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Ancestry.com, Amid Criticism, Will Make Array Data Available to AncestryDNA Customers

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Ancestry.com earlier this month announced plans to make the raw array data from its AncestryDNA autosomal DNA testing service available to users.

The company had faced criticism from a number of customers and industry observers in recent weeks for filtering the results of its genetic genealogy service, though a company spokesperson told BioArray News that Ancestry.com has always planned to make customers' raw array data downloadable.

Crista Cowan, a genealogist at Ancestry.com, wrote an Oct. 5 post on the company's blog about the company's plans to give customers access to their raw data by early 2013. "AncestryDNA believes that our customers have the right to their own genetic data," Cowan wrote in the post. She said that this additional feature will require "security enhancements to ensure its safety during every step of the process."

Ancestry.com's announcement was welcomed by customers, though some industry observers seemed cautious about the firm's ability to follow through on its pledge to make the raw array data available.

On The Legal Genealogist blog AncestryDNA customer Judy Russell said the decision was "the best news for genetic genealogy overall this month," and noted that, given "weeks and weeks of criticism" from numerous bloggers, including Russell, it was "good to see the company's affirmative response to this issue."

Razib Khan in his Gene Expression blog similarly credited his and others' criticism in influencing Ancestry.com's decision. "I suspect they realized that many of us who complained in the past were going to continue to complain constantly," Khan wrote. Khan also noted that Ancestry.com's competitors in the genetic genealogy market, such as 23andMe and Family Tree DNA, make raw array data results available to customers.

"Combined with the contrast with its competitors, like 23andMe, I assume they realized this just wasn't going to solve itself if they ignored it," Khan wrote.

But a company spokesperson this week described the situation differently.

"AncestryDNA's philosophy from the beginning has been that the customer owns their DNA and the data," the spokesperson said. "We do not typically communicate features we're working on before they are released, but we recently announced our future plans for raw data download in order to reassure our customers that have had this question."

Ancestry.com launched AncestryDNA in May (BAN 5/29/2012). The service uses the Illumina HumanOmniExpress BeadChip platform to assess each sample across 700,000 markers. Third-party laboratories process the arrays and deliver results to Ancestry.com for analysis, the firm said at the time. Ancestry.com rival Family Tree DNA also uses the HumanOmniExpress in its autosomal DNA testing service.

When Ancestry.com launched the beta version of AncestryDNA, it included "basic features" to support customers' ability to find distant cousins or trace their deep ancestry, said the spokesperson. As the ability to download raw data has been requested by "only a very small percentage of customers," the company focused instead on features requested by "large groups of customers," the spokesperson said.

Though feedback and surveys have confirmed that demand for access to raw data is "small," the Ancestry.com spokesperson said that the company does plan to support this community by making the data downloadable, beginning next year.

'The Right Thing to Do'

Though the spokesperson said that the raw data access feature will serve only a small percentage of customers, Khan told BioArray News that regardless of how many clients request it, "your data should be yours" and said that making it available to those customers is "the right thing to do."

"Few customers care; I'm sure their market research showed that," Khan said. "The problem is that a small minority of very motivated and vocal customers, who are influencers, do care."

For Khan, the question is not why the raw data should be made available, but how it can be used.

"For various technical and computational reasons these firms that analyze your data won't present all the analytics you might like," Khan said, adding that some customers rely on third-party software tools, such as Promethease, GEDMatch, and OpenSNP, to "squeeze a lot more juice" out of their data.

"You might like to put your data through the latest algorithm," for example, or "check for inbreeding, which a lot of these services don't seem to be doing, probably for public relations reasons," Khan said.

Indeed, on The Legal Genealogist blog, Russell wrote that there is "only so much you can do with a system that's built around matching family trees that people have uploaded," and argued that by having access to the raw results of her test, she could upload it to third-party utility sites, such as GEDMatch, and "get much more benefit out of having tested my autosomal DNA."

Ultimately, the "data does not depreciate," said Khan. "It only gains value as more research is done and more methods are developed." Without access to one's raw data, "you are not getting that value," he said.

Making the data available, though, requires Ancestry.com to maintain the privacy and security of customers' genetic data, said the spokesperson. He said that the new feature will include "multiple levels of security" for users, including a separation of personal information and primary genotype data by creating an "additional layer of security" for raw data downloaded beyond Ancestry.com login credentials.

Khan noted that he intends to hold the company to its scheduled early 2013 launch for the feature.

"If they don't hit the mark on rolling out this feature, I think they're lying and being insincere," he said.

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