Thursday, March 9, 2017

It Keeps Ancestry’s Kendall Hulet Up At Nights -- #RootsTech

The Ancestry Insider and Kendall Hulet at RootsTech 2017I had a chance to speak with Ancestry’s Kendall Hulet at RootsTech 2017. Kendall has been with Ancestry since about 2003 and has risen to the position of senior vice president of product management.

I asked Kendall what keeps him up at nights. “Protecting people’s privacy and the security of their data,” he said. Ancestry is making massive investments in this area. He said it will probably always keep him up. He warned us as well. “Be super careful with your data because it is your DNA and you just need to be thoughtful about it.” Privacy is one reason Kendall gave for the lack of an AncestryDNA chromosome browser. (He warned that he would probably butcher technical information about DNA. I know less than he does, so please add comments to correct me. Anyway…) He said a chromosome browser exposes actual SNPs (“snips”) for your matches. Ancestry has to be really thoughtful about doing that. They have to decide if that makes sense. Ultimately, people’s privacy is more important than a chromosome browser, he said.

According to Kendall, another reason Ancestry doesn’t offer a chromosome browser is something called pileups. You share 50% of your DNA with a banana, so obviously you share a ton of DNA with other people. Kendall said some people are attempting to triangulate on places that are pileups where a lot of people match. “It’s not because they are really amazing matches; it’s actually just because you are humans or you both happen to be from the same rough area of the world,” he said. So while Ancestry has had extensive discussions internally about such tools, users may inadvertently focus on pileups and not know it. “You think it is telling you something interesting and it’s not,” he said. “You really have to know what you’re doing.”

Kendall said Ancestry offers two alternatives. He explained that since they have 3 million people in their database, they can analyze across millions of people to determine what are pileups and what are not. They then identify matches in common with you. When you view a DNA match, select Shared Matches to see a list of users who share SNPs with you and that DNA match. The other alternative is DNA Circles. Circles have diagrams showing matches between your matches.

[Below is an example from the Insider’s DNA. I share DNA with DF and our common ancestor, Julia Ann Hammer. Ancestry doesn’t disclose the particulars other than indicating we share 8.9 centimorgans on one DNA segment. You can see that DF and BJ do not match because there is no line between them. ]

An AncestryDNA circle indicates what triangulations exist among the ancestor's descendants.

The other thing that keeps Kendall up at nights is “somebody we don’t see coming, from a business perspective, with a disruptive approach to things.”

Kendall said that DNA could have been that thing, but Ancestry has successfully turned it into a “massive, positive thing.” They are poised to release Genetic Communities (see Tim Sullivan’s announcement). The feature shows migration patterns for groups of people at a much finer level than gross ethnic origins. “It is very rich in telling the story of these people and how you connect into them and how they’ve moved over time,” Kendall said. “I think it is going to be a game changer for DNA and family history.”

They hope to accomplish another game changer for the casual DNA test taker. Kendall said that while lists of matches are great for the family historian, Ancestry wants to make DNA more fun. A lot of people they talk to just want to see a bunch of photographs of cousins to see how much they look alike. “Ultimately, what we want to do is have a more social experience where people can connect to each other,” he said.

“If you could achieve great handwriting recognition, it’d be a game changer for the industry,” Kendall said. “That’s the kind of disruptive thing that could be crazy interesting.” [I know FamilySearch has said it would take 300 years to index their collection using human volunteers.] Kendall said that handwriting recognition would be incredible. “It’s the holy grail.”

Kendall said that if enough descendants of a deceased person were to take a DNA test, Ancestry may eventually be able to reconstruct a significant portion of that person’s DNA. That might tell you all sorts of interesting things, like eye color or if they suffered from male pattern baldness. “Who knows. Maybe you could try and figure out what they looked like,” he said. “That’s like crazy way out there.”


