I Get By With a Little Help From My Cousins . . . Or, Why am I asking my DNA matches to upload to gedmatch.com?
Despite the proliferation of DNA testing in the U.S., most testers don’t do more with their results than read their ethnicity estimate and go on with their life, IMHO. Those who are genuinely interested in building their family trees might look at their matches’ trees (if they have them) and perhaps initiate contact to corroborate. Then there are the diehards, like myself, who take it a step further and ask their DNA matches to download their raw data from ancestry.com and upload it to a 3rd party website with a chromosome browser. And, sadly, that’s where I lose most of them.
You want me to do what?
Even some of those who are adventurous enough to give it a whirl may balk at ancestry.com’s warning before downloading and write to me to clarify my request. Before you can download your data, you must check “I understand that after my DNA data is downloaded, the downloaded copy will not be protected by AncestryDNA’s security measures. When I download my raw DNA data, I assume all risk of storing, securing, and protecting my downloaded data.” I have likened this to a car dealership telling you that while your new car is parked on their lot, it is protected by their security measures, but when you drive it home, they can not protect it anymore. I think all of us understand the implications of this “loss of protection” but realize our car is not doing us any good sitting on the lot.
Unfortunately, that's how I feel about many matches at ancestry.com: it's nice to know they're there, but they're not doing me a lot of good at this point. That's why I'm asking you to move that data to a site that does have the necessary tools for analysis. Genetic genealogy is a burgeoning emerging field with a lot of moving parts. Advanced tools at gedmatch.com allow me to see exactly which segments you match with my subject and triangulate those with other matching segments in the effort to determine the MRCA (most recent common ancestor). This is the first step in continuing to build this branch of the family tree, perhaps beyond what can be established with the paper trail. In many cases, even if you have no family tree, when I can see that your segment(s) overlap other matches with known shared ancestors, I can predict which families you might share with my client. That really blows people's minds when I can send a "cold call" email to someone with NO identifying information attached to their kit and say, "Based on our overlapping segments, I'm wondering if you come from the Reeds of Clearfield, PA, in the mid 1800s?" Those are the matches I hear back from immediately. The closer you come to information that is readily identifiable to them, especially in your subject heading, the more likely they are to engage with you.
Most of the matches I write do not understand how any of this works or care, for that matter. And that's ok. This doesn't happen to be their obsession like it is mine. Since I may only have 1 shot at capturing their attention and making my case to upload to gedmatch.com, I've tried to simplify my message. This is what I include in my message:
Hi, (username)! I'm writing on behalf of my client (insert name). You share DNA thru (insert ancestral couple's name here, if known). He comes from (insert the child of this couple from whom the match descends)'s brother/sister, (insert the child of the couple from whom my client descends). I’ve been working on building out branches where the paper trails die out by triangulating matching DNA segments and mapping them to specific ancestors. I am a professional genealogist, but I can't figure out where this match is without a chromosome browser. AncestryDNA results only tell us that you share DNA, but not where that is on the chromosomes. Gedmatch.com is a free website that allows uploads of your raw data file from ancestrydna, so that you can match with people who have tested w/ other companies and use their chromosome browsers and other tools to find your most recent common ancestor.
Your DNA raw data belongs to you and you have the right to analyze it however and wherever you see fit. If ancestry.com does not have the proper tools you need (most notably a chromosome browser), it makes sense to upload your data to a website that does have those tools, right? You could, if money is no object to you, take additional DNA tests at each of the companies, and there is some merit to that if you’re analyzing your most distant matches. However, for the majority of us, uploading your ancestry data is acceptable.
I'd love to hear from you in the comments below if you have any feedback or if there is anything I could clarify for you. Thanks for stopping by!
Next Up: What’s a chromosome browser and why do I care?
This is an example of a one-to-one comparison between 2 DNA tests originally processed by ancestry.com and uploaded to gedmatch.com. As you can see, this does not open a secret portal into your home for anyone to spy on you. It simply shows which segments of which chromosomes are matched between two people. More on how we use that information in the next blog post.