Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Using Ancestry Tree Hints for DNA Discoveries

Here's a tip for those who have taken the AncestryDNA test, and are trying to solve a mystery for a particular missing ancestor. If you're part of our Facebook group, you will have already seen this. But it's good enough to bear repeating.

I'm missing both of my biological great grandfathers in my tree, and I've been on the lookout for cousins who could possibly lead me to them. A while back I finally made a really good match to someone who HAS to be related to one of them. How do I know? Because she isn't related to anyone else in the other lines I've already documented. Let's call her Wanda, since that's not her real name.
I made a copy of Wanda's tree to work from, where I've done extensive amounts of descendancy research. Since I don't know who I'm looking for, I had to cast a really wide net. I have spent more time working on Wanda's tree over the past year than I have on my own. I probably know her extended family better than she does at this point.
Because, you know, genealogy is basically asking yourself "Would a stalker do this?"
Then doing that thing anyway.
The benefit of having my own copy of Wanda's tree means I get all the same Ancestry tree hints to her other cousins and relatives. That was how I found one of her maternal cousins, who shares both of Wanda's maternal grandparents. Let's call her Corrie.

This wasn't the first time I've combed through Ancestry tree hints looking for DNA matches. If I find a tree for another descendant, the first thing I'll usually do is click on their profile to see if they've tested. Sometimes I get lucky.

But most of the time, I see this page. 

Either the person hasn't tested, or I'm not related to him or her. Most of the time I'll move on when I see this. But when I saw Corrie's page, I just had to know. Has she really not tested, or are we not related to each other? If Corrie and I weren't related, that meant Wanda and I had to share a match on her paternal side. I would be one step closer to hitting paydirt.

I wrote Corrie a message, asking if she or her relatives had done any DNA testing. Not only had she done testing in her family, but she knew of several other relatives who had. She gave me screen names and kit numbers. I couldn't have asked for better collaboration on this. And I wasn't related to any of them. 
Through one conversation, I was able to eliminate all of Wanda's maternal ancestors as the potential relatives to my grandmothers. It's the biggest leap forward I've made so far, and it was with someone who wasn't even on my match list. Exactly BECAUSE she wasn't on my match list.

With DNA, every person you connect with is a chance for new discovery--whether they're related to you or not. By using Ancestry tree hints for DNA, you could be one step closer to finding your missing relatives.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Microsoft Access for Genealogy: A Facebook Group, Templates, & Free Alternatives

It's no secret that I love using Microsoft Access for genealogy. I've written blog posts about it. I've made YouTube videos about the applications I've found for it. Segment data and cousin match analysis for DNA, research logs, research trip planning, the works. You name it, I use Access to do it. And more people are taking notice.

A Young & Savvy Genealogist
Etsy Store
Lots of people have been asking me if I'm going to make templates available for all of these applications. So I took my databases, added loads of new features to them, and will be selling them online! I've created an Etsy store to make those templates available. All of the applications I've developed for Access so far will eventually be available to purchase. So far, the templates for my DNA cousin match database and research logs are available. Up next will be research trip planner and a documentation tracker. Your purchases there will help me get to RootsTech 2018!

Because of the videos I've made, I know plenty of people are interested in learning to use Access. To facilitate that, I've started a Facebook community for anyone interested in using Microsoft Access for Genealogy. If you're interested, please be sure to join us there!

Getting a License to Microsoft Access

A necessary part of learning how to use Access is first obtaining a license for it. I personally discovered Access because my husband works for local government, and receives a discount for Office Professional from his employer. Check with your employer or school to see if they also receive discounts. Otherwise, you can buy the Professional suite of Office, Office 365, or a standalone license.

(Note: This post is not a promoted post. These links are here for your convenience, and as a personal recommendation from me. They are not part of any paid endorsement.)

Free Alternatives

If none of those options work for you, there are some free alternatives to Microsoft Access you can also use. I've tried various alternatives for both PC and Linux. For PC, I recommend either LibreOffice Base or Open Office Base. These are very similar to each other because they're both based on the same source code. The main differences between them, for your purposes, will be the interface and stability. I recommend trying them both, and seeing which of the two you/your computer like best.

If you're using Linux, you have a third option. The Kexi Project is the most stable Access alternative I could find for Linux. It handled my (very) large DNA database without complaint, and the interface was superior to both LibreOffice and Open Office versions of Base. Up until I got my new computer and could switch back over to using Windows/Office, Kexi was my primary database software for quite some time. Based on the experience I had, it's worth dual booting into Linux to use Kexi if it comes to that for you.

I'll be upfront and state that Microsoft Access is superior to all of these alternatives. It comes with features that are either non-existent or difficult to use in the free options. Not everything I do in my Access databases can be replicated in the free software options. My paid templates also were not designed to work with these other programs. I may make separate free templates available at a future date for these programs. If/when I do, you'll find them available to download on the Facebook group.

If you're interested in exploring other alternatives to Microsoft Access, or have others you would recommend for genealogy, leave them in comments! And don't forget to connect with us on the Facebook group. We'd love to hear about you're using Access to bust through your brick walls!

Thursday, August 17, 2017

What are you doing, AncestryDNA?!

As some of you may have already seen, AncestryDNA is currently contacting some of its users and asking for feedback. I've filled out many such questionnaires over the years. Every chance I get to tell them how much I want full segment data, I take it. Part of me is still holding out hope that one day they'll actually listen.

Part of me knows it's probably a waste of time.

This time, however, was a little different.  Instead of various general questions about my experience, the questions focused on the cousin match list. It included a sample explanation for a new user, outlining what the cousin match list is and how it works.

I admit, I was pleasantly surprised. I wondered if AncestryDNA was finally addressing how much they oversimplify DNA testing in their advertisements. Much of the overconfidence and confusion the public has regarding ethnicity estimates is directly related to AncestryDNA marketing. And trust me, something has been rotten in the state of Denmark with these ethnicity estimates for a long time.