  1. Please inform Mr. Hulet that the other two major companies (23andMe and Family Tree DNA) do have chromosome browsers which is the only scientific way of matching. ALSO, MyHeritage and Living DNA have chromosome browsers in the works. If AncestryDNA would offer a browser, those of us who do presentations nationally and internationally on using DNA for genealogy would have to rank AncestryDNA as Number 1. That really isn't the case in our circles which is a major reason why GEDmatch exists. GEDmatch can be more difficult to learn than testers understanding a Chromosome Browswer. I and my cohorts have spoken directly and indirectly to high-level staff about having a Browser since Ancestry decided to chuck the Y samples and start with autosomal testing. When my cohorts and I speak we always indicate that AncestryDNA's method of matching isn't truly scientific as we cannot see the segments where we match each other.

    And regarding pile-ups. My cohorts and I teach people how to deal/not deal with them. It's not a difficult situation. We encourage testers to work with the largest cM (not total) in the beginning until they learn to locate HIRs (half-identical regions) which helps determine if the pile-up is IBS (Identical by State which is technically small inherited as they are passed on virtually unchanged for generations or some sequencing "noise") or IBD (Identical by Descent...i.e., inherited) Understanding what will work for one's genealogy isn't rocket science. If people can do quality genealogy, then they can understand this. There are many books, blogs, websites and FAQs that can help them.

    Frankly, I greatly question some of AncestryDNA's matches as they appear to go back as far as 8th Cousins on lines I know that are not endogamous (cousins marrying cousins). IF we could see the matching segments via a browser we could determine what is happening. If we could see the browser we could use those HIRs to help locate common ancestors on those who have very small pedigree charts posted...or even those who have none posted. In doing this we can help others find their missing genealogy.

    It's a shame AncestryDNA is afraid to join the 21st Century. It's a shame they cater to the simplest of researchers who must take their word for the matches. It is a GREAT shame that you think the public can't comprehend all this. They can and there are many resources to help them.

    I have heard many excuses from AncestryDNA since 2010, all the way from "our testers would never understand a chromosome browser" to the bogus privacy issues. Other companies offer a browser and Ancestry will be left in the dirt without it. Even a top level person told me privately that s/he would like to have a browswer. What a shame they are not educating the public on all this. It is not impossible to learn and if other companies offer a browser and deal with pile-ups without fear, why is Ancestry so afraid!

    1. The privacy issue are not bogus. Which is why 23andMe requires explicit sharing permissions.

    2. What's the worst case scenario, Dan? A whip smart researcher uses a chromosome browser to find out that I might have a 10% increased risk of high blood pressure? I'm willing to take my chances.

    3. Clearly those dismissing privacy are oblivious to efforts by the (now synonymous) health/insurance industry and employers to access an individual's DNA. Perhaps overzealous law enforcement officials seeking to be pro-active might get you thinking. I suppose the flip side of "youth is wasted on the young" is that life experience is wasted on us old, non movers/shakers who "just don't get technology/progress".

      Being new to genetic genealogy I've learned a great deal in the last 6 months while trying to find my birth parents. At age 63 I had spent years researching my as-raised families never knowing I was adopted. When my Ancestry DNA results never matched anyone in familiar families I knew something was wrong. My best match, a 1st Cousin, didn't match nor did any of my growing list of 4th to Distant matches.

      A year later at age 64 I got a half-sibling match who grew up far from any locations in my previous genealogic research that convinced me I needed to understand the DNA process so I could follow the "clues" it was throwing in my face. I did, and with the extra boost from a Y-DNA test I am confident I've found my birth father (deceased) and half-sister.

      Why did I write all of this? Because along the way to finding my father and maternal grandparents in 6 months using only Ancestry, I discovered what I believe to be the fruit of Ancestry's Underdog algorithm and evidence that it seems to work. I've found no shortage of opponents to Ancestry's "Timber" (usually with anecdotal examples of it's "failure"), but few who seem to have examined the "black box" phasing portion of their process. In my case it appears obvious how Underdog manifests itself and how Ancestry determines paternal/maternal DNA matches, but I will be the first to admit that as luck would have it I was blessed by two unusually close matches that were each on opposite sides of my family, and who appear to have only passed their DNA (as a couple) to me.

