Technological Advances in Genealogy
Legacy Tree Genealogists’ Gretchen Jorgensen is a Research Teams Manager and specializes in genetic genealogy and DNA analysis. In this article, she discusses the impact of technology on genealogy with a particular focus on photographs, access to records, and DNA.
Technological advances impact many facets of modern life, and genealogy is no exception. What has been considered traditional genealogy is changing dramatically, and technological advances are helping family history work become easier and more accessible.
Photographs provide fond memories of ancestors no longer with us or of relatives not living nearby. They can also bring to life those ancestors we did not have the opportunity to meet personally. Unfortunately, old photos can decay over time if they weren’t printed on high-quality paper or stored correctly. Digital images are not a replacement for original prints, but they can provide a backup and enable easy sharing.
In February 2020, MyHeritage released their MyHeritage In Color™ feature, which colorizes black and white photos. This feature went viral, with over one million photos colorized in the first five days of availability. In the two years since, additional photo options have been added, including the ability to enhance, restore color, and animate photos. MyHeritage users that have a free basic plan may colorize up to ten photos and restore color on an additional ten, and subscription holders may modify an unlimited number of photos.
I enhanced a decades-old Polaroid picture of myself, shown below. The resulting image is considerably clearer, representing a noticeable improvement from the original smaller, poor-quality image. These results could be achieved with skilled use of photo editing software, but MyHeritage In Color™ requires no skill (or time!) at all.
While the ability to scan photographs with a desktop scanner has been available for years, advances have been made with apps for mobile phones. These apps may eliminate the need for a separate scanner and provide the ability to scan photographs that might otherwise be difficult to access with a traditional scanner, such as with photos hung on a wall or permanently attached to a bulky photo album.
Photomyne is one of many companies providing apps for iOS and Android that allows users to scan and enhance photographs and slides. During the 2022 RootsTech conference, Ancestry announced the inclusion of Photomyne technology in their mobile app, providing the ability to scan a photo and attach that photo to relevant ancestors in one’s family tree, all from a single app. At the time of this writing, Ancestry’s Photomyne features are mobile-only and are not available on their desktop application.
A series of technological advances have steadily increased access to genealogical records. Filming vital records onto microfilm or microfiche provides important backups of records and makes them accessible without the need to travel to an original location. Depending on copyright restrictions and a whole host of other factors, some filmed records are available for more widespread distribution, while others remain at a handful of repositories. Access to several locations is better than one, but not necessarily convenient for many genealogists.
In recent years, digitization of previously filmed records has occurred at a rapid rate. In 2021, FamilySearch completed the massive effort of digitizing its 2.4 million rolls of microfilm. FamilySearch now has over 14.3 billion searchable names and images, with many more unindexed images available. Ancestry and MyHeritage offer a similar number of records.
Those numbers are impressive, but they only scratch the surface of what is available online. Digitization projects are also underway for many countries and US states, along with more local efforts, such as libraries or historical societies digitizing their newspaper collections.
Entering your ancestor’s name into a Google search box will not uncover most of this data. Many of these repositories will eventually be indexed and keyword searchable, but in the meantime, digitized records can be accessed by understanding what resources are available for each region.
Most of these newly scanned records remained unindexed, requiring page-by-page searches of the data. Don’t get me wrong, scrolling through records in pajama pants is highly preferable to putting on clothes, scraping the ice off the windshield, driving someplace, and then fighting with the microfilm reader. The need for page-by-page searches will never be completely eliminated (and on-screen viewing doesn’t replicate the satisfaction of paging through an old, rare book), but technological advances have significantly increased the amount of information that can be accessed without travel.
By the time you’re reading this, the 1950 U.S. Census will have been released. A once-per-decade census release is an event highly anticipated by genealogists. In the early days after release, it’s fun to find your family members or even your favorite celebrity in the census through page-by-page searching of the area where they were known to live. That charm wears off pretty quickly, followed by an urge, or even desperation, for an index. Previous indexing efforts have involved thousands of individuals indexing as quickly as possible once the census was released by the government.
The 1950 U.S. Census will be largely indexed by computers, with a quality check by humans. The expectation is that indices will be available far more quickly than at any time in the past. Better yet, the indices will include more fields than were transcribed in prior efforts. This technology holds promise for indexing other collections as well.
