Wednesday, 24 February 2021

MyHeritage to be acquired by Francisco Partners


News broke today that MyHeritage is to be acquired by the private equity company Francisco Partners. This is likely to result in new investment in the company so that they can expand their market share. Hopefully genealogists will benefit from the investment and we will eventually see the introduction of lots of new features and products.

You can read more about the acquisition in this article from Business Wire.

There is additional information in this article from TechCrunch.

See also the official press release from MyHeritage.

I expect that we will learn more about the plans for MyHeritage at RootsTech Connect. MyHeritage have a number of talks planned for the show. You can find a full listing on the MyHeritage blog.

Update 13th April 2021
The acquisition was completed on 8th April 2021 following regulatory approval. For details see this blog post from MyHeritage.

RootsTech Connect – the pick of the talks and the final countdown

The clock is ticking away and the virtual doors of RootsTech Connect will soon be open. The Expo Hall goes live at midnight UK time on 24th February so I will have the opportunity to have a quick look around before bedtime. Many of the exhibitors might well have special offers for the show or will be announcing new product launches.

The main website is due to go live four hours later at 4.00 am UK time. I am a night owl but 4.00 am is a bit late even for me so I will be logging on somewhat later in the morning to have a look around. Depending on where you are in the world you might get a chance to check out the website before me. One of the joys of a virtual conference is that we are not restrained by timetables and we can pick and choose the most convenient times to participate. And of course all the content will be available online for the rest of the year.


Making connections will be a key component of the show. There will be a chance to chat online with the exhibitors and most of the presenters through the Connect Chat tool. Each class and all of the exhibitors will have their own dedicated chat rooms.

To get the best out of the event I would suggest making a note of all the speakers and exhibitors you want to connect with so you get a chance to chat during the show. Once the website goes live you will be able to make a playlist of all the talks you want to watch.

I've recorded two talks for RootsTech on "Genetic Genealogy Meets CSI" and "Secrets and Surprises: Uncovering Family History Mysteries Through DNA". Do come along and join me for a chat and I will respond as soon as I can depending on the time difference. 

The main stage sessions will be viewable without signing in but you will need to register and have a FamilySearch account to get the most out of the show. 

There seems to be some confusion about the registration process but I found that I could register through my FamilySearch account. Once you've registered, click on the bell icon for the notifications and your registration will be shown.


There are also seem to be lots of informal groups and chats being set up as people do their best to meet up with friends and try to recreate the experience of attending an event in person.

Debbie's pick of the talks
I've been having a look at the English class schedule which is available from this link on the RootsTech home page. Here are my top picks of the available talks.

DNA talks

These are the DNA talks which I am most looking forward to.

The AncestryDNA talk is intriguing and I wonder if this heralds the launch of a new Custom Groups feature for sorting and filtering our matches. [Update: This talk was in fact just a demonstration of how ThruLines works and how to use the coloured dots on the mobile app to make custom groups.]

There are lots of talks for those of you who are just getting started with DNA testing. Diahan Southard of Your DNA Guide is always an engaging and inspiring speaker. She has a good understanding of the science and has the gift of being able to explain complicated subjects in easy-to-understand language. Diahan has recorded a number of talks for Rootstech and I’m sure they will all be worth watching.

There are talks on the basics of Y-DNA testing from MauriceGleeson, Mags Gaulden and Vivs Laliberte. Janine Cloud from FamilyTreeDNA has a more advanced talk on the BigY test which I am sure will be worth watching. Michelle Leonard has recorded a talk on Understanding X-Chromosome DNA Matching. Ugo Perego has a talk on mitochondrial DNA as well as a talk on his personal genetic genealogy. Ugo used to work for the now defunct Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation so I am sure he will have some interesting insights to share. Look out too for Kitty Cooper's talk on "The Basics of Unknown Parentage Research Using DNA".

Surnames

Technology

English genealogy

Australia and New Zealand

Further reading
See my previous blog post RootsTech – a global family history show for further information about RootsTech Connect. 

Monday, 22 February 2021

Free upload to MyHeritageDNA from 21st to 28th February 2021

MyHeritage have a very special offer on this week. If you've tested at 23andMe, AncestryDNA, FamilyTreeDNA or Living DNA you can download your raw data and upload to the MyHeritage database to get free access to all the features which are normally only available after paying the upload fee of $29. This includes access to the new Genetic Groups feature. You can see my genetic groups in the screenshot below.