      Having said all that, yes an opt-in chromosome browser would have helped me and I need to make use of one in the near future as I confirm my relationships. But, I think that a function similar to DNA circles but only using DNA and displaying "Shared Match" circles might just as well suffice for the vacuum that now exists between Ancestry's current offering and those who offer a chromosome browser.

      I would be happy to explain my situation, methods, and suggestions in detail to anyone at Ancestry should they desire to contact me as member jd4x4.

  2. I feel AncestryDNA needs to adopt a Chromosome Browser.

  3. " Kendall said that while lists of matches are great for the family historian, Ancestry wants to make DNA more fun."

    Yeah. More fun. Like that app that invents relationships for people. Why do you even bother with documentation and research when an app and fun things with DNA can entertain you?

    1. LOL.... T, love your humor. They are like some genealogy software....just give you more ways to look at the same unscientific matches to keep you entertained and in believing those matches are always correct. It took me a long time (no doubt with some others help) to have them even state that the "shaky leaf" was only a HINT. At first they contended it was a correct match. I've seen so many bad pedigrees and links to a common name so far back that this idea of matching pedigrees is scary. Most of us would believe it is IBS for sure. Without the matching segments info, we will never be sure unless that match uploads to GEDmatch. AND..did you notice that they finally have thrown us a carrot after so many have asked for the segments. We now see how many total cMs on how many chromosomes. STILL can't help. People inherit differently...they know that. It was only a cheap carrot.

  4. I've been hoping Ancestry would give us a cH browser it is very much needed! In some area's like the Appalachian's its possible to connect to someone more than once, twice, sometimes I can find 5 or more Ggggrandparents and if you only match and have their tree its anyone's guess as to where or which part of the DNA you inherited came from. Please we need a browser and also better search engine for people and surnames. Thank you!

    1. You are so right Tim. Many Colonial families are endogamous, many people on islands, in Appalachia, etc. are as well. We can NEVER be sure of connections without triangulating and you can't do that unless you see the DNA segments you share. You need 3 or more people to triangulate. Ancestry doesn't care about that at all. They are out to sell their product in the form of a yearly subscription. It's all about money. IT is so very sad that people don't realize they are paying for a DNA service that will not be available to them if they do not subscribe in the future. AND...for only $19 anyone testing at AncestryDNA, 23andMe, and MyHeritage can add their DNA to Family Tree DNA. FTDNA is the only company that allows that.

      I speak to hundreds (sometimes thousands) of people yearly. I definitely let them know the pitfalls with the various companies. There are more pitfalls with AncestryDNA than any of the other major companies. What a shame they have the profits to do TV ads and support TV shows to put on some bogus advertising in order to get more membership into their DNA and their document side. It's all an advertising ploy on the unknowing public. You don't hear about the grumbling from the customers, but I often do.

      Thank you for speaking out. Too bad more people aren't.

  5. From my studying DNA matches and using the gedmatch utility to look at 2 people who match 3rd parties along with the FTDNA “in common with” utility it’s apparent that true genetic genealogy is not scientific or helpful without documenting matches on the same chromosome and the same location AND having the ability to find 3rd matches to determine whether they come from the paternal or maternal side.

    I cannot tell you how many times I have a match with someone and look at who else we both match and it has nothing to do with the current match lineage and may even be from the opposite side of my family. Trust me, my paternal and maternal lines could not be more different, either. It only makes you wonder how very true 7 degrees of separation are!

    To use DNA to prove your ancestors having a chromosome type browser or something that tells you chromosome and location isn’t just “a nice tool” it’s VITAL and necessary. The ONLY way is to find those 7 people that all match you AND each other on say Chromosome 1 from 135M to 148M and then laboriously go over their family trees to find that one magic person they all descend from.

