Wednesday, 22 August 2012

My Ancestry autosomal DNA test Part 2: The matching process

This is the second of two articles reviewing my experiences with the new autosomal DNA test. I wrote yesterday about the consent forms for the AncestryDNA autosomal DNA test and the admixture component of the test. I'm now going to look at the matching process.

The Ancestry matches appear on your home page beneath your ethnicity percentages. There doesn't seem to be any way to hide the ethnicity percentages so you have to look at these every time you log into your account. The results can be sorted by relationship or by date with the most recent matches listed first. On the default setting I currently have 9 matches who are predicted with "95% confidence" to be fourth to sixth cousins and 36 matches who are predicted with "moderate confidence" to be fifth to eighth cousins. Ancestry caution that "'Distant cousin' matches (5th cousins or greater) have a lower degree of certainty compared to 3rd and 4th cousins. Even though there is a 50% (or less) chance that you are related, these matches are still good leads." The screenshot below shows the match menu sorted by date (click on the image to enlarge it). Your matches are identified by their Ancestry user name which sometimes will correspond with their real name but in many cases is nothing more than a nickname. Some accounts are administered by other relatives and this information is also provided. (I've blocked out the names on this screenshot for privacy reasons.) Unviewed matches are marked with a blue spot, and it is also possible to allocate a yellow star to your "favourite" matches. As can be seen, there is very little information provided about your matches in this view other than the predicted relationship and the number of relatives they have entered into their Ancestry tree. It is therefore necessary to review each match on an individual basis.
I've picked out one match at random to show how the process works. The sample screenshot below is for the page of one of my matches who is predicted to be a fifth to eighth cousin. (I've again blocked out all the identifying names.)
As can be seen Ancestry provides you with a very prominent "ethnicity comparison" at the top of the page. If the admixture results were accurate this would potentially be a useful tool but as my own percentages bear little resemblance to my documented ancestry it seems that this feature is not at present very helpful. Ironically this match of mine, despite having 100% Colonial American ancestry, predominantly from North and South Carolina, has a much higher percentage of "British" ancestry than I do! In addition to the ethnicity comparison you are also presented with a list of surnames, if any, that you share in common. In this particular case we share two very common surnames, Johnson and King, which are unlikely to be significant. You also have access to an outline of the person's family tree which lists the full names but provides no dates or locations. It's then necessary to click on the individual names for further details or to click on the button for the full tree which directs you to the tree as it appears on the website. The trees are nicely presented and if you are lucky enough to find a surname that also appears in your own tree it would be very easy to check the relationship. Ancestry also provide a very useful map and locations view. This allows you to see which geographical locations you have in common with your match and you can then zoom in on the area of interest. In this case most of my match's ancestors are in America, so for the screenshot below I have instead zoomed in on the British Isles. You can then click on a pin to see the details of the individual in question. The birth locations are also listed on the left-hand side of the page and you can expand the menu to see the details for the individual counties and the place name, if provided. The trees are all generated dynamically so the information presented is always up to date.
I find that the map and locations view is much easier to navigate than the family trees as I can see at a glance whether or not my matches have any ancestors from the British Isles. In this particular case my match only has a few known ancestors from the British Isles and for most of those she has very little information, often with no surname and no location more precise than the county. As so much of her ancestry is in Colonial America we could well be related on one of her Colonial American lines rather than on one of the lines she can document to the British Isles. In this situation it seems unlikely that we would ever be able to find the documentary proof of our genetic relationship.

I've now reviewed all of my 45 matches as far as possible. Not all of them have provided family trees. Some of my matches have locked trees and I have not yet contacted them to ask for access. As the Ancestry test has so far only been marketed and made available in America it is not surprising to find that all but one of my matches seem to be in America. My purpose in taking the test was really to see how the interface works. I wanted to be ready to offer an informed view in case the test is ever officially launched in the UK. I knew in advance that the database was effectively all-American and I was not really expecting to find any meaningful matches. Of the 45 matches that I've reviewed I've found one match with a lady who appears to be in Australia which looks reasonably promising. She has documented a number of her lines to various English counties and although we currently have no surnames in common there is a good chance that with a bit more time and effort we might be able to find a connection. The American matches are, as expected, not particularly useful. Many of them have no documented ancestry in the British Isles and those that do often only have very sketchy information such as the name of a county but no birthplace. Without a surname in common or a geographical location there is little hope of ever finding the documentary link. I have, however, been able to identify five further matches who have provided specific geographical information and where there might be some chance of finding a paper trail connection.

