10 tips to trial a tool

Every January I spend a little time brainstorming my genealogy goals for the New Year. Genetic genealogy is such a fast-evolving field—exploring new tools will probably always be a worthwhile addition to my annual To-Do List. It’s certainly on my radar for 2019. But I haven’t decided which tool to try next. Why not?

There are so many factors to consider! Here are ten tips to consider when choosing a tool to try.


  1. Do I have what I need to use it?
  2. What does it cost?
  3. How easy is it to learn and use?
  4. How much time does it take?
  5. What resources are there to help me?
  6. Does it work reliably, or are there frequent hiccups?
  7. Any privacy concerns? (Do I need to give it my passwords? Does it store data on my drive or on the web? Do I care?)
  8. Can I accomplish the same results another way?
  9. How much fun is it?
  10. And perhaps most important, how will it add value to my genealogy?  I want to understand what it can and can’t do for me before I commit a lot of time (or money) to it. For example, the Lazarus tool on GEDmatch was fun to play with. No regrets. But to be honest, I never use the results.

As an example, I’ll walk through one of the tools I pledged to work on in 2018: Steven Fox’s Visual Phasing Spreadsheet.


What is Visual Phasing (VP)?

The ISOGG wiki defines Visual Phasing as “a methodology for assigning segments to specific grandparents based on the crossover points of three siblings. This technique can be employed when parents are not available for testing. The methodology was developed by ISOGG member Kathy Johnston.”

After Visual Phasing, Image 1 shows what my chromosome map looks like. Dad passed down to me the yellow DNA segments from Nana, and green from Granddad. Mom passed down the pink segments from Grandma, and blue from Grandpa.

Image 1.

DNA Painter Profile for Ann's VP

If Visual Phasing is new to you, check out the ISOGG Wiki, “Visual Phasing” page (https://isogg.org/wiki/Visual_phasing) and explore the links to related blog posts.

I used Steven Fox’s Visual Phasing (VP) Spreadsheet to map my chromosome segments to my grandparents. Let’s look at the ten criteria I considered before trying that tool.

1. Do I have what I need to use it?

  • Ideally, for VP you need a set of three (or more) siblings who have taken autosomal DNA tests and have given their permission for the raw data to be uploaded to GEDmatch. (It can be approached with other combinations of testers, such as two siblings and close cousins, but it’s a great deal more difficult and may result in only partial success. At this time, kits uploaded directly to GEDmatch Genesis aren’t supported but that should be resolved soon.)
  • Also, the VP User Guide states that “you will need to have a licensed version of Microsoft Excel 2010 or later. You will also need to have a reasonable skill level using Excel. Unfortunately, the Mac version of Excel and Office 365 do NOT support the automation functionality within the spreadsheet. If you have Office 365 you will need to install a full local copy on the PC you plan to use.” I was able to make some progress with Excel 2007, but to be safe, I did most of my work on a public library computer that has a later version of Excel, and I stored the spreadsheet on a thumb drive that I would carry back and forth.
  • For this tool, the more matches you have between a first cousin once removed and, say, a third cousin, where you have identified the common ancestors, the easier it will be.

2. What does it cost?

There is no charge to try it! However, when you start it up, you are given an option to make a donation to the developer. Which I was quite happy to do!

3. How easy is it to learn and use?

Visual Phasing is NOT easy. I definitely recommend reading all the resources you can on the tool. (See next item.) It also helps to set aside a big chunk of time to play with it the first time, and come back to it often enough that you remember how to use it. I started playing with Visual Phasing almost three years ago, when Kathy Johnston led a discussion about it on the DNA-Newbie yahoo group, using Power Point to map chromosomes as there was no more sophisticated tool available then. Doing it manually like that first probably helped me to understand the concepts, but I made a lot more progress once Steven Fox’s tool was released.

If you’re considering a new tool, find a resource (like a Facebook users group for that tool), and you can get an idea by following discussions there how challenging it may be. Maybe there are some educational prerequisites that would ease your way. For example, to do Visual Phasing, you should already understand chromosome mapping very well. Perhaps some genetic networks tools will be easier to use if you’re familiar with the Leeds methodology.

4. What resources are there to help me?

For VP, you need to start by joining the Visual Phasing Working Group Facebook group. The Files section there has the tool, which you can download, as well as User Guides, Examples, Tips, Links, Demos, and more. It’s a very responsive group. Any member can post their problem/question with a screen shot to illustrate it and other members jump in to help. The developer also remains very active, answering technical questions and keeping everyone informed on projected updates and enhancements.

Also check the ISOGGwiki mentioned above and the blog posts it suggests.

5. How much time does it take? (And do I have that time right now?)

Checking out the resources as recommended in Tip 4 may give you an idea on how much time it may take to use a new tool.

In my case, Visual Phasing literally took years—LOL! Seriously, once