    This type of work is contra the typical person who uses They don’t want to find their ancestors in records …they want to follow leaves and copy and paste what others have. I have spent the past 15 years trying to correct the Branson Family lineage which was for over 70 years leading back to Quakers in NJ when it should have been Baptists in Maryland primarily composed with abundance of errors and no where does this inaccurate information get further propagated daily than in with those leaves.

    Think about the effect of this. One person has a family tree leading back to Branson Quakers in New Jersey and they DNA match another with a tree saying the same. There you have it …the Bransons were Quakers in NJ…wrong.

    On another DNA subject I was one that uploaded for free my DNA ,my daughter’s and my 1/2 brother's to MyHeritage. We tested at FTDNA but 2 years apart. Like they do not tell you which chromosome and location the match was at. I have written them and told them that several times my daughter is matching someone that CLEARLY is from my side of the family but isn’t matching to me. Trying to help them figure out what glitch they have that is causing this. But since I haven’t bothered to upload her Dad’s DNA they just insist it must mean the match isn’t on my side. I have pointed out mutual matches I have with my brother and a 3rd party that I know because I can “see” them at FTDNA and at gedmatch but only he is receiving the match not me. Again it falls on deaf ears. Emily…I’ve even told them “you obviously don’t understand what I’m talking about ….escalate this” and not gotten better responses.

  6. Dear Kendall and others,
    A large percentage of's customers have tested at companies where a chromosome browser is part of the product feature or they have transferred their raw data files to GEDmatch where they can run comparisons. They obviously aren’t concerned about genetic privacy to the extent that you are. There are now over 500,000 people in GEDmatch and a majority of those people are customers who have transferred there data to GEDmatch because of the superior genetic research features that GEDmatch provides. At the very least, should allow its customers to opt in to having a chromosome browser. could explain the privacy issues as clearly as it feels the need to do so in the consent process. If someone discovers that they have a medically relevant SNP through usage of a chromosome browser, that would be a good thing. As a family practice doctor, I know that there are lots of people who have medically relevant SNPs that they aren’t aware of that they really need to know about. Among the most important of these are BRCA mutations that dramatically increase one’s risk of having breast or ovarian cancers. If you are a carrier for one of these mutations then you could inform another carrier who shares the same segment that they need to discuss this situation with their doctor. Has the DNA team at stopped to think about how many people haven’t found out that they are at risk for a serious medical mutation because doesn’t provide a chromosome browser? While may not want to get deeply involved in medical genetics like 23andMe has, shouldn’t be fearful of customers learning something about their medical risks from their DNA results.

    In terms of the pileups, that isn’t a reason for not providing a chromosome browser either. As the DNA team at well knows, large numbers of genetic genealogists are carefully reviewing their triangulated groups looking for shared ancestors, shared surnames, and shared ancestral locations. I can’t always find the genealogical connections due to the fact that the genealogical connections are often 300 years or more back in time, but the genealogical connections I find because I create triangulated groups continue to motivate me to focus on the triangulated groups for my relatives. In my experience, pileups aren’t all that common once you get over about 20 cMs or so. In the U. S., I am convinced that many pileups occur simply because there was a prolific colonial ancestor who left a lot of descendents. definitely does need to be worried about “somebody we don’t see coming, from a business perspective, with a disruptive approach to things.” Kendall, do you remember AltaVista? See The reason that Google supplanted AltaVista is because Google provided a better product. Customers will eventually gravitate to the companies that provide the best products. is quite fortunate that 23andMe, Family Tree DNA, and MyHeritage haven’t yet gotten to the point where they provide a superior product that fully integrates pedigree charts with autosomal DNA data. However, I predict that within the next 10 to 20 years one or more of these companies or possibly even GEDmatch will figure this out to the point where they significantly start cutting into's DNA sales if doesn’t start meeting the needs of its DNA customers better than it has at this time. Perhaps AncestryDNA can keep growing to the DNA team's satisfaction even without providing a chromosome browser or clustering people in triangulated groups, but I am virtually certain that would be absolutely smashing its competition if was providing a chromosome browser, clustering people in triangulated groups, and following many of the other suggestions that the serious genetic genealogists have been recommending for years.
    Tim Janzen