The MyHeritage "ethnicity" estimates have not yet been updated but we are expecting this feature to be revamped later this year. I suspect when that happens my 9.2% Italian ancestry will disappear

MyHeritage have a database of over 4.5 million people and have much better representation in continental Europe than any of the other companies, helped by the fact that they make their website available in many different languages. One of the most useful features at MyHeritage is the ability to filter matches by the countries where your matches live. You will find you get lots of very distant matches from many different countries which are probably not related in a genealogical timeframe but this feature allows you to search for matches in the countries where you do have known relatives. In my case I am primarily focusing on matches in the UK, Australia and New Zealand.


MyHeritage have written a blog post which you can access here with more details about this offer.

Answers to frequently asked questions about uploading data to MyHeritage can be found in their Help Centre.

You can also upload your data directly via this link.

The offer is only available until 28th February so if you've not yet transferred your data I would encourage you to take advantage of the offer while you have the chance.

Monday, 15 February 2021

Investigative genetic genealogy: current methods, knowledge and practice


I spent much of August and September last year collaborating on a big invited review paper on investigative genetic genealogy. I am very pleased to say that the paper successfully went through peer review and has now been published in the journal Forensic Science International: Genetics. The paper is free to read and you can access it via this link.

I worked on the paper with Chris Phillips from the Institute of Forensic Sciences at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain and Daniel Kling and Andreas Tillmar who work together at the National Board of Forensic Medicine in Link√∂ping, Sweden. Daniel also has an affiliation with the Department of Forensic Sciences at Oslo University Hospital in Norway. We very fortunate that Oslo University very kindly provided the funding to pay for the paper to be made available open access. It was a pleasure to collaborate with these researchers. We all had complementary knowledge and skills and we have produced a very comprehensive review of investigative genetic genealogy which also highlights areas where future research and validation are needed. The paper is written for an audience of forensic geneticists and is somewhat technical in places but I think much of it will also be of general interest to genetic genealogists.

2020 was a very productive year for me in terms of scientific publications. I collaborated in 2019 with my genetic genealogy friends John Cleary, Maurice Gleeson, Donna Rutherford and Michelle Leonard on a landmark study in collaboration with the forensic science company Eurofins which helped to validate the genealogical methodology used for investigative genetic genealogy. This paper was published in Forensic Science International: Genetics in the May 2020 issue. The cluster-based methods we used for this study are equally valid for family history research. The study was cited in a publication by the UK's Biometrics and Forensics Ethics Group which looked at the potential use of genetic genealogy techniques to assist with solving crimes in the UK.

I also collaborated last year with Gabrielle Samuel from Kings College London on two studies looking at the views of UK stakeholders about investigative genetic genealogy. We found that, although there was considerable support for its use, there were also many ethical concerns raised. While all participants stressed the need for appropriate consent there was less agreement on what the consent process should look like and we concluded that individual consent is not in any case a panacea and that there needs to be societal consent. 

The first of our two papers "The impact of investigative genetic genealogy: perceptions of UK professional and public stakeholders" was published in the September 2020 issue of Forensic Science International: Genetics.

The second paper "Problematising consent: searching genetic genealogy databases for law enforcement purposes" was published online in New Genetics and Society in November 2020.

The above three papers are not available open access. If you would like a copy and don't have institutional access please feel free to write to me.

Friday, 12 February 2021

Rootstech Connect 2021 – a global family history show


Rootstech, the world's largest family history show, will take place from 25th to 27th February. For the first time this year it is going online and will be completely free. This will be a truly global event with speakers from around the world and with talks in over 40 different languages. Over 250,000 people from 219 countries and territories have so far registered to attend. 

With the new online format, the talks will be done somewhat differently this year. There will be a main stage with talks from keynote speakers which will be streamed over the course of the three days in a pre-arranged schedule. In addition there are over 800 pre-recorded classes, the vast majority of which will be available online as soon as as the show opens, and you will be free to watch them at your leisure at any time of the day or night over the next year. Think of it as Netflix for genealogy. You will be able to pick and choose the content of interest and watch it at leisure from the comfort of your own home at a time that suits you with the added advantage that you do not have to pay a subscription.

Rootstech have followed the model of TED Talks and most of the presentations will be 20 minutes long, which is considered to be the optimum length for online presentations. There are some longer tutorials which have been divided up into 20-minute blocks. 