Meanwhile, their continued product development depends on not only a steady supply of new samples, but trees and family information for the algorithms to analyze. They've done very little to educate or incentivize new customers to create and share their trees with other users. I'd estimate that most new customers to AncestryDNA don't even understand how important those trees are. I doubt they realize the increased functionality they receive when they provide that information. The result is that many people dead-end at their ethnicity estimates, and have no direction for what their next step should be after that. And it's something that long-time customers have complained about to AncestryDNA for many years, without much of a response. (Myself included.)

All of this was on my mind as I took this survey. Then I came to a question that surprised me. No, not just surprised. It left me feeling really concerned about what AncestryDNA might have in store for its current and future customers. 

Here's a screenshot of the question:

Thinking back to my experience as a brand new AncestryDNA user, I would have preferred to be formally introduced to the cousin match list. I would have liked to be educated on how to maximize all of the features available to me. But that wasn't an option I could select.

I mean, I'm just a paying customer. What do I know?

It's that last option that really has me worried. "Do NOT show me my list of possible relatives"? "Do NOT attempt to find my possible relatives"? Is this really where we're going now? Where AncestryDNA is going to measure how many people click this option, and justify some crazy change by saying "it's what people said they wanted"?

So when they asked me why I answered the way I did, I told them exactly what I thought of their question:

The value of DNA testing for genealogical purposes relies on both information and collaboration. By allowing new customers to decide whether to engage with cousin matches, you're placing that decision into the hands of your least experienced customers. You'd be taking that opportunity away from existing customers and more experienced researchers. And as an existing customer, I'm not okay with that possibility. 
If people are not prepared for the information they are being given, or to participate in this collaboration, it's because they don't understand what DNA testing is. We cannot continue to perpetuate the myth that DNA results somehow exist in a vacuum, that you can sequester people from connection. If people have that expectation, it's because they've fundamentally been misinformed, either through word of mouth or advertising, about the potential and purpose of DNA testing. If you want to change that expectation and user behavior, you need to change the messages that you send to people. Because from where I'm sitting, as a customer of AncestryDNA since 2014, that messaging has become increasingly misleading as the service has grown. And it shows in the interactions I'm having with my relatives/your customers. 
If you give people the option to walk away from collaboration, when they don't even understand the decision they're making, you're not helping your consumers to make informed decisions. You're delivering a product to them at full-market price, without giving them any of the tools or education they need to use it fully. It was unacceptable when I took my test in 2014, and it's unacceptable now that AncestryDNA has 5 million customers. And I've been in contact with enough of your customers to tell you that they don't understand these choices. They don't understand the features and potential they're sacrificing. And once I've made some of them aware, and they have the desire to engage more fully, they find it exceedingly difficult to navigate the site to change their settings. This expectation that a user can change their settings any time vastly overestimates the technical ability of the average new AncestryDNA customer. 
For the sake of my own satisfaction of as an AncestryDNA customer, I go out of my way to make these choices available to your customers. I educate them because you don't. But I also don't have the tools to meet their needs, and it's frustrating to me as an existing customer. It keeps me from wanting to buy additional tests from your company. If you focus on giving me, the experienced user, the collaboration tools I need, it will give everyone else a better experience. The very thought that you might be considering doing the opposite is discouraging and disheartening.

I brought this up in my Family Tree DNA review, and I'll say it here in relation to AncestryDNA as well. None of these testing companies give users the tools they need to effectively communicate and collaborate with each other. This is not a problem that will be overcome by shrugging shoulders and saying, "Well, most customers don't want it anyway, so why bother to improve? Why not keep it simple?"

Because when you don't provide the functionality that users require for the task they've set out to do, that is the definition of making something harder. Not simpler. It takes information and collaboration to make family history discoveries using DNA. It takes work. It takes segment data. It takes traditional research. It takes source citations and original documents. It takes everything that good genealogical research requires. No amount of marketing speak about "responding to customer feedback" can change the fundamental nature of DNA testing. And every time AncestryDNA runs a commercial, I can't help but wonder if they've made the mistake of believing their own version of events.

People are not stupid. They know when they've been had. Consumers figure it out when what they were promised is not what they receive. They figure it out the moment they ask themselves what to do with their results, and they come up completely empty. They see it as they comb through page after page of matches, none of whom have trees. They realize that it isn't as easy as spitting into a tube and having the universe unfold before your eyes. And given that many people are pushing back against this problematic narrative of "spit in a tube and instantly discover your origins," this pattern of smoke and mirrors is unsustainable. 

Something needs to change. And if AncestryDNA thinks the change will be to simply hide the cousin match list, they're already looking way beyond the mark.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Getting Started: Interviewing Relatives

Genealogy comes in a lot of flavors. For many of us, it's a personal journey of self-discovery. We do it in pajamas, on couches, without a whole lot of human interaction. In my heart of introvert hearts, nothing makes me happier than digging through an unindexed image collection on FamilySearch by myself. Exactly because I don't have to see or talk to anyone.

You know, the finer things in life!

But here's the thing about researching your family history: it's their story, too! In order to tell it, you're going to need their help. Maybe you have questions only your grandparents can answer. Or your great aunt Mable, who you've only met twice, is the one with all the good photos. Or maybe you're an adoptee, and the only biological relatives you've ever encountered are the names on a DNA match list. Knowing how to conduct family interviews is an important skill to have in these moments. But when that doesn't come naturally to you, it can be daunting and intimidating!

I've had my share of good and bad experiences with family interviews. And even when you try to do everything right, they don't always turn out how you want them to. So let's talk about family interviews: the good, the bad, and everything in between. If your interview goes well, you'll find some great tips here to capture everything you need to know! If it doesn't, at least you'll have a great story to share in the comments!

How Do I Prepare?

This may seem odd, but the secret to a good interview is you. Do you know how to listen, without being distracted by what you're going to say next? Are you comfortable with silence? If you offend someone or stumble into an uncomfortable subject, do you know how to respond? The most uncomfortable way to discover negative answers to these questions is in the middle of an interview. Especially with someone you don't know well. 

If all you want to know is grandma's favorite color and what size shoe she wears, this may seem like some overly ambitious preparation. But I remember being a teenage genealogist, and asking my grandmother what her father's name was. To me, that seemed like a pretty innocent question. But for my paternal grandmother, it was a difficult and painful question to answer. She had grown up in a foster home, and never knew her father. And it took ten years of circling back around to that same question for me to hear the story she had to tell.

