New Ancestry Composition Tool at 23andMe
On Thursday evening, December 6th 2012, 23andMe released an eagerly awaited new ethnicity calculator called AP2 during its beta phase, for Ancestry Painting version 2. It’s currently listed as “Ancestry Composition” on the left hand side of your screen under the “My Ancestry” heading. I’m not ready to totally evaluate this tool, and may not be for quite some time. It’s been really exiting exploring it so far, and there are some interesting potential ‘revelations’ in the breakdowns. After waiting for a year, their European customers are happily digging away trying to make sense of the DNA segments that make them who they are. African-American and Asian customers won’t be as excited about this update but 23andMe is working on breakdowns for those regions of the world and the new tool’s design is easily adapted for future improvements. That’s great news for all customers.
The first thing you’ll notice at their “Standard Estimate” of where your DNA is from at the “Sub regional Resolution” is that you have to click on these rings to get finer resolution and that when you click on them the map ‘zooms’ to the area of the world that segment represents. This feature isn’t very informative even at the “Speculative Estimate” setting and honestly was a waste of programing time IMHO. I’d have been more impressed if it actually gave you a list of countries covered by each segment. And here lies my suggestion for where they can make easy improvements in the tool. I’m just going to cover the map view here. If I have time, I’ll have a post on the “Chromosome View” soon.
Ancestry Composition Tool Improvement Suggestions
As you can see from the above picture, clicking on “Nonspecific Northern European” isn’t really informative. We have a clear view of Italy, Span and Russia — which I don’t believe they intend to include with “Nonspecific Northern” –among other confusing issues. This feature just isn’t that useful. What people want to know is, “What countries are covered by the term “Nonspecific Northern European” in the Ancestry Composition?” Perhaps rather than have a cutsie tool that zooms around, they could replace the map view with a tool that had an individual picture for each region that you could highlight by clicking on a category on the left — perhaps with some surrounding countries not included in the region in question — greyed out. If they used the example below, at least I could easily tell exactly what region they consider “Nonspecific Northern European.”
Where Are Those Segments From?
There are other improvements needed though. Why isn’t there a list of specific countries that each region covers? It’s fine to say ‘French and German’ since those two countries are hard to separate through DNA analysis, but what countries does that include? Let’s look at the map view of French and German below:
The first issue with this is trying to figure out which color blue is the same from the key to the map. It’s a really ‘cute’ organized idea to do a million shades of the same color for ‘similar’ regions but it’s darn hard to read that way and certainly not worth the cuteness factor. It’s organized without being useful. Aside from the general color issue is that, again, the map view isn’t really focused enough to easily define the “French and German” region. What would be more useful would be a more focused view such as below:
Here, I can at least be certain which area I’m supposed to be looking at. The other problem though is, I really am only slightly interested in a clunky view of the region that the DNA segment is from — displayed on a rough map. What I really want to know is, “What countries might that DNA segment come from?” I am not a geography wiz. I need lots more help than this rough map to get a feeling for where that DNA segment might have originated. If they aren’t going to put country outlines with names on the map, I need a list of countries each region covers. Can I get one from 23andMe?
Drilling for Information
It turns out, the answer is a very qualified ‘sort of.’ What I can get from 23andMe is a list of countries of origin listed by their customers that were used in the research. Or more accurately, the country that their customers indicated their four grandparents were from, It’s not easy, but you can get there by clicking on that little “i” Information Button that appears on the right of some of the regions when you highlight them. Unfortunately, a single click isn’t even enough to bring up that list. You have to drill down even further.
When you click “Show Details”, you then get a breakdown by country of the populations used in the research — as reported by their customers — or in some cases through standard genetic population studies that were done previously by researchers and which are generally available for public use — such as HGDP.
So even though I had to dig, the information I need is there… or is it? Well as it turns out, that answer is no. You see, those populations are representing more than the countries of origin of someone’s grandparents. They are also representing other nearby countries. In the case of French/German it’s covering Belgium, The Netherlands, and Switzerland, but what about Austria, Lichtenstein, Luxembourg and the Czech Republic? My geography isn’t that great and even if looking at a Google map compared to 23andMe’s map — I don’t know. I’m fairly sure Luxembourg, which I located just below The Netherlands on Google Maps is included, but for the rest, I’m really unsure. I just shouldn’t have to be that great at geography to find out where Lichtenstein sits and try to eyeball whether it is Northern, Southern or Eastern Europe. I don’t want to ‘discover’ this kind of stuff, I want 23andMe to tell me, exactly, what they mean by those categories on the page where I’m looking at the maps.
If I poke around and go to each “i” Information Button and make a list, I can then see if one of these countries are listed as either Southern Europe or Eastern Europe. In many cases, I find that they aren’t listed under ANY heading. I’ll be frank, why should I have to do all this poking around to find information? Instead of focusing on ‘cute’ presentations, why doesn’t 23andMe just put the list of countries covered under each European country right at the bottom of the page neatly organized in columns and of a readable size? If they insist, they could even put them all in the not-very-helpful shade of blue that they chose for them.
Here is a list of countries with populations used in the analysis in each European region. I got the list by drilling down on all the ‘Nonspecific X European” segments though the “i” Information Buttons:
That leaves a list of 29 mystery countries that lie in Europe and about which we have no knowledge of where they might fall in our DNA segments. Even if 23andMe doesn’t want to assign them to a speculative country, shouldn’t they at least be listed in a region? Or if not, could 23andMe offer an explanation for each country and where it might show up and why they don’t want to assign it to a localized region or nonspecific region? I realize these are smaller countries, but I was always taught that it was better and certainly more efficient for one person (or team) to spend a bit of extra time getting information together for everyone else, than for each individual that’s wondering to have to dig around and try to root it out themselves. This is a failing seen in many of 23andMe’s tools, including their ongoing refusal to combine Ancestry Finder and Relative Finder information into one spreadsheet. It’s fine to still offer a separate spreadsheet for AF so we can continue getting our matches info, but all the info should come with our Relative Finder download. Sorry for the digression, but this is a pattern that’s problematic throughout the site.
I don’t want to sound like a grouch. The new Ancestry Composition is fascinating and a lot of work went into it, but presentation matters. First, any tool or interface should be functional with as much information as is reasonably to be expected on the page in question and not in some drill down of easily ignored buttons. Then, appearance should be taken into account, and only thirdly ‘interactivity’ tools like clicking the circles around the map icon. I’m fairly sure there aren’t very many 14-year-old customers that want to play with clicking around on the screen. We’re adults that want easy access to information and help files.
Stay tuned for my assessment of the chromosome view and my suggestions for improvement there! If you have other suggestions, please feel free to leave them in a comment.
Credits: All screen shots were taken from the 23andMe website. No affiliation is implied and all copyrights remain with them.