I am privileged to have been chosen as one of the speakers at Rootstech Connect and have recorded two presentations: "Genetic genealogy meets CSI" and "Secrets and surprises: uncovering family history mysteries through DNA". There will be an opportunity to chat with the speakers during the show. I'm not yet sure how this is going to work out but do come along and I will be happy to answer any questions arising from my talks. There will be moderators monitoring the chats who will alert us when we get a question.

The organisers have been working really hard behind the scenes to get everything ready for the event and to build the infrastructure for the website. The full schedule has not yet gone up on the website but they have shared with the speakers the schedule for the main stage and the English class catalogue and we've been given permission to share these.

Below is a copy of the schedule for the main stage. You can find biographies of the keynote speakers here

You can download a copy of the English class list from this link. (The pdf is now also available via a link on the RootsTech Connect home page.) These sessions are on demand which means that they can be watched any time throughout the conference or for the rest of the year. The vast majority of sessions will be available on the first day starting at a specific time. Here's a sneak preview of the start of the list.


There are lots of interesting classes which will cater for everyone whether you've been researching for many years or you are just starting your family history research. There are also lots of interesting DNA talks.

Lists of the classes in other languages should be available soon and I will share them here as soon as I have them.

There will also be an Expo Hall where you will have the opportunity to meet with the exhibitors via video or live chat.

If you've not yet registered for RootsTech you can sign up here.

RootsTech Connect promises to be a really exciting event. I can't wait to start watching all the wonderful talks.

Update 23rd February 2021
There are now 433,255 registrants signed up for RootsTech Connect from 235 countries and territories. For a sneak preview of the website check out this short video below from Jen Allen at RootsTech.

Update 24th February 2021

Check out my follow up blog post RootsTech Connect – the pick of the talks and the final countdown.

Also check out this detailed blog post from FamilySearch on Getting the most out of RootsTech Connect 2021

Further reading

Sunday, 7 February 2021

23andMe to merge with Richard Branson's company VG Acquisition Corp


It has been an interesting start to the year in the genetic genealogy world. In January came news of the merger of MyDNA with FamilyTreeDNA and Gene by Gene. Then we heard that Ancestry were abandoning their health test and that they had appointed a new CEO and a new Chairman of the Board, potentially signalling a change of a direction and a return to their core business of genealogy.

Now we have news that 23andMe has entered into a deal to merge with Richard Branson's company VG Acquisition Corp (VGAC). VGAC is what is known as a special acquisition company (SPAC), otherwise known as a blank cheque company, which is formed by groups of investors who have set up the company with the sole purpose of making acquisitions and to get them quoted on the stock exchange.

The deal values 23andMe at around $3.5 billion. The transaction is expected to be completed by the end of the second quarter of 2021. Once the transaction has been completed the new merged company will trade on the New York Stock Exchange under the name ME.

As a result of this move, the combined company will have access to a cash fund of around $900 million which will be used to invest in "key growth initiatives across 23andMe’s consumer health and therapeutics businesses".

What are the implications for genetic genealogy?
23andMe is now firmly positioning itself as a personalised healthcare and drug development company and it very much looks as though the investment money is going to be used to expand that side of the business rather than focus on genealogy. 23andMe shared an interesting slide deck from a presentation they gave to investors. The ancestry reports are to be used as the "mass entry point to building a revolutionary database". They will therefore need to ensure that these reports are regularly updated and presented in an appealing way.

From a personal perspective I don't think we will notice much difference. 23andMe has never been particularly useful for genealogy because about 90% of the database is in the US and I've never really had any useful matches at 23andMe. I have, however, found the health and trait reports interesting to read and the company provides some very useful educational material.

I'm hoping that with Richard Branson's involvement 23andMe might pay a bit more attention to their customers outside the US. In October 2020 they launched a new subscription service known as 23andMe+. The subscription costs a modest sum of $29 a year and provides access to pharmacogenetic reports, enhanced ancestry features and access to new reports and features, but is currently restricted to US residents.

We probably won't see any changes until the transaction has been completed but it will be interesting to see how the money gets spent and how the company develops in the next few years.