In addition to the matches shown in the default setting there is a slider that can be adjusted to let you see your "low confidence" and "very low confidence" distant cousins. When I set this to see all my "very low confidence" distant cousins I got eighteen pages of matches. There are about 50 matches on each page which means I have a total of 900 matches. There is no explanation given as to what constitutes a "low confidence" or "very low confidence" match. The Ancestry interface is in this respect much more difficult to work with than the corresponding match pages for FTDNA's Family Finder and 23andMe's Relative Finder feature. With both FTDNA and 23andMe you can scan your match list to search for surnames of interest without having to click on each person's profile. FTDNA and 23andMe both provide the ability to search the match list for surnames of interest and both companies allow you to download your match lists to make it easier to sort the data. With Ancestry I have to laboriously click on each person's tree in turn, and then go to the map locations view to see if they have any ancestry from the British Isles. There is no facility to download the match list. There seems little point in me trying to sort through all these extra matches in an attempt to locate the tiny minority who might have some documented ancestry from the British Isles, and especially so as there is no guarantee that the matches are genuine.

The Ancestry interface is very basic compared to Family Finder and Relative Finder. A very big drawback is that they do not provide the genetic data used for their relationship calculations. You are not told what percentage of DNA you share with your cousins or how many matching segments and markers (SNPs) you have in common. There is no chromosome browser to give you a visual display of the matching segments. You therefore have to rely on Ancestry's algorithms and you have no way of checking the validity of your results.The segment data is very important if you are in the fortunate position of having matches tied to a documented common ancestor as the segments can then be linked to that ancestor. The segment information is particularly important where the DNA results are ambiguous. CeCe Moore recently reported the case of an adoptee who received a confusing relationship prediction at Ancestry which could not be resolved because the genetic data was not provided. FTDNA and 23andMe both allow you to download your raw data. You can then use your data with the various free autosomal DNA tools such as GedMatch and the various admixture utilities. Ancestry do not currently allow their customers to download their data, though I understand that they have promised that they will eventually do so. As the Ancestry test is still in beta it might well be that they will eventually add  the other basic services that are already included as standard with Relative Finder and Family Finder.

It remains to be seen what Ancestry plan to do with their new autosomal DNA test and whether or not they will launch it properly it in the UK and elsewhere. The website seems to have been set up specifically to appeal to Americans with the strong focus on ethnicity predictions. This aspect of the test is less likely to be of interest to people in the UK. It is thought that there are now around 50,000 people in the Ancestry database, but with an all-American database there currently seems little incentive for any non-Americans to test with Ancestry unless they are trying to find connections in America. With such an in-built bias, if the test is officially launched elsewhere it's going to be very difficult for people to navigate their match lists as they are going to be swamped with matches in America and there is no easy way to filter out these matches. If you want to take a test to prove a particular scenario the Ancestry test is not very useful because Ancestry do not provide you with the genetic data. Co-ordinating multiple kits is also much more difficult with Ancestry because they do not provide any project management facilities. At Family Tree DNA you can organise Family Finder tests within surname projects or set up a dedicated Family Finder project. At 23andMe you can share genomes to compare results or you can add multiple relatives to your own account. The Ancestry trees are quite nicely presented but Ancestry trees are normally only available to subscribers so it would seem that if your Ancestry subscription lapses you would no longer have access to the family trees of your matches. At FTDNA and 23andMe once you've paid for your test you do not have to maintain a subscription in order to have continued access to your matches.

Ancestry do have the advantage of having a very large subscriber base. They announced in July this year that they now have over two million subscribers. If they do decide to make their autosomal test available to their entire subscriber database they could potentially draw in many people who would not previously have considered getting their DNA tested. The test is currently being sold as a loss leader at $99 to build up the Ancestry database but when the cost increases, as it inevitably will, I wonder how many people will be prepared to pay the true market value for what is currently an inferior service. It will be interesting to see what happens in the coming months.

© Debbie Kennett


Your Genetic Genealogist said...

Nice review Debbie! I hope you will be able to find a common ancestor with some of those matches.

Debbie Kennett said...

Thanks CeCe. I've only been able to make the paper trail connection with one person so far through my husband's Family Finder test, but I hope it will eventually be possible to join up a few more dots.