“It’s a really exciting time to be in the family history business,” said Scott Sorensen at the opening keynote of the RootsTech Innovator’s Summit. “We’re all working on a piece of the same puzzle,” he said. “It’s the same with technology.” Sorensen is the chief technology officer (CTO) at Ancestry.com where he directs 400 engineers. He gave a short presentation prior to the main speaker.
He’s been at Ancestry.com for 13 years. In that time, he’s seen a lot of changes. That’s back when the website looked like this:
Sorensen talked about three technologies.
1. Mobile platforms. Sorensen said when he started at Ancestry.com he owned a flip phone. Today, with smart phones and family history apps he can do his family history anywhere. A lot of family history opportunities are location-specific. When at your aunt’s house, you want to access your genealogy and capture documents she has.
2. Handwriting recognition. When Sorensen started at Ancestry.com, speech recognition was where handwriting recognition is now. Last summer Ancestry.com sponsored a competition at the 13th International Conference on Document Analysis and Recognition. (See “Competition as Collaboration – Ancestry.com Handwriting Recognition Competition .”) They are hoping to do it again this year.
Basic algorithms are working, but the developers are working out edge cases.
3. DNA Science. When Sorensen started at Ancestry.com, it cost a couple of million dollars to sequence a person’s complete genome. (Wow! Did I write that down right? I’m pretty sure I did.) Today it can be done in less than a thousand dollars.
Ancestry.com is innovating in the DNA space, but that has required deliberate effort. Ancestry.com has grown to have 1,400 employees around the world. Large companies have a hard time innovating like small companies do. They separated the team so they could act like a startup. They were unconstrained. They had lots of early interaction with real customers.
The result is something Ancestry.com calls DNA Circles. DNA Circles find groups of people with common DNA and a common ancestor, as shown by their Ancestry Member Trees. This group is called a DNA Circle. Ancestry.com can then place people that share that same DNA into the circle, even if they don’t have a tree or haven’t previously done any genealogy. This can quickly connect a customer with a wealth of stories, photos, and records.
I’m going to skip reporting on the main speaker to give me more time to write about Ancestry.com and FamilySearch. (Sorry, Nathan.) His presentation was titled “How to Apply the Innovator’s Method to Increase Your Success and Decrease Your Risk.” I think his presentation was based on his book, so if you’re really interested see The Innovator’s Method (Harvard Business Review Press, September 2014).
By the way, the guy who introduced Scott (sorry, I didn’t catch your name) mentioned something interesting: Google Genomics. For more information, see https://cloud.google.com/genomics/.