Ancestry’s new ThruLines feature is both a “killer app” and the start of the future of genealogy

Ancestry’s new ThruLines feature is both a “killer app” and the start of the future of genealogy

It’s rare that we can spot trends emerging, but we’re going to take a quick victory lap this week because we saw Ancestry.com’s ThruLines coming. We called it out…twice! And now that it’s arrived it feels like the “killer app” for genealogical DNA.

One of our first posts in 2017 was a discussion on how the Ancestry “We’re Related” mobile app was not just a silly diversion (We’re Related app is a lot less frivolous than it first appears) because of how it leveraged predictive relationships:

If this technology is ever leveraged against some of my brick walls instead a gimmick like linking me to Blake Shelton, Ancestry might really be on to something.

Over a year later we bemoaned the fact that Ancestry’s first major use of these predictive algorithms was the “Potential Mother/Father” tool. It was poorly implemented and presented so much risk (Ancestry.com takes another step away from its genealogical roots…), but we saw the power in this tool, if used properly:

The good news is that we as serious users can avoid the downfalls, and use the predictive part of this feature to do the research for us, but we must immediately attach the citations to any newly added ancestor.

Ancestry has finally harnessed predictive technology in a very effect feature with the release of ThruLines.

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At it’s essence ThruLines a new graphical way to show HOW you’re related to your DNA matches. This is long overdue, and while the old way of clicking on a direct match and seeing the path from your kit to the most recent common ancestor (MCRA) worked, it was limited (we had to dig into each match with 3 clicks to see the path) and it was totally devoid of any context. Was there a brother of this tester that also matches? Did they have a 1st cousin that also tested that in-turn matches our tests? You just had to click through each test to find out.

 

But, the real power in ThruLines isn’t the graphical change, it’s that it’s using predictive algorithms to scour both Public AND Private trees, to greatly narrow down where another DNA match is likely to fall in your tree. That’s right, those close relatives we see in our “DNA Matches” screens that are just dead ends because they have Private trees and don’t reply to Ancestry messages are now likely to be mapped in ThruLines.

Our first discovery

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“Lynne” is solid 3-4th cousin match (67cM) to Michael’s father, and through all of the techniques we’ve discussed previously, we’ve narrowed down that our MCRA is likely to be Wesley and Jane Tradewell. This is the same Tradewell line that is one of our large brickwalls, and so the more data we have for this branch the better. Lynne entered a small tree at some point, but she left all of her named ancestors living, so they appear “Private” and we have almost nothing to go on when trying to link her to our tree.

 

When we opened ThruLines for the first time, we understood right away that each of the photos we were seeing were MCRA’s, and clicking on Wesley Tradewell, we immediately understood the power of this tool. There was Lynne, mapped for us, with some information still private but it greatly narrowed down the line through which we matched. Knowing that she likely matches through William Humphry Tradewell removed 2 generations of likely matches, and narrowed down our search to children from William’s daughters. Even more powerful however is that we’re in regular contact with family who is likely Lynne’s 1st Cousin, Once Removed. We sent a quick email to that person, they confirmed Lynne’s lineage, and we’d filled in another DNA match. Actually, it was two, because we had the same issue with “Jonas667” (2 relative tree, both living/Private), and it was resolved in the same way.

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ThruLines leveraged Private trees and DNA tests to map out our connections to a MCRA, even though we can’t make a direct match. 

All of our efforts to shrub out William Humphry Tradewell’s children had failed up to this point (no census, no obituaries, no Public Trees, etc.), so we had only one daughter tentatively identified. It would have taken significant work to break down the matches to Lynne/Jonas667 by building out each of those trees, and since we’d already tried diligently and failed, it might never have been done. But ThruLines broke through on the first click.

 

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We now know where to search, to validate how “lynne” links to us

Now, this is cannot be stated more clearly: ThruLines are at best speculative “hints” that can guide your work in very effective new ways, but they do not create evidence nor can we be sure they even contain proof of anything. They are like user trees in that manner…and for good reason, they are built entirely on user trees.

 

We expect one day brickwalls will be broken down by these tools while we’re sound asleep.

But the way the tool narrowed down these matches makes it much easier to prove them out. We know exactly where to start now, where last week we were stumped.

African-American Research

ThruLines-7Half of our tree traces their roots to enslaved African ancestors, and the second discovery we made was that ThruLines would give us suggestions even if there were 2 generations separating supposed ancestors. In the example we saw as we clicked through Michael’s maternal grandmother’s MCRA’s showed us an African-American GGM that was born in 1879, and no evidence of who her parents were. This is very common…to get to/near the 1870 wall for those of African decent, but no good leads on the generation previous. In this case however, we have a new hint: two identified generations of European ancestors, and two unidentified generations after them, leading to a link to the known Fanny Johnson. This is a highly speculative connection, and it will take considerable work to prove/disprove it going forward, but it’s at least a lead and it’s based on at least a little bit of conjecture. It may not be anything, but it also could be one of those rare finds that links one of our African ancestors back a few generations closer to their enslavement, as well as identifying the slave owner that contributed to our genetic make up.

What’s next?

