Friday, September 21, 2007

The Google Family Tree?

I came across an.... "interesting" article today on the Computerworld web site. Mike Elgan wrote an article titled Coming Soon: The Mother of All Genealogy Databases. It starts out like this:
I've always found genealogy boring. But it's about to get exciting, very
exciting, and for everybody.

Millions of people around the world spend hours tracing their "roots"
as far back as they can. I've always suspected that people are really searching
for self-identity. If they can learn their country of origin or discover descent
from someone famous, they might be able to think more highly of themselves. They
can, say, watch the Irish Day Parade with a new sense of entitlement.

He goes on to discuss the social networking site and, and then talks about genetic genealogy...
A team of computer scientists, mathematicians and biologists have come up with a computer algorithm that can trace the ancestry of thousands of people in a few
minutes based on a DNA sample, according to the September 2007 edition of the
journal PLoS Genetics. The researchers claim that their method is 99% accurate.
They plan to build a massive database of people and how they're related.

After giving a list/summary of the current state of genealogy research technology he then makes a prediction... "These various databases will be compiled by some company -- most likely Google -- into the Mother of All Genealogy Databases." For the sake of the article he refers to it as the "Google Family Tree".

Then he summarizes, with another list, all the wonderful things we'll be able to do... like "Track down every living relative. " and "Genetic family relationships could be combined with Linked-In-type social networking friendships or business relationships to render the most direct connection with anyone else ("Hey, you're the brother-in-law of my former boss's wife!"). "... all this, he suggests, by just signing in with one's gmail username.

Oh, and he thinks this is all going to happen within the next 10 years. Then boring old genealogy will be exciting to him.

Here's my thoughts on this. Mike is obviously a geek and not a genealogist or genea-geek (like some of us!). For a geek, he has a pretty good imagination. As a writer for a major technology web site, he's a poor researcher. I'm thinking we should all chip in and send him a copy of Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian by Elizabeth Shown Mills.

What do you think?


  1. Well, that would probably get the message across, but he might really find Evidence Explained a nice bedtime read -- all 885 pages! Of course, Evidence: Citation and Analysis for the Family Historian is quite a bit cheaper. He definitely needs to have his eyes opened.

  2. I think Mike misunderstands genealogists. We already have more cousins than we want or need. We've been doing genealogy long enough to realize that all of us are related to someone famous, infamous and unknown, and we don't need to know them.

    Mike's article reminds me a bit about the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant. He may understand databases, social networking and even genetics, but I doubt he had spent 5 minutes researching his own family tree.

    As far as Mike being a Geek--you may be right about that.


  3. Jasia,

    Interesting post! I just blogged today about that algorithm. Although I think that Mike might be on to something, I don't know if the type of database he envisions could or would or should ever come about. The privacy issues alone are very worrisome.

    Although, if you think about it, isn't this what DNA databases such as Ysearch are already doing? That is, in a way they are comparing everyone in the database and attempting to find a common ancestor. They just use DNA instead of traditional genealogical records. Who knows what the future may bring.

  4. After reading the full article, my take on it is that Mr. Elgan is simply providing a "what if" scenario. Given the changes that have occurred in online genealogy and DNA technology in the past ten years, these are the things that "could" happen in the future.

    With records being digitized at an incredible pace, Web 2.0 capabilities, new ways of making connections, and new technology coming into the online genealogy arena, who really knows what the future of genealogy will be?

    He also pointed out some of the "scarier" aspects involved with such a database including privacy and legal implications. If you look at it from a purely genealogical aspect, documentation, etc., it does seem pretty far-fetched and implausible, but step outside the box a bit. Do you remember just ten years ago when it was being touted that we would be able to sit at home in our jammies and do research on something called the internet? Ten years ago I said yeah, right! But look at what is happening now. It truly is amazing. So, who knows, maybe his predictions aren't so far-fetched after all. Sure wish I had a crystal ball so I could see what the future holds in store...