Wednesday, February 20, 2019

A Reader's Take on Problems - Part V: Why Is There No Chromosome Browser?

In response to Dear Are You Fixing These Problems? (posted 17 January 2019), I received 38 comments on the post, and several via email.  

One of the email correspondents was a person who has Ancestry and IT experience, and offered knowledge, experience and wisdom for users of, especially on the trees and the search engines.  The comments are detailed and ring true to me based on my experience (and that of others) working on  

A)  In this post, I want to concentrate on the question of why AncestryDNA does not have a chromosome browser.   I commented on it in point 8) in the Dear Are You Fixing These Problems? post).  My reader's response was:

The Chromosome Browser
I am not sure Ancestry will ever come around on this one. When they crunch the numbers, the estimates are that only 2-4% of users would actually use a Chromosome Browser. The costs of developing a Chromosome Browser, added to the costs of supporting the browser (lots more calls and emails to Member Services, which means more training and possibly more people), when weighed against the increase in the subscriber base or DNA subscriptions, the math doesn't work out.
The public statements around the Chromosome Browser have mirrored that - most people won't use it, it is of small overall value (to Ancestry), it is complex, and what Ancestry provides is so much better that you don't really need a Chromosome Browser.
The nail in the coffin, though, is privacy. Ancestry has clamped down on DNA test sharing in the past two years, requiring accounts for each test and much more explicit permissions to share results. Chromosome Browsers require DNA comparisons, which exposes them to potential privacy issues - people give their permission without understanding, and then freak out once something bad happens. Ancestry is the biggest target, and a perceived privacy problem could hurt them much more than the goodwill of having a Chromosome Browser would give them. Consider that Facebook, in its terms of service and API agreements allowed sharing of your friends information via its social graph. Even through users agreed to it, that decision - which lasted for only a few years - came back to bite them. Ancestry wants to avoid that, which is why I don't think you will ever see a Chromosome Browser.

B)  Randy's Notes and Comments:

If only 2% to 4% of all AncestryDNA testers actually would use a chromosome browser, that translates to 300,000 to 600,000 of their 15 million AncestryDNA testers.  But those 300,000 to 600,000 Ancestry users are probably year-over-year subscribers - and probably the devoted genealogists who want to learn as much as they can about their genetic genealogy and all of their genetic cousins who show up in their matches; folks like me and many of my readers.  

How is the AncestryDNA superior to other DNA testing services that do offer a chromosome browser?  In my opinion, it is superior only in the number of matches that have a genealogy tree.  In the early years, many AncestryDNA testers had an Ancestry Member Tree;  now, it seems that only about 10% have an Ancestry tree with more than 100 persons.  They might consider the Shared Ancestors feature to be superior to the competition, and it is, but there are very few Shared Ancestor matches for most of us - I have 318 out of 51,000 DNA matches (about 0.6%).  

Not having a chromosome browser has driven some AncestryDNA customers to download their raw DNA data and to upload it to GEDmatch or FamilyTreeDNA or MyHeritage, which do have a chromosome browser and other analysis tools.  The other test analyzers have benefited from Ancestry's decision.  So have the entrepreneurial third party DNA tool providers - like DNA Painter, Genetic Affairs, and others.  Good for them for providing tools that AncestryDNA won't provide.  

I think we all realize that this is not a zero sum game, and that competition makes every company better - there is more innovation and development of tools and techniques.

Concerning the privacy issue, I understand the uncertainty and the concern with the GDPR regulations in Europe.  

C)  See earlier posts on this general subject:

*  A Reader's Take on Problems - Part I - Ancestry Member Tree Indexing (posted 23 January 2019)

D)  My thanks to my informed and concerned reader for the background and experience as we have worked through my list of perceived problems.  I know that the revealed knowledge has helped many of my readers to better understand, and deal with, the perceived problems.  


Disclosure:  I have had a paid subscription to since 2000, and use the site every day.  I have received material considerations from in years past, but that does not affect my objectivity in writing about their products and services.

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Louis Kessler said...

I believe the computational and storage requirement of storing and using segment matches of 15 million people also weighs into the equation. Since they don't already maintain a database of segment matches, adding one now would be a huge effort.

Dan Ford said...

Thanks for this series. I'd add one more thing to Ancestry's product roadmap: I think they're going to focus on expanding personal genomics (traits) independent of genealogy. Look at all Ancestry's posted job openings, their limited investment in core search is clear: there's maintenance-level resourcing for performance and bugs, but few enhancements. Not the strategy I personally want, but I don't begrudge them for following the money.