  7. I couldn't agree more with Tim Janzen and Sharon Penny. True genetic genealogy is not possible without a chromosome browser and Ancestry, at the very least, should allow people to "opt in" to the use of such a tool.

    Ancestry's push in the direction of "DNA light" for people who only want to test their DNA to be "with it" and be dazzled by all the matches they see, may pick up some market share; but with no chromosome browser for serious research, it will surely lose them the lion's share of those DNA testers who actually use DNA to a purpose.
    Best regards,
    Kathleen Newbill

  8. YES, an opt in chromosome browser is better than none. Many of us out here want and know how to use a browser. Just see the numbers in GEDmatch, as Tim mentioned. There are a huge number of genetic genealogists who teach people how to use a browser and to triangulate to prove an ancestral couple (sometimes a single person). After MyHeritage and Living DNA offer their intended browser, Ancestry will be the only major player without one. Such a shame. Obviously, other companies have solved their worries about privacy, etc. It's Ancestry's turn to come into the 21st Century. All this is not going away...we genetic genealogists guarantee it.

  9. I agree with everyone who is stating that a chromosome browser is the single most useful missing tool that Ancestry can and should provide in their product. I have 40 years of software development behind me, with 25 of that working with medical records which are much more tightly controlled than the raw DNA data here. I'm not sure I believe Ancestry's public statements because it is incredibly clear that the disruptive technology they claim they fear is the chromosome browser. And their competitors already have it. They have done a better job of selling due to their other features (record and tree databases), but their DNA product tools are clearly inferior. So when the other vendors catch up with the main Ancestry features AND provide a chromosome browser and its downstream companions, Ancestry's product will be instantly obsolete and they'll be deserted en masse by people who can transfer data, and new customers will go elsewhere.
    Others have commented on how many mistakes family researchers can make based on the incompleteness of the Ancestry DNA tools. I saw that happen in person tonight. I showed up in a DNA circle with 12 people and only one DNA match. I looked at the pedigrees of the non-matches and they indeed look like cousins. But I also know of five other cousins in the same lines who are clear DNA matches with me and with some of the people in the circle but they don't show the pedigree online far enough to be picked up as circle members. To complicate things, many of we cousins don't share just this one circle, we actually have common ancestry in six separate surname lines who intermarried like crazy in this one location in the early 1800s. The only way to puzzle out which type of match is in which segments and which actual family is to use a chromosome browser. So with the limited data Ancestry provides, upwards of 20 people will be out there drawing faulty conclusions because they're each looking at a different part of the elephant without being aware of that.
    Hiding the detail of the match data is hiding the whole reason DNA is a completely new and disruptive way of determining your ancestry and different cousinships. It's beyond me to understand how any major company can believe that leaving the disruptive features to your competitors is a viable business move. But business history is littered with cases where major companies were destroyed by ignoring change. I hope Ancestry wakes up before they're quoted in the business world as an example similar to Kodak who didn't think digital photography was a threat to their film business. Tom Gull

  10. Side comment on another post predicting that Ancestry will take heavy losses of DNA-related business within 10-20 years as other vendors supply the core record/tree. I think MyHeritage will be there in 2 years or less. I already hear about a lot of traffic being sent away from Ancestry and to FTDNA and recently to MyHeritage. The only advantage Ancestry has is the number of samples and they're not letting us take real advantage of that. Once MyHeritage releases a solid chromosome browser, I think it's the beginning of the downturn for Ancestry.