Comment on Virtual Family Trees for Ancestry and the Internet

Even though it might seem extra work, I might log into another account, but rather than make me the manager, I leave them as owner and manager, and invite myself as a DNA collaborator, and invite myself to their tree as Editor. Life is long and the people you help should have some measure of independence. I ended up with about 200 DNA collaborations and 30 or so that I own for other people. They might not be interested or have time or able, but soon their close matches, children, grandchildren come. Then you are best to let them own and administer, and you remain as a DNA Collaborator, Tree Editor. I also ended up with a hundred trees I built for others and more than that that I edit. And the burden of sharing the trees and ownership back with the family is rather large.

Not sure if that makes sense to you. I am rather tired today. But just remaining a helper worked out best in the long run.

A related issue that became very clear – put all the DNA match trees in ONE tree. Don’t spread out your efforts. If Ancestry programmers would make one tiny change, it would not be a problem. But if you have the same ancestors in two trees, it is horrible to maintain. Manual copy and paste and clumsy “save to tree” and the re-adding every record. You can copy through Family Tree Maker that does not lose much.

What I recommend to the programmers at Ancestry is they allow virtual links between the public trees that allow it, and between any tree where a person gives “virtual linkage permission” a new concept.

Say a group gets together and build a fact page for a man, his wives and children in the 1700s. He will have a lot of descendants most likely. They all have to work their way back to him, and when they find their connection, they all have to copy him, and the kids and the records. I deliberately checked and there are “pathological” situations where people are copied tens of thousands of times – every descendant having to reproduce the same effort, everyone maintaining their own copy (almost always incomplete and often ill-structured).

So what could be done? A group makes a “completely open shared descendant and ancestor tree (roots AND branches)” for that person and the ones nearby. It is “virtual linkage allowed for everyone”. So any descendant, or anyone, who wants to add that person to their tree, they just do it. You know the “add person” dialogs? They let you create a new person, or “select someone in the tree”.

Now, just as you do when you link you DNA to a person in a tree, you select the Tree, the person and make them your ancestor – from the appropriate node in your tree. These are virtual trees. The nodes, the facts and information remain where they are. You just change and manage the links.

When Ancestry DNA robots go trace your DNA, they come to a node (a person) and that person has a TreeId and a PersonId. The program only needs to look it up and allow for the treeId to not be “your” treeId, but to be any where you have permission.  I would simply make that “any public node in any tree”, and be able to distinguish virtual (data in someone elses tree) from actual (in their tree) links.

There are very very good reasons this is needed. For new DNA matches, where the parent or a cousin or someone has already filled in all the tree, it is quicker and more convenient to simply find the tree that contains their parent, or add them to a tree, then link virtually to that tree.

If people want to work on trees, adding records and tracing out relationships and the usual things we older genealogists have done, let’s teach them. But not by making them copy (usually unsupported and with still clumsy tools) – give them a tree to start, and then let them explore more widely.

To be concrete. John is the son of Mary Jones Clifford. Mary filled in the whole tree, including a copy of John. If John makes his own tree, there are now two copies of John and he and Mary have to coordinate and duplicate all the records. Mary can invite John to her tree as Guest, can see living people” or “Editor (can see living people)”. John goes to his DNA, selects her tree and selects himself as John and links his DNA.

But, more elegantly, Mary gives him virtual permission. He goes to his DNA, he can see her tree, and (different than before, she does not have to let him “see living people)” but he can see himself.

That is DNA linking. But Mary and John’s father might have divorced and Mary does not keep up with the family on John’s fathers side. So John links to his mother in her tree, and he links to his father in his tree. He has ONLY himself and his virtual father and mother in his physical tree. But he see the complete virtual tree when he looks at his pedigree.

Breaking down what was probably a programming and database limitation from many decades ago, the whole of the human family tree, particularly for those deeper nodes where there are a LOT of descendants, is possible. Groups can collaborate on ONE copy of a Mayflower ancestor. NOT tens of thousands. (I came onto this by helping the Pilgrim Edward Doty Society put their 92,000 person first five generation descendant tree on Ancestry and teaching them about Ancestry DNA. Massive duplication among the tens of thousands of descendants on Ancestry. Massive waste. Horrible waste.

Anyway, Maybe you can ask Ancestry DNA to allow virtual trees. I have give up. It is rather sad to know something deeply, in exquisite detail and not be able to save time for others. Especially when millions of people are involved. I set up the Famine Early Warning System more than 30 years ago for USAID and the US State Department. I thought it was rather elegant. Set up a small group of people with the proper tools and databases and networks – to be able to track and intervene in famine anywhere on earth. Not every city, every group, every person having to find their own way. I want to do the same for Covid and tens of thousands of other things. But I have pretty much given up – greed, laziness, not knowing how – many things prevent large groups from making very simple changes to save massive duplication and waste.

Richard Collins, Director, The Internet Foundation

Richard K Collins

About: Richard K Collins

Director, The Internet Foundation Studying formation and optimized collaboration of global communities. Applying the Internet to solve global problems and build sustainable communities. Internet policies, standards and best practices.


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