Standard disclaimers apply, such as indices are not always correct (no matter how they were created), and the need for a detailed review of images will always be an important part of accurate genealogical research. The technological advances underway will help to make more records available to more people, which is good for individuals, and the field as a whole.
The addition of DNA in genealogical research has led to one technological breakthrough after another. A decade ago, two of the major autosomal DNA testing companies (Ancestry and MyHeritage) did not offer autosomal DNA at all, and the comprehensive SNP-based Y-DNA tests available used to cost more than they do today. My current AncestryDNA results contain nearly 15 times the number of fourth cousins and closer matches I had when I first tested in Fall 2015. At that time, shared matching had just been introduced in AncestryDNA, but the amount of shared centimorgans wasn’t yet displayed. We’ve come a long way! Back in the day, testers were clamoring for more matches, but as the databases grew quickly, the need for tools to manage a large amount of data became apparent.
The testing companies have delivered tools for grouping and sorting matches, and integration between family trees, records, and DNA results (MyHeritage DNA Theory of Family Relativity and AncestryDNA ThruLines). Testing sites have increased their filtering capacity, offering filters for the amount of shared DNA, family trees, ethnicity, and more.
Third-party offerings have sprouted up to offer additional features not provided by the testing companies. GEDmatch led the way with an advanced chromosome browser and the ability to compare results for testers whose original results were on different testing sites. Other tools have come along to provide automatic clustering (a visual representation of groups of related matches) tools. Genetic Affairs provides particularly flexible offerings in this regard, and is now built natively into GEDmatch and MyHeritageDNA, but also can cluster results from 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA, and on the Genetic Affairs website.
The suite of tools at DNA Painter continues to expand, with recent offerings including The Shared cM Investigator, which utilizes segment data from multiple siblings to estimate how much DNA their (untested) parent might have shared with a given DNA match. Analysis by humans plays a huge role in DNA-based genealogical research but having computers do the heavy lifting of categorizing like matches allows researchers to move forward more quickly in their research.
This is an exciting time in the field of genealogy. We have access to more data than ever before, with much more to come. It’s a fascinating paradox that a field focused on learning about the past can benefit so greatly from technological advances our ancestors couldn’t have imagined, and exciting to be able to combine time-honored methodologies with cutting-edge technology.
Legacy Tree Genealogists are experts who are trained to know where and how to look for your elusive ancestors. If cutting-edge technology is outside of your skillset, time, or interest, our researchers are always available to assist. Contact us today to request a free quote!
Sources “MyHeritage in Color™ Goes Viral: Over a Million Photos Already Colorized!,” MyHeritage Blog, https://blog.myheritage.com/2020/02/myheritage-in-color-goes-viral-over-a-million-photos-already-colorized/, accessed March 2022.
 “Color Restoration for Photos with MyHeritage In Color™,” MyHeritage Knowledge Base, https://education.myheritage.com/article/color-restoration-for-photos-with-myheritage-in-color/, accessed March 2022.
 “Apps by Photomyne,” Photomyne, https://photomyne.com/get-photomyne, accessed March 2022.
 “Ancestry® Integrates Photomyne’s Best-in-Class Technology to Help Mobile Customers Upload, Scan, Enhance and Share Family Photos,” ancestry Corporate, https://www.ancestry.com/corporate/newsroom/press-releases/ancestry-integrates-photomynes-best-class-technology-help-mobile-customers, accessed March 2022.
 “FamilySearch 2021 Genealogy Highlights,” FamilySearch,
https://www.familysearch.org/en/newsroom/familysearch-2021-genealogy-highlights, accessed March 2022.
 “Historical Records and Person Search,” Ancestry, https://www.ancestry.com/genealogy/records, accessed March 2022; and “MyHeritage Surpasses 1 Million Annual Subscribers,” MyHeritage Blog, https://blog.myheritage.com/2021/12/myheritage-surpasses-1-million-annual-subscribers/, accessed March 2022.
 “1950 U.S. Census,” Ancestry, https://www.ancestry.com/c/1950-census, accessed March 2022; and, “How Indexing the 1950 Census Will Be Different,” FamilySearch Blog, https://www.familysearch.org/en/blog/indexing-1950-census, accessed March 2022.
 “Autosomal DNA testing comparison chart,” International Society of Genetic Genealogy Wiki, https://isogg.org/wiki/Autosomal_DNA_testing_comparison_chart, accessed March 2022.