04 April 2015

All You Need Is Spit and the Biggest Advance Since the Shaking Leaf?

I'm a little behind on my reading and since Ancestry.com doesn't send me press releases any more, I just came across the "DNA press release" from Ancestry.com. There is significant opinion in this post. Significant opinion. Other blogs may tell you they give you opinion when they really don't. That's not how we operate here. You have been warned.

(c) 2015 Michael John Neill
although I doubt anyone will
steal this tree
According to a press release from Ancestry.com, they've made the biggest advance since the "shaking [Ancestry.com] leaf."

I nearly choked on my spinach salad. That's about as close as I get to any shaking leaf.

Biggest Advance Since the Shaking Leaf?

I'm not even certain that the shaking leaf qualify as an advance to begin with. The "shaking leaves" on Ancestry.com and the hints on their site are based on some sort of mysterious fuzzy search parameters and the suggestions of other researchers. It's hard to know where their search parameters end and the suggestions of other researchers begin. The hint "match" algorithm is apparently a closely guarded state-level secret. We've seen in other posts on this site that those hints are not all that reliable and often miss the mark by centuries. It's difficult for this researcher to take seriously any announcement that uses the "shaking leaves" and "hints" as a starting baseline for improvement. That's setting the starting bar pretty low.

The shaking leaves apparently don't make genealogical research easy enough for the the powers-at-be at Ancestry.com. According to the press release, genealogists can now "find ancestors from their past using just a DNA test, [with] no genealogy research required." That's a direct quote: "no genealogy research required."

Yes...the word "no" is leading that phrase.

All you need is spit.

Ancestry.com's innovation comes from three places (quoting their press release)--with my comments in italics:

  • "1) millions of family trees created by Ancestry members [with varying levels of documentation and frequently of questionable accuracy],
  • "2) the fastest growing genetic database in the world, currently with more than 800,000 genotyped members [again relying upon the accuracy of ancestral information submitted by members] and
  • "3) a dedicated team of scientists who are pushing the boundaries of genetics and statistics to help people make family history discoveries in ways never before possible.”[I can't speak to the genetics, but the statistical algorithms used to create "hints" and "shaking leaves" clearly leaves something to be desired]."

Taking millions of user-submitted trees, some created willy-nilly, as a starting point upon which to base research conclusions, seems a little misguided to this researcher. Genealogy methodology experts generally suggest using the trees for clues and not simply incorporating the online trees into the user's own database. Ancestry.com seems to suggest that researchers can just reach the nearest tree within spitting distance and claim it as their own.

The phrase "no genealogy research required" makes this researcher cringe. Cringe. And that's the nice, family-friendly blog version of a phrase that feels much more appropriate. I realize the importance of encouraging new people to research their family history. But there's a key word in that sentence: research. And there needs to be balance when trying to convert new members to the family history fold.

I'm not naive enough to think that every newly-minted genealogist is going to run out and cite every sources in way that would put Evidence Explained to shame. But even newbie genealogists know they need to do some research. The thought of encouraging new family historians to simply scratch their cheek and look in their no longer shaking tea leaves to find their ancestry has taken "encouragement" to a new level. Enticing people to learn about their family history is one thing. Promoting the belief that research is as easy as spitting is something else.

Bring GIGO Back! 

Years ago, there was a phrase in data processing: GIGO--Garbage In, Garbage Out. As we've left behind the phrase "data processing" for the sexier "information technology" and "crowdsourcing," some seem to have forgotten GIGO.

I haven't and you shouldn't either.

All this crossed my desk just as I was about to dip my toe in the sea of AncestryDNA. It's enough to make me head away from the beach, put on long pants and real shoes and leave the ocean in the distance. DNA has it's place in genealogy research and can be used to answer a variety of family history questions. But the use of DNA is a slightly more involved than Ancestry.com would have us to believe.

Thanks for reading--and remember: 
All of us have ancestors who deserve to have their lives documented as accurately as we can. And that takes time--a life cannot be researched in five minutes.

I was really tempted to subtitle this post based on two pop tunes:
  • It's not "All you need is love," but "all you need is spit."
  • It's not "No jacket required," but "no research required."
Reminder: I am an Ancestry.com subscriber and make regular use of their indexes and digital images. I am entirely content to limit my Ancestry.com time to that portion of their site.