We are not in charge of deciding if, when, or how someone tells their story. That is not the purpose of an interview. Ten years of trying and failing with my grandmother taught me this. All I could do is create the safest space I could for her, and accept whatever story she tells me. If I ask her about her childhood in Canada, and she wants to talk about all of her doctor's appointments since the last time I spoke to her, guess who's actually in charge of the conversation?

That's right. The one with the information. Not the one asking the questions. Preparing to do an interview, first and foremost, has to mean letting go of our expectations of what we expect to get out of it. Only when people sense that sincere willingness to listen will they truly open up about their experiences. A good interview relies upon that sincere, meaningful connection.

Who Should I Talk To?

What do you want to know, and which relative has that information? It sounds so straightforward when you say it like that. But depending on what you need to know, who the person is, and how well you know them, you may be in for a real challenge. And finding the right person to talk to may be the hardest part!

You may come across the names of people in interviews with other relatives, in obituaries, or online trees. Social media is also a fantastic way to find distant relatives, especially in conjunction with DNA results. But sometimes, you'll stumble into relatives completely by accident. Such was the case when I wrote this blog post many years ago about meeting my father's half sister.

Because of my initial encounter with her, I got many clues that continue to influence my research. By the time our first phone call ended, I had in my mind a very rosy image of how things would go. Phone calls several times a year, Christmas cards, an ongoing conversation about new discoveries I was making. I invested a lot of hope into our follow-up meeting, especially for additional questions I wanted to ask.

Originally, she and I talked about meeting together at her home. But within a few days, she rescheduled to meet me by herself at a restaurant. I spent some time making up some pedigree charts and family group sheets to share. By time I showed up at the appointed place and time, I couldn't wait to meet her, to show her everything I'd found.

Minutes ticked away. The time we agreed to meet came and went. I glanced at my phone, over and over. After forty minutes, I got a phone call.

She wasn't coming. No, she didn't want to reschedule.

That was it. The one time I spoke to her on the phone was the only chance I would ever have. Had I known that, I would have prepared much differently for my original phone call with her. And when it comes to finding relatives, that is my most important advice. Never assume you'll have more time, or another chance to connect with someone. Treat every conversation like it might be your last. Because sometimes, no matter how good your intentions, people don't give you the chance to know them. But if you make the most of what opportunities you do have, without expecting more to follow, you never really have to be disappointed.

What Should I Ask?

When most of us think of interviews, coming up with good questions is where our minds go first. But what makes a good question? How many is your relative willing to answer? What questions will help them to talk about what interests them? Do they even need you to ask them questions to get them talking? Consider your research. What are the most important gaps you need to fill? All of these factors will shape the questions you come up with.

You can also search around online for inspiration. This list, as well as this one and that one and here, have some great places to start. Use any of these questions, or come up with your own.

Many people become frustrated with interviews when they are asked too many questions they don't know the answer to. It begins to feel like an interrogation, and may distract from the stories they might otherwise tell. While our research problems may require targeted questions, it's important to balance how many questions we ask with space for the person to speak freely. And whenever the person is talking, always be listening. You never know when the clue you need later might be in something your relative is saying right now.

One of my cousins I met through Facebook loves comic books. It would be easy for me to think that if I'm talking about comics, I'm not talking about genealogy. But nothing could be further from the truth for their family. Many of the stories I was interested in hearing about his father were also connected to comic books. Favorite heroes, favorite memories of going to buy comics together, how other family members would also participate. Those stories about comics have given me a much truer sense of what his father was like, more than any other question I might have come up with.

I may not understand a lot of what goes on in the world of comic books. But I now understand how important they were to my cousin and his father. That insight was truly a gift, one of my favorite series of interviews I've ever done. And I didn't need to be an expert. I just needed to make his interests an open-ended part of the conversation, and listen as he told his story.

What Should I Bring?

What are your goals for your interview? If you're looking to preserve a conversation, as well as the information it contains, much of what you need is probably in your pocket. Phones, tablets, computers, cameras, and audio recorders all have the capacity to record simple audio or video. How good you want that record to be will determine the equipment you need to use.

I personally enjoy making audio recordings. They tend to be less intrusive and intimidating to my family members. One set of recordings I treasure are from a lunch date with my mother, grandmother, my great aunt, and younger sister. I prepared a list of questions for my grandmother, and planned to record her answers with my cell phone.

Instead, my mother and great aunt jumped into the conversation as well. I left the recording running to capture it all. What I have instead is the banter between the women in my family. The sizzle of food cooking, the sound and volume of different voices, the laughing and shouting as conversations ebb and flow. Topics and stories I hadn't planned for. A verbal snapshot in time, as valuable as any picture.

From making it, however, I made an unfortunate discovery about smart phone audio. Many cell phones record in odd micro formats that aren't compatible with other audio players or devices. The format may also be low quality, and susceptible to data loss. For more on the basics of audio formats and preservation, see this guide from FamilySearch. And if you need something to play an audio file in one of these formats, VLC is great. I've yet to have a cell phone produce a weird file type that VLC couldn't play.

You may not be able to change the file type your phone uses when it records audio. If you have a smart phone, you can often access greater functionality through different apps. Searching your app store for audio recorders is one option. Searching for converters for ht audio files you already have is another. But don't forget that many of the major genealogy apps have added audio capabilities. Even if you can only upload the recordings you've already made, let this be part of your preservation process.

Interviews with family members are invaluable sources of new information. They provide richness and depth to the records we're creating about the people we meet. Whether they're our closest family members, or distant cousins we met on the internet, let interviews become the lifeblood of your genealogy. Nothing else you do will bring your relatives more to life!

What are your favorite tips for conducting family interviews? Who was your favorite relative to interview? Any horror stories you want to share? Let us know in comments!

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Uploading Your Tree to GEDmatch

GEDmatch has become an essential tool to everyone who is serious about genetic genealogy. I'm not sure how many matches you have there. But the last time I saved my match list as a PDF, it was 23 pages long. And the last time I checked, the last page of matches stopped at about 10 cM. As more people take these tests and upload their raw data to GEDmatch, making traceable connections to our distant cousins becomes easier every day.

