at RootsTech 2020 or, like me, stuck with the #NotAtRootsTech stalwarts, you may have noticed one thing: RootsTech is the time when genealogy companies—and innovators—often use the conference stage to make their announcements of big improvements to come.

This is the time, in past years, that launched such valuable creations as Jonny Perl's DNA Painter. With developments like that, who wouldn't be interested in seeing what's next in genealogy?!

While this year's RootsTech Innovation and Tech Forum brought some interesting concepts to the forefront—blogger Randy Seaver's Genea-Musings for last Friday gives a convenient overview of the highlights—the latest development to catch my attention turned out to be an announcement that didn't come from the RootsTech stage, but was delivered straight to my in-box, courtesy of social media.

If you are an avid genetic genealogy customer at 23andMe, I imagine you noticed that message, too; great news can sometimes spread like wildfire. If you missed it, the company's blog explains what's headed our way, beginning today: automated genetic family trees.

Actually, the news from 23andMe came out before the big reveal was launched. With news like that, it didn't matter to me that it was still February when I read it; I headed straight to my account at 23andMe and checked it out. Yes, despite it being Leap Day, I could still download the beta version of the predictably-named "Family Tree"—the site promised it would take less than a minute to accomplish that—and take a sneak peek at what would go live this morning.

We all will, of course, have to wait until the feature's official start this morning, but by going to the drop down menu labeled "Family and Friends" and selecting the "Family Tree beta" option, I could see the swoops and swirls of the lines which promised to connect me to all those thousands of DNA matches at 23andMe whose names, in the recent past, have had me totally stumped.

It's an algorithm which enables 23andMe to predict how your matches flow together to form a family tree. Like all algorithms, it takes into account certain assumptions, one of which is the stated age of the customer. This, if you are aware of the idiosyncrasies of my own family, will probably cause some problems. And I am not alone in this. Just think: how many others have families where the age gap between oldest and youngest sibling can run upwards of twenty years?

Concerned about how an algorithm with such built-in assumptions would handle a tree like mine, I couldn't wait until the official unveiling on March 1; I headed straight to the website to load my tree and take a look.

Sure enough, though the explanation warned that the computer-generated tree could not yet predict which was the paternal versus maternal side of a customer's tree, my mystery grandfather's legacy extended its grasp to twist even this tree. I had DNA matches whom I was sure belonged to one side of my father's tree inserted on the far opposite end of what should have been the maternal side of my tree.

Just in case it was just my family which was too weird, I jumped over to my husband's account to check out his automatically-generated tree. In his case, my husband has two cousins who are keen on checking out their DNA results at 23andMe, but despite the company listing them correctly, on another part of the site, as his first cousins, in the automatically-generated tree, they were magically transformed into his aunts. Once again, I suspect that assumption about age disparities was what threw off the calculations.

Oh, dear. And I couldn't even edit the mistakes. Not yet, at least. That comes with today's big reveal. Or perhaps even later, as the company promises that their team will be working on further improvements throughout the rest of 2020. The bright spot is that the tree will come with tools to edit and make additions, even of family members who might not have taken a DNA test with 23andMe.

There's a good reason for a company like 23andMe to develop such an aid as this. The company recently discovered, in a survey, that although more than half of respondents expressed interest in learning more about their family history, they encountered barriers in proceeding any further than taking the DNA test.
Despite the high awareness and interest in family trees, very few people play an active role in developing their own tree, as 52% of respondents cited difficulty to create and not knowing where to start as the main barriers to creating one.

While a statistic like that should cause local genealogical organizations to perk up and take note of how they could be of service to such DNA-testing customers, I'm certainly glad that such a revelation inspired the development that 23andMe is now launching. It's a promising start. I look forward to seeing how they develop this germ of an idea—not to mention, find a way to connect all those mystery DNA matches to the right branches of my extended family tree.

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