Thursday, December 27, 2018

Organizing DNA Matches

Some folks are just more organized than others. When it comes to our work space or our home, some of us like to keep some happy clutter...while others have a place for everything. And the more we get serious about our genealogical research, each one of us will have a different organizational style for our work.

Our genealogy will never be finished, nor will we probably ever find *every* record for any given person. And that's even more true when it comes to our DNA records. Each DNA match that we find is a new record of sorts, a new documentation that may serve to reinforce our paper research. So how do we properly organize all of these DNA matches that are forever growing in number?

In this post, I'm going to share one possible way that you can go about organizing your DNA matches, and some of the benefits of keeping your matches organized.

Organization brings clarity

When we first look at our DNA match list - be it on AncestryDNA, 23andme, MyHeritage, or FamilyTreeDNA - our first feeling might be anxiety. AH! SO MANY matches! Particularly for those with colonial American ancestry, it's common to have thousands of matches at an estimated fourth cousin or closer level. That can be overwhelming!

After we get past the shock of the fact that we're connected to thousands of people in our match lists, we need to get to some work to narrow down our connections. This means we need to organize ourselves somehow. But before I get to that, we should talk about the "why" of it all.

Organizing our DNA matches gives us clarity of vision. It makes sure that we know what we're looking at. When we first look at our DNA matches - without organization - it can be like standing at the edge of a vast forest of trees. What lies within? How do we get through? We have no idea from our vantage point. But...if we look from above - from a bird's eye view - we'll have a view that tells us the best way forward.

When we organize our DNA matches, we can make our match list more manageable and useful for us. Instead of being just a list of names, we'll see our list as a helpful tool for our genealogical research.

Getting organized

When we're surrounded by clutter, even sorting things out into piles can make all the world of difference! And when it comes to our DNA matches, that initial work can be done with the tools that our DNA testing companies give us.

With AncestryDNA, there are two tools which I first recommend everyone use: stars and notes. I recommend everyone start initially by determining which matches are on the paternal line and which are on the maternal line. Then choose which side you're going to star. After this, you can click on shared matches and star all of the closest matches that are shared with those other starred matches. It's not fool proof (you may match someone through both your mother and father) but for most folks it'll be a good place to start.

After you have most of your closest matches starred - or not starred - then you can add notes. I rely on these notes because they remind me of how a person matches the DNA test taker whose results I'm working on. Once I figure out how this person is connected, I also add them and their line into the tree associated with the DNA test. It will make your family tree grow pretty fast, but trust me it will pay off in the long run. It makes determining those more distant DNA matches so much easier!

With this first level of organization, you'll have starred matches and notes on all of your closest DNA matches. And, you'll also have all of your proven DNA connections as people within your family tree as well.

Charts?! Sheets?! Say it ain't so!

So far, everything I've shared with you is what I had been doing for the last few years. I thought to myself - self - you've done good! I thought this was enough to keep my DNA matches organized for the work I was doing. But then...I realized "good" wasn't enough! I want to do excellent work. So I need excellent organization. And one way to have excellent organization is to use charts.

I must admit up front that I do not keep charts and sheets for matches of every family line of my family. I actually only have begun this work on two of my lines. Why only two? Well, these are the lines that I'm most preoccupied with right now. I'm sure I'll do this for more, but for now this is serving to keep me organized and this has been paying off. So how do I organize my charts, and what do I use?

I'm a big believer in Google for my research. I use Google Docs for writing notes for myself and Google Sheets to make free spreadsheets. The huge perk is that they automatically save as I work. For Google Sheets, I am able to make charts that document the DNA connections for my matches. I use these sheets for family lines that I'm looking to get greater clarity in, or that I'm trying to prove or work further back past a brick wall. Since I have tested many family members and have access to some of our close and distant cousins, I can note in Google Sheets how closely each DNA match connects to each of these individuals.

How I use Google Sheets

In the first column in Google Sheets, I note the DNA match name and/or username. The next columns are for your DNA tests that you administer that you want to compare to this user's DNA. For example, when I'm looking at my Williams & Adams cousins Google Sheet, I compare each AncestryDNA user to my aunt, my father, two of my dad's second cousins, my third cousin, and two fourth cousins. You can certainly use this format even if you're only comparing each AncestryDNA user only to your DNA test results, but it gets increasingly helpful when you're comparing to multiple sets of results.

The next column I label "notes" and I use this to note how exactly this AncestryDNA user connects to the family line I'm researching. An example of one user's connection to my Adams family, I wrote, "William Adams & Mary Moore; William; Motier; William E; Linwood C; Linwood P" in the notes column. This shorthand represents this particular AncestryDNA user's descent from the ancestral couple I am studying. It also lets me know the line in my family tree to look at when I want to look at this match. It also shows me which children of my focus couple have given the most matches. This is particularly important in doing descendancy research with your DNA results

The last column I use to include a link to the AncestryDNA user's profile. From their profile page, I can contact them and I can also check back to see if they administer any other DNA test results. I can also look back to see if they've increased the information in their family tree. Also, I might want to compare this user to another person whose DNA results I now have access to.

In each row, I look at a different AncestryDNA user. In each column, I write the amount of DNA that these two people share. I get this number from the "i" symbol next to each match on AncestryDNA. For example, I might write "54.9 cM across 4 DNA segments." This is helpful because later I can look at my Google Sheets and see how large of a connection actually is between two individuals. It's much more specific than simply an estimated fourth cousin.

I use this format for two family lines I'm researching: the Stratton family and the Williams & Adams family from Powhatan County, Virginia. My Stratton Google Sheets form has - as of 27 Dec 2018 - 63 AncestryDNA test results organized and compared to four people. My Williams & Adams form has 49 individuals whose DNA is being compared to seven people.


Before I started making Google Sheets for focusing and organizing my research, I never thought too much about organization. Because I hadn't yet reaped the fruit of good organization. But now I have a visual to aid in my research. I have a resource for my DNA match list, and I don't have to go searching through the brambles of my match list anymore. 

This is only one small way that you can begin to organize your DNA matches. This is something that has helped me, but I'm sure there are countless different ways that you can organize your own matches. The important thing isn't how you organize, but that you do take the effort to tame your match list and to make it more manageable for you. So get to work, y'all!

Do you find your DNA match list too much to handle? How do you organize your DNA matches? How has organization helped to improve the quality of your genealogical research?

*Photo by Oscar Chevillard on Unsplash*

1 comment:

  1. I've recently discovered your blog (thank you, Randy Seaver!), and I'm finding information which is very helpful to me!

    I am surprised to see few 'comments' on your posts. In a way that is encouraging, since I rarely see comments on mine... :) I am certain that many people are benefiting from your work, even if they do not comment.

    Thank you for sharing your methods and results.


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