Going forward, this could literally revolutionize both genetic genealogy as well as standard genealogy. Artificial Intelligence and matching algorithms can not only see patterns much better than any human can, they can do it faster while analyzing more data than we can ever hope to review in our lifetimes. We can see that in the future, when a new AncestryDNA kit is processed and put online, the user will see a large tree of matches and MCRA’s as their first few of the results, instead of a list of 4000+ matches they have to map one at a time.

Also, imagine a day when they use these tools to validate evidence of each users’ Public tree for instance, looking for clearly incorrect data/relationships and flag it for users. At the very least they can rate that “source” tree as unreliable, and bring better sourced trees to the forefront. These tools could easily allow the power of individual trees, while also bring them all into line with known facts, and start matching them in ways we can’t imagine.

Going back to our Tradewell example, our brickwall is around Reuben Tradewell and the one piece of evidence that his father might be “Jakin” from Connecticut…but the trail goes cold. Tools like this, however, point to the power that’s coming where some other groups of genealogists and family historians have a mystery “Jakin/Jacob” from Connecticut that they have sourced generations back, but don’t know his disposition. We expect one day brickwalls will be broken down by these tools while we’re sound asleep.

Ancestry.com takes another step away from its genealogical roots…

Ancestry.com takes another step away from its genealogical roots…

We could see it coming…back in March of 2017, one of our first blog posts was about Ancestry.com’s new tool “We’re Related” (We’re Related app is a lot less frivolous than it first appears). It was a bit of a “hot take” about how it was less silly than it seemed and how it could be very powerful if it’s expanded to a tool that is predictive of your matches.

We’re Related is making suppositions based (apparently) on an algorithm that can draw the line between what you know, and what it guesses is true, to build a potential line for you. If this technology is ever leveraged against some of my brick walls instead a gimmick like linking me to Blake Shelton, Ancestry might really be on to something.

Before we take any victory laps…we have to admit, we were incredibly naive. We never guessed that Ancestry would take this powerful technology and use it to take it’s worst, most frustrating feature, and make it much more dangerous.

The new feature is the “Potential Father/Mother” suggestion, and I’m going to let Carolynn ni Lochlainn detail all the challenges of this new tool, and the risks, in her SPOT ON “From Paper to People” Podcast #27 (From Paper to People: What I Hate About New). Please listen, but her upshot is that this feature is an easy way for those new to genealogy to quickly build out their trees, and the tool forces you to create the ancestor without any sources attached.

One of the biggest drawbacks of Ancestry is the Public Trees that are so often inaccurate, and are often built solely on other people’s unsourced trees. Now, it’s a certainty that these trees are going to start to mushroom, and by design have NO citations attached to the new ancestor.

Ever wonder why Ancestry has delivered even more accurate admixture and even prettier graphs, but none of the tools needed to do serious genealogical research? It’s because there’s no additional revenue from genealogical tools.

The good news is that we as serious users can avoid the downfalls, and use the predictive part of this feature to do the research for us, but we must immediately attach the citations to any newly added ancestor. We, as a community, can also make sure we NEVER use a Member Tree to support a fact. You can link the Member Tree ancestor to yours, but make sure all facts are unselected before you link them. They will see your additional work, and you them, but you will not perpetuate their unsourced facts.

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But, Ancestry.com isn’t packed full of serious hobbyists/professionals and “Potential Parent” is going to take the problem of Member Trees and make it explode it beyond what we could have imagined. At some point, the tree feature in Ancestry is going to be unusable. Ancestry.com will continue to be a great source of primary research, but it will be nothing more than a data repository for those of us who are serious about this work.

And, back to our naivety…the most frustrating thing is that we should have known better. Again, going back to our vaults, we saw right away that AncestryDNA is here to support genealogy ONLY because it’s a good way to gather DNA tests (Dancing with the Devil: The Tradeoffs of Modern Genealogical Research). Once Ancestry realized that pushing pretty graphs and “ethnicity” was the best way to sell more tests, they pivoted and met their true goal with these tests: the largest DNA database that will generate a tremendous amount of revenue from drug companies, etc. who can leverage your tests to understand how their drugs might work. Ancestry now (or soon will) make more money from monetizing your DNA than it does from supporting our genealogical work.

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How did the public records “Reclaim the Records” paid to get show up here, for paid members only?

Ever wonder why Ancestry has delivered even more accurate admixture and even prettier graphs, but none of the tools needed to do serious genealogical research? It’s because there’s no additional revenue from genealogical tools, but putting more effort into the graphs will drive more people to test, which will grow the database, and grow the revenue stream.

As a community we have to get ready to accept that Ancestry is not a partner in our work, and is not in business to support us or our needs. They exist to generate revenue, and as long as that interest and ours intersect, we’re good, but as they make more money from other streams they are going to sacrifice our needs to focus on revenue. You’re already seeing that with things like “Potential Parents”, more admixture, and their new collections consisting of public records gathered at great expense by groups like Reclaim The Records and putting them behind the paywall.

The genealogy features of Ancestry are still there, for now, but the bad Member Trees we suffer through today are likely going to be remembered as the golden age of online genealogy research.