But are you taking full advantage of everything GEDmatch has to offer you? If you don't have a tree uploaded, the answer is "No!"

Why You Should Have a Tree on GEDmatch

In order to take full advantage of what genetic genealogy has to offer, you need three types of information:

  1. Segment data
  2. A tree
  3. Shared matches
I like to compare this to a car. In order for a car to function, at the bare minimum it needs wheels, an engine, and a fuel source. Without any one of those elements, the car simply couldn't move. In genetic genealogy, these same three elements are THAT fundamental. Some testing companies create this data scarcity by not providing tools to convey this essential information to their users. And given that some of the newest testing companies are gravitating away from this bare minimum, it leaves some newcomers in our community at a disadvantage.

Whenever a testing company has refused to offer one of these necessities to its customers, GEDmatch has been the equalizer. AncestryDNA won't provide segment data? GEDmatch will do that. MyHeritage DNA won't provide segment data or shared matches? GEDmatch will do that. That same capacity for tree sharing is also available. The ability to cross reference people on all of the sites on which they've tested is there. But how many of us are taking advantage of it?

I've used trees on GEDmatch to match users there to their original testing companies. Once I know I have the right person on AncestryDNA, their shared matches become a powerful finding tool. I compare those shared matches to what I know about the segment data. A much clearer image of the relationships at work in my DNA begins to emerge. It makes my job on GEDmatch AND AncestryDNA easier. And when I invite these shared matches to upload to GEDmatch, and they accept that invitation, documenting and preserving this record becomes possible.

How to Upload a Tree to GEDmatch

Now that I've been focused on linking GEDmatch users to their original testing companies, I'm noticing a trend. Many who provide trees at their original testing companies haven't done so on GEDmatch. Some of these users may not realize the capability to add a tree exists, or how to do it. So I've made a video for our YouTube channel to explain the process.

The trees they produce are not fancy, by any stretch of the imagination. But they provide needed information to the discoveries we're all trying to make. If you haven't uploaded a gedcom to your GEDmatch kits, be sure to add one today!

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Family Tree DNA: My Review

Over the past couple of years, you've gotten ample insight from yours truly on AncestryDNA and GEDmatch. Clearly, this conversation is incomplete without giving Family Tree DNA some long-overdue attention. So today, I'm going to be sharing my thoughts on their Family Finder/autosomal DNA test. Specifically, I'll be sharing my experience with their autosomal transfer service.

As I did in my AncestryDNA review and the follow-up, I'll be breaking down this review into a couple of different categories. I'll grade them individually, and average them together for a final score. Here are the categories:
  • Cousin Matching
  • Admixture
  • Projects
I'm also giving them extra credit right out of the gate for offering the autosomal transfer at all. Their biggest weakness, at this stage of the game, is the size of their database of matches. It's difficult to compete with AncestryDNA's 4,000,000+ tests analyzed, especially with their last million being added between January and April of this year. Having such a common sense incentive for the customer is one of the industry's best bargains. If 23&Me would follow suit, I'd have a full house.

Cousin Matching: C+

There are so many different fronts to approach this from, so let's dive in! Family Tree DNA has an overall great interface. In my opinion, their interface has always been better than AncestryDNA. While the capability of Family Tree DNA's interface isn't as robust as GEDmatch, they have many more analysis tools to offer someone out of the gate than AncestryDNA does. And by using all of the features available on Family Tree DNA, I can see how it would help someone transition much more smoothly over to GEDmatch.

Family Tree DNA's match list is like GEDmatch's One-to-Many match list, on training wheels. It's a sortable table that allows you isolate matches in a variety of ways. You can click the column headers, which allow you to sort X-DNA matches to the top of the list. You can also use the "In Common With" button, to see which matches you share with a given relative. What AncestryDNA customers usually have to find on two different websites, Family Tree DNA has consolidated into one.

Their match list also has an additional field for surnames, which is unique to this site. Those surnames are searchable, as are your cousin matches. This feature is only available with users who fill out their profile, but many of the most active users fit that description. While I do like being able to sort by location on AncestryDNA and feel it is missing here, Family Tree DNA still has a running head start. They could easily add that functionality without a significant disruption to their interface. Which is still more than AncestryDNA can say when it comes to revisiting a cousin match. (Does anyone else realize you can use the Membership Directory to do this? Yeah, no one else does either.)

Family Tree DNA has a chromosome browser, which is also more than AncestryDNA can say. As nice as that is to have, it's actually my least favorite part of working with Family Tree DNA. However, the chromosome browser isn't the problem. It's how inefficiently it operates to do a very simple job.

I greatly dislike that this is the only way to access the full segment data for each match. To do this, I have to systematically input all 2700+ matches into the chromosome browser in batches of 5. And of course, there's literally no way to pull up 5 matches on the same chromosome in the chromosome browser. So they're just 5 random matches from an alphabetical list.

I click on each segment that appears, and copy the data from a pop-up box that has a nasty habit of disappearing if I click anywhere else. This is particularly annoying to do when the segments are small, and there are multiple segments to analyze for the same person. Since I also use Microsoft Access for my data entry, this means I have to move my Access window around my screen based on where the box appears. Many times, I lose the box while trying to situate my windows, and have to start all over again.

First World Rage!
This interface has so much potential, and has so many great features on it. I don't understand why they have it programmed to function only one way, which is the least efficient way possible. They have TWO other options through which they could present the segment data, and THIS is the one they chose. They have the match list and the Excel/CSV download feature they could be using instead.

As an Access user, I can't tell you how valuable it would be to me to export segment data on an Excel spreadsheet. I would be able to do a bulk import of segment data into Access. This would save me hundreds of hours of work, and allow me to spend more time on analysis instead of data entry. And really, what exactly is the purpose of exporting matches into an Excel spreadsheet without the segment data? Like so many things going on with Family Tree DNA, it's a fantastic idea that falls short in the execution.

[NOTE: When I used the Excel/CSV feature in preparation for this post, I used the link available from the Match List page. The matches exported from that page are as I described them: just about useless in every way. It provides the user's name, contact information, relationship estimates, and no full segment data. I didn't know that using the Excel/CSV link from the chromosome browser page would produce a different match list, which DOES include exact segment lengths and locations. The mistake here is mine, and I apologize for the confusion.

However, upon receiving this second match list, I find it equally dissatisfying for the following reasons: it does not include any of the pertinent identifying information from the previous list. It has an entire column dedicated solely to my name, and no contact information or relationship estimates. Having the relevant information I need broken up across two Excel workbooks does not, in fact, allow me to import that information into Access. And given that the segment data match list has matches smaller than 6 cM, I would have to manually remove each of them myself. According to my personal user needs, I'd like to see these two lists combined. And with the knowledge I have of DNA comparison, segments smaller than 5 cM are best removed from that match list.]

I'm also not a fan of Family Tree DNA's matching criteria. They give too much emphasis to smaller segments, with no way to set your own match criteria. With 2700+ matches to process on their website alone, I don't have time to waste with 5 and 6 cM matches. And yes, considering some of my research challenges, those matches are a waste of my time. The closest thing that Family Tree DNA has to custom match criteria is a drop down list of options on the chromosome browser. And since I haven't had anyone else closely related to me tested, most of the options are useless to me.

Family Tree DNA has room for improvement when it comes to cousin matching. But they're in a much better position to address those issues than AncestryDNA is, and I hope they recognize it. They have the potential to be a much more comprehensive service than AncestryDNA probably ever will be. What AncestryDNA has done by being the lowest of all possible fruit, Family Tree DNA can accomplish by superior performance.

Admixture: B-

It's no secret that I'm not the biggest fangirl of admixtures. We've all heard the wacky stories about how ethnicity estimates revealed that babies born a hundred years ago were switched at birth. But really, for most of us, ethnicity estimates don't have that kind of potential unless you're biologically diverse. Nevertheless, I was still curious to get a second opinion on my AncestryDNA ethnicity estimates.

European Ethnicity Estimates from AncestryDNA

myOrigins from Family Tree DNA

You'll note that there are some pretty large discrepancies here, including between ethnic groups that both companies test for. The largest disparity is the 26% Scandinavian from AncestryDNA, versus 0% from Family Tree DNA. With a difference that large, someone here is wrong. I don't have much of sense of who it could be. The more detailed view of the AncestryDNA test seems consistent with what I suspect about the unknown branches of my family. But without more traditional research and confirmation of details to back it up, it's not a question I can resolve myself right now.

I will say that unlike AncestryDNA, Family Tree DNA has a separate, distinct testing region for South America. This was news to me, and has been added since I originally did the autosomal transfer. AncestryDNA treats the Caribbean, North, Central, and South America as one homogeneous region. As someone with Caribbean heritage, with rumors of Native American ancestry I was trying to squash, being able to distinguish the two is useful. Anyone with interests in these regions will receive more detailed results from Family Tree DNA than from AncestryDNA.

Projects: C

AncestryDNA has 4,000,000+ samples in their database. There's no escaping that fact. If Family Tree DNA is going to compete with the statistical probability of making a match, they need to deliver superior service. They can accomplish this by updating features they already have, and maximizing on AncestryDNA's weaknesses.

You can't make money if you don't exist.
From what I can see, a significant portion of Family Tree DNA's attention is still focused on Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA testing. And before anyone challenges me about it, I recognize that these tests have their place. But those tests are niche at best, and stubbornly nostalgic at their worst. There is no sense in encouraging the average person, let alone a new customer, to spend hundreds of dollars on one line in their genome anymore. Commitments to niche tests take resources away from developing autosomal testing offerings. And anyone who isn't committing the lion share of their resources to autosomal testing is making a big mistake. They are going to seem crazy when they try to explain their reasoning in ten years, if they're still around to talk about it.

One example of where I see this happening is with their projects. They are most analogous feature they have to AncestryDNA's newest Genetic Communities. With Genetic Communities, AncestryDNA approximates the geographic regions your ancestors belonged to, based on DNA and family trees. Family Tree DNA has had this feature for years, with user-operated location, lineage, and surname projects. But it's still set up specifically from back in the day when Y and mT DNA tests were all the rage.

Why haven't these been upgraded to function with autosomal testing? They're literally sleeping on one of the biggest advantages they have over AncestryDNA. The might as well stand on a street corner and give away free money, for the amount of good it's doing them.

To those who have taken DNA tests, imagine being able to pull up a map to find collaborative discussions about the communities you care about most. Everyone there is specifically talking about DNA. As you scroll in deeper on the map, more specific projects appear, on state, county, or even the city level. Each one would have surname and lineage projects associated with it, with the ability to add more projects. As much as I enjoy Ancestry's Historic Insight tree hints, these don't create or engage people in conversation. Having projects based on historical events and common experiences would spark those conversations for DNA. And unlike Facebook, where a lot of these community-based conversations are happening right now, Family Tree DNA can integrate their features into these projects and conversations.

One of AncestryDNA's critical weaknesses is not fostering effective communication between it's users. They ignore this in favor of automating as much of their user's experience as possible. Family Tree DNA already has, as part of its offerings, the solution to this problem. But those features are only available for the most expensive, niche components of their offerings. (And that's if you don't want to go as far as I will, and say that Y and mT DNA are already dead.)

As a user experience and a business strategy, it simply makes zero sense. You can't be everything to everyone. It's the same trap that restaurants fall into when they have too many choices on their menu. Instead of trying to provide value through eleven different offerings and options, why not focus on the one thing that matters, and doing it the best way you know how?

Final Grade: B-

Out of the box, is Family Tree DNA a better service than AncestryDNA? In terms of the product they offer and the features that come with it, yes. But when you factor in the size the of their respective user bases and the company's ongoing leverage, the story changes. If you're going to compete with a much larger company, and a growing playing field with increasing amounts of competition, you have to focus on innovation.  You can't rely solely on carrying obsolete products your competitors don't have, and charging more for them. That is not a strategy for growth. That's a memoir for Radio Shack.

The Eighties called.
They want their DNA test back.

But from where I'm sitting, there's no reason for Family Tree DNA to be in the position they're in. They have everything they need to give AncestryDNA a serious run for their money. They just aren't using any of it to their advantage. And as a customer who is approaching the decision about purchasing secondary kits for family members, I'm finding it difficult to decide who deserves my money more. The company that doesn't listen, or the company that is moving precariously close to the wrong meaning of "throwback"?

Some might say that "only time will tell," but I disagree. It isn't time that will tell. It will be innovation and common sense that determine the future of Family Tree DNA and their Family Finder test. And the silver lining here is that innovation and common sense are 100% within their control.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Sweet Spots: Using Books on FamilySearch

Genealogists are cheapskates. Let's not deny it. We sort of have to be. Family history isn't a cheap hobby, after all. Research trips, website subscriptions, FOIA requests, research fees, gas money, copies, postage, it can add up in a hurry. If you're not careful, you'll end up eating Ramen noodles in front of a computer screen at 3 a.m. And don't even get me started on the economy of wearing pants. A major factor for most decisions to leave the house for my generation, in addition to cost versus reward, is how long we have to be wearing pants.

What I hear every time there's a genealogy event that doesn't include pajamas.
I can't be the only one waiting for this to be a thing.

I've come a little way from paying for a single month of once a year with money I found in the couch. But that's only because of the FamilySearch partnerships. And no one really outgrows getting free records access, do they?

Which is why I wanted to point out some free resources that aren't as well known on FamilySearch. This has nothing to do with their record collections. Instead, I want to talk about how you can access a growing number of books from the Family History Library. Why fly or drive to Salt Lake City when the information you need could be right at your fingertips without you knowing it, right?

Using FamilySearch Books

To navigate to the Books section, go to, hover over the the Search tab, and click on the Book menu.

A simple search box will appear, as well as a list of repositories whose books are also included in the collection. So before you plan a trip to the Allen County Public Library, check to see if the resource you need is available through this portal. I don't know about y'all, but I know I don't want to pay money, put on pants, and fly on a plane if I don't have to.

If this isn't the best part of your day, are you really a genealogist?

Don't bother with the simple search box. I mean, I suppose you can. But they make the Advanced Search so easy to find, you might as well use it.

You basically get two search fields, and you can have them search whichever way you like. I personally prefer Full Text. It's also a good idea to set the middle box to OR (not displayed below, but trust me.) I'll usually put a county name in one and a surname in the other. I've gotten some great results that way. This of course is a much easier approach with unique county names, as my example is. I'm pretty sure no other place on earth is called Pittsylvania. Let's look for some Towlers.

Scroll down to see your results. I know that sounds dumb to say, but these search boxes take up the whole screen and the results appear underneath them.

Now some things that you click on will open fine and dandy. If you're lucky, there's no limit to the things you can find.  If you're lazy like me and you want to use the Ctrl+F function to search the book for names, you have to download it first. I don't know why, but it doesn't work in browser, even though all of the books have been OCRed. You download them by putting your cursor inside the viewing window, and click the download icon.

For Pittsylvania County alone, there are several books with vital statistics in them. Most of them are indexes of vital records from the county courthouse. Some of them are transcriptions of unique documents, like those who took the Oath of Allegiance during the American Revolution in 1777. I find that looking by geographic areas (cities, states, provinces, regions, countries) is the best way to get a broad sense of what's available.

If you're lucky, you may even find something that fills in a record gap for your community of interest. I know for Pittsylvania County in particular, Dr. Reuben W. Bennett kept private records of births and marriages that predate official county records. They're some of the only vital records I've ever seen that predate 1853. His register was transcribed and published in the William and Mary Quarterly, and is available to view through this portal. (Albeit, it's much easier to view it for free on JSTOR here.)  And I had no idea it existed until I got curious and started poking around in the online books on FamilySearch.

Inevitably, you're going to run into a particular error message. You'll click on an item in your search results, it says you don't have the rights to access it. What does that mean? Where is the book and why can't you see it? There's a lot of confusion about what this means and why it happens, so I thought I'd talk about it.

The main factor at play here is ownership. Because many of the books and periodicals being included in the online collection are under copyright, they have to get a little creative in how they allow people to access them. Restricting how many people can access the digital copy is legally necessary to respect authorial and repository ownership, as mandated by laws as they currently exist.

Additionally, many of the materials are not owned by the Family History Library. The repositories that own them can stipulate other conditions under which they may be used. The result is that some of the more promising results on your list can only be accessed on-site at the Family History Library, in their partner libraries, or at a local family history center. You cannot use them from your home internet connection.

What are Family History Centers?

As many of y'all may or may not know, FamilySearch is the family history arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons don't play around when it comes to genealogy. Most of our churches have entire rooms set up for doing genealogy. Other regions have standalone buildings dedicated to that purpose. In the days before the internet, these centers were largely used to distribute and use microfilm from the Family History Library. Today, they provide computer and internet access for genealogy to anyone who doesn't have it. They also provide free access to and other paid subscription sites. They've now become the logical access point for many digital record collections and materials that otherwise couldn't be distributed.

To find your local family history center, use the Locator utility. You can input your city, and it will show you the closest family history center to you. You may have multiple options to choose from. You'll have a map that you can poke around on to decide which one best meets your needs. Check their hours of operation, and any closures they have scheduled. The centers are run entirely by volunteers, so it's always a good idea to call ahead and let them know when you plan to visit. Because they also teach classes to various groups, you may want to take advantage of any events they have going on, or schedule your trip around them. The address and phone number for each center is provided via the locator.

The centers are completely free to the public. I recommend preparing a visit like you would any other research trip. Have specific records and books in mind you intend to use, and budget your time accordingly. I'll even make a list or email myself links to different record sets, so I can open them in-browser at the Family History Center. Anything that saves me this much time and money is something I can live with.

To anyone who has ever put on pants to do genealogy, I salute you!

Even if it does mean I still have to wear real clothes and leave my house. Some things are just worth putting on pants for.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Roots Magic Websites for Genetic Genealogy

I've been trying to find a way to embed my family tree onto my personal blog for a while now. It just seems like a logical thing to include on a blog about my family history. But I've never found any options I liked that would allow me to do that. You'd think that because I host my main tree on, linking to my public tree would be sufficient. But since the only ones who can view Ancestry member trees are people with active paid subscriptions, this isn't a perfect solution.

This came to my attention again as I was interacting with one of my cousin matches on AncestryDNA. AncestryDNA was able to match us together, and we have have a shared ancestor hint linking our trees together. But because he doesn't have an active subscription, he doesn't think he can see my tree. And since his tree is private, I'm not able to see his. He even asked me how to change his tree to public because he doesn't actually care about keeping it private.

We're trying to work that out right now. I'm pretty eager to know who he is because he isn't connected to anyone else that I recognize. The entire exchange has gotten me thinking about the continued struggle of being an AncestryDNA customer. How did I make it this far into this exchange, and I'm still no closer to an answer about this connection?

And on that same note, how can I make this process easier and more familiar to that generation of users that will never, ever be comfortable using computers?

I've come across a lot of people who have websites that allow them to post interactive versions of their GEDCOM files online. I decided that could be a good option for addressing this problem. If I could optimize it enough for a genetic genealogy application, I thought it could be a very useful tool. I set out to explore some of the options that exist. Since I have full access to Roots Magic 6, and it has free site hosting, I decided to try them out first. And I have to admit, I'm pleasantly surprised by the results.


Not only is the site simple to navigate, it's one of the few GEDCOM-to-web options I've ever seen that bothers to include sources. And as I thought about how I could make the most of it as a tool in making contact with DNA matches, there were a couple of other features I decided to include:

  • All of my confirmed biological ancestors from the last 12 generations
  • All of their descendants I can find who share a biological connection with me
  • Social media links
  • Links to my profiles and trees from the DNA testing companies I've tested with
  • My GEDmatch kit number
  • A link to my blog

This site, which took me less than 10 minutes to set up, is an awesome little hub for my genetic genealogy efforts. I can imagine sending it to anyone who might be related to me, and everything they need to compare notes with me is all in one place. Regardless of what testing site they use, I make it easy for them to connect with me, and find the resources they're looking for.

Looking at the sample site on the Roots Magic website, I also see that they've color coded different lines. It's nice to see that feature carried over into the site, because there's an awesome bit of untapped potential for that for genetic genealogy. I can activate color coding when DNA matches for different lines have been confirmed. I can even color code them based on the testing site they come from. I don't know how well the pedigree view on the live site would allow me to do this, or whether the color coding displays on any other view within the website. But I know working with the data within Roots Magic, that potential is there.

What tips and tricks do you have for reaching out to your DNA cousin matches? What tools are making it easier for you to collaborate and discover your common ancestors? Let us know in comments!

Friday, April 28, 2017

10 Tips for Making the Most of

I'm not really shy when it comes to how much I love, the open-source tool for anyone who has taken a DNA test for genetic genealogy. And really, what's not to love? I get matched up with relatives from all of the major testing companies, for free, without having to take or pay for multiple tests. It presents me with all of the segment information for my matches, and gives me the tools to analyze and work with my own results. I can decide for myself what matching criteria I want to use. Without GEDmatch, my experience as a genetic genealogist would be controlled and limited by corporate interests and objectives.

The one downside to GEDmatch is that it has a steep learning curve. I've been using the website for several years now, and I'm still discovering new ways to use it all the time. To say nothing of all the ways I could be using it better. So in the spirit of helping us all to make the most of what GEDmatch has to offer, here are some of the tips that are making life a little easier for me.

1. Use Internet Explorer

I know. Let's party like it's 1999, right?
I'm not an expert on the technology behind web browsers, what makes them work, and why it matters which ones you use for which site. All I can tell you is what I've seen on my computer, in the hundreds of times I've used GEDmatch over the past several years. The sum of all that experience has shown that Google Chrome is the browser most likely to time out, crash, or just not load at all. Firefox is hit or miss, depending on the number of users on the site.

The only browser that consistently loads GEDmatch for me, regardless of the time of day or function I'm using, is Internet Explorer.

2. You Can Identify the Testing Company from the Kit Number

Am I the only person who didn't know the letter in the kit numbers corresponds to testing company? A is for AncestryDNA, T (and previously F) for Family Tree DNA, and M for 23&Me. (I recently saw an H, which I'm assuming is for MyHeritage.)

3. Printing your One-to-Many Match List as a PDF

In order to view all of the cousins and relatives that match with you, you have to load them all onto a single page. Called the One-to-Many list, this page takes the longest to load, and is the first thing to stop working when the site gets busy.

Rather than loading this page over and over again, print your results as a PDF document. That way, you can reference all of the information on it without creating extra strain on the site.

4. Sorting the Match List

Another feature I discovered by accident, you can actually sort by different columns on the One-to-Many match list. By default, it sorts by Total Autosomal DNA. Because of the way I sort and organize my data, however, I prefer to view it by Largest Segment. Every time I load the page, it's the first thing I change. But depending on what you want to view, you can reorganize the page and save a PDF of that version

This is especially useful when you want to create a match list of your X-DNA matches. By sorting with that column, your match list will load with a completely different set of matches. Based on the experience I had processing these matches for the first time, GEDmatch doesn't include all of the X-DNA matches on the default match list. The only way to see all of these matches is to use the sort arrow in that column. Keeping a separate list of these matches as a PDF is also helpful.

5. Use the X-DNA One-to-One Analysis

Speaking of X-DNA, which I also discovered in the past week, let me eliminate some confusion. X-DNA is Chromosome 23, and determines gender. It is not the same thing as mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited from your direct maternal line only. X-DNA is inherited by both men and women, and follows different inheritance paths according to gender. Being female, I inherited an X chromosome from my father, and my mother. My father got his X chromosome from his mother, and back through several different men and women along her lines. My mother, however, got her X chromosomes from a much larger collection of male and female relatives from both her paternal and maternal lines.

GEDmatch provides X DNA matches and analysis. If the only tools you ever use are the default match list and the general One-to-One analysis, you might not know that. There is a separate One-to-One utility for X DNA matches, which is the only one that will display those results. For relatives that share both autosomal and X DNA with you, you'll have to run their kits through both One-to-One match utilities to see all of the segments they share with you.