Further reading

Friday, 5 February 2021

Changes at the top at Ancestry

At the beginning of December 2020 it was announced that Margo Georgiadis, Ancestry's President and CEO, was planning to step down at the end of the year. Georgiadis joined the company in 2018 and presided over the launch of the short-lived AncestryHealth test in the US which was subsequently discontinued in January 2021. During her tenure the subscriber base expanded to 3.6 million and the AncestryDNA database grew to nearly 20 million people. 

At the end of January, Ancestry announced that Mark Thompson, the former Director General of the BBC, had been appointed as Chairman of the Board at Ancestry.  Here is the text of the press release from Ancestry:
LEHI, Utah and SAN FRANCISCO -- Jan. 29, 2021-- Ancestry®, the global leader in family history and consumer genomics, today announced the appointment of Mark Thompson as chairman of the board.

Thompson formerly served as President & CEO at The New York Times Company, where he led the 170-year-old brand’s transformation into the world's fastest-growing and most successful news digital subscription business. During his tenure, digital subscriptions grew nine-fold to over five million and the company's market cap increased nearly five times.

Thompson’s appointment at The New York Times Company followed an eight-year term as Director General (CEO and Editor-in-Chief) of the BBC. He is widely credited with expanding the BBC’s digital and global reach and overseeing development of the BBC iPlayer. He joined the BBC from Channel 4, where he was Chief Executive from 2002 to 2004.

“I'm honored to be named as Chairman of the Board for Ancestry and excited to support the next chapter in the company's success,” said Thompson. “Ancestry is already the world leader in its category but I believe it has the potential to grow much further. I’m looking forward to working with the board and management team to build the business through innovation, product enhancements and investment in records, technology and data science so that many more people around the world can embark on their own journeys of personal and family discovery."

David Kestnbaum, a Senior Managing Director at Blackstone, and Sachin Bavishi, a Managing Director at Blackstone, said “Mark’s long history of leadership, coupled with his successful track record in leading subscription and content businesses makes him an ideal Chairman. He brings a great deal of skill and strategic expertise to Ancestry. The company and the board look forward to working closely with him to accelerate Ancestry’s next phase of growth.”

Thompson was educated at Stonyhurst College and Merton College, Oxford.

This week, a few day's after the announcement of Thompson's appointment, Ancestry's Board of Directors announced that they had appointed Deborah Liu as their new Chief Executive Officer. Here is the text of the press release from Ancestry:

LEHI, Utah and SAN FRANCISCO -- February 2, 2021-- Ancestry®, the global leader in family history and consumer genomics, today announced that its Board of Directors has appointed Deborah (Deb) Liu as Chief Executive Officer and a member of the company’s Board of Directors, effective March 1.

Liu joins Ancestry from Facebook where she most recently created and led Facebook's Marketplace product group. Prior to Facebook, Liu held leadership roles at eBay and PayPal. Liu is actively involved in promoting diversity and women in technology and co-created the Women in Product​ nonprofit. She is also a member of the Board of Directors of Intuit Inc.

“It’s an honor to join Ancestry. I’m excited to help craft the company’s next chapter, accelerating growth in Family History subscriptions and AncestryDNA by bringing the product to more people around the world,” said Liu. “I have tremendous admiration for Ancestry’s rich history and powerful mission to empower journeys of personal discovery to enrich lives. Finding and sharing our family history and understanding the challenges and triumphs our ancestors faced helps u​s feel a greater sense of connection and belonging and ultimately realize our shared humanity.”

“Ancestry already leads the field in its category but still has the potential to attract many new customers and grow its business still further,” said Mark Thompson, chairman of Ancestry’s Board of Directors. “In the course of an extensive search, it became clear to all of us that Deb was the perfect next CEO of Ancestry. She has a proven track record of product innovation and deep experience in building global consumer technology platforms. She is an outstanding leader able to inspire and motivate teams to achieve their goals.”

David Kestnbaum, a Senior Managing Director at Blackstone, and Sachin Bavishi, a Managing Director at Blackstone, said: “Deb is a terrific leader with a very strong track record of driving innovation and growth, as well as building world-class product and technology platforms. We are excited about Ancestry’s future and look forward to partnering with Deb as she leads the company into its next phase of growth.”
What does this mean?
These moves would appear to signal a welcome change of direction for Ancestry and a return to their core genealogy market with the aim of increasing family history subscriptions around the world and expanding sales of the AncestryDNA test in the international market. Of all the DNA testing companies, Ancestry has the smallest presence in the global market and their test is only sold in just over 30 countries so there is plenty of room for growth.