6. There's a Facebook Group!

Do yourself a favor and join this Facebook group. When I was first starting out, I had to ask a lot of questions that, looking back, I realize were really basic. The people there didn't have to take the time to explain such fundamental stuff to me. But they did, and it has made all of the difference in the choice I made to stick it out until I could understand. And they helped me without making me feel stupid, which is always an awesome thing.


To do DNA analysis, you have to process and compare literally hundreds of pieces of unique data. It's time-consuming and slow. From GEDmatch alone, I've processed over 1,500 samples. And I still haven't made it through half of the 23 pages of matches GEDmatch has to offer me. Let alone all of the matches on other websites I haven't gotten to yet. I may actually die before I process them all. And I know I'm not unique in that respect.

The number of people who upload duplicate kits for themselves, especially when they don't make it obvious, does a disservice to everyone. They take up precious space on the site servers with duplicated information. They waste everyone else's time in processing extra samples for the same person. And as much as I hate this behavior, I can at least understand it if you upload results from different testing companies. I seriously wish you wouldn't. But I get it.

But y'all who are uploading duplicate kits from the same testing company. Why? WHY?! What did you think it was going to tell you the second, third, fourth, or fifth time that it didn't say the first time? And before you think I'm blowing my stack about nothing, I'm not making this up. I have seen multiple people in my match list upload as many as give kits for themselves, and they're all from the same testing company.


Just stop it already!

(Note: You can tell if it's a duplicate if you do a One-to-One comparison with the Graphics turned on. The bars that show up will be solid blue and green)

8. Link Your Kit Number and Tree Together

DNA segment data isn't useless without a tree. Certainly adoptees have had to make do with less. But everything about genetic genealogy is so much easier with a tree. So the more you do to connect your GEDmatch kit number and your online tree together, the better.

I post my kit number all over the place. It's on my blog, in my profile, and on my Find a Grave profile. On Twitter, I put my kit number in the location field of my profile. I made a graphic of my kit number with a template on Then I set it to be a Featured Photo in the sidebar of my Facebook profile. You can also share it on Instagram, Pinterest, and other forms of social media. Put your kit number anywhere a relative might see it, and who knows? Maybe one day, it'll pay off.

I only wish it were that simple to link to our various online trees on GEDmatch. While the site allows people to upload gedcom files, the interface is dated and limited. It doesn't display any source information, and does nothing to connect users to their profiles or trees from their original testing companies. Links to online trees, usernames, and testing company user profiles would be much more useful, in terms of building bridges between trees and segment data. I'd love to see that in future builds for the site.

9. Tell Your Cousin Matches About GEDmatch

Whenever I contact cousin matches on AncestryDNA, I tell them about GEDmatch. I always send along my kit number, in case they're already users. If it's someone I'm particularly interested in connecting with, I tell them they can access more free matches from other testing companies at GEDmatch. Quite a few people have taken me up on that invitation, and some of my best matches are with people I've introduced to the site.

GEDmatch exists entirely from word of mouth. Everyone who uses it heard about it from someone else once upon a time. If we want the site to keep growing, we have to keep telling people about it.

10. Do Descendancy Research!

When I took my DNA test, I thought it was going to tell me who my ancestors were. Now I see that isn't how it works, at least not directly. The thing DNA tests are best at is connecting me to other living descendants of my ancestors. It's up to us to figure out where the connection is through collaboration and traditional research.

Since cousins and distant relatives are primarily what my test gives to me, it makes sense to spend time researching who they are. The more you know about the descendants of your ancestors, the more easily your will recognize them when they take a DNA test. Since most of us start a new tree with only biological ancestral connections anyway (or at least you should!), it makes sense to include descendants on that same tree.

When your biological tree becomes a more complete record of every person who is biologically related to you, the more DNA testing will reward you for those efforts.

Learning to use segment data can seem like a daunting task. It requires an investment of time that some of us may question. Is the value of what I've going to get back in the end worth the time I'm taking away from traditional research? I know that was a question I once had. I know it's a question that many people ask themselves before and after taking a DNA test. Is it worth the time and money I'm about to spend on it?

Even as many are asking themselves those questions, they still underestimate the investment that goes into doing genetic genealogy well. There truly is no royal road to geometry, no easy way to learn to use DNA, and no credible way to make it easier. We all have to pay what it costs to achieve understanding.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Keeping a Journal: A Genealogist's Guide

From the time I was nine years old, I've written in a journal. While I no longer have some of those earlier samples of my writing, I have a shoebox and the better part of a shelf in my closet dedicated to the rest of my journals. While I'm not a regular journal keeper, I don't really hold that against myself. It's not about how frequently I write, but the quality and value of what I have to say.

That being said, there are some simple steps every genealogist can take to transform their journals into historical records and sources of information. From remembering to describe people and places, to the selection of your writing prompts and topics, anyone can create a priceless treasure trove of history through journal keeping.

Do you keep a journal? What are some of the people, places, and events that have shaped your life? Let us know in comments. If journal keeping is something you've always wanted to start, check out our the latest video for helpful hints and ideas.

And of course, don't forget to subscribe!

Monday, January 9, 2017

Calling all you Young and Savvies out there!

Our community and audience is growing all the time. We know that young voices have so much to give to the genealogical community, but too often they go unheard. We want that to change, and we want you to be a part of it!

Young and Savvy Genealogists is looking for 2 new perma-bloggers! Become a regular contributor to the Y&SG blog, as well as a moderator to our Facebook community.

  1. Review our Submission Guidelines. They give you an idea of the kind of content we want to publish!
  2. Submit two sample guest posts. Between 1000-2000 words, to be featured on the blog. Deadline for submission will be February 28th! Caitie and I will choose the finalists. All posts will run throughout the month of March.
  3. Vote in a poll in our Facebook community for the creator/posts you like the best.

While guest posters can be of any age, we are interested at this time in elevating the voices of the under 30 crowd.

The newest Young and Savvy perma-bloggers will be announced on March 31st! 

Spread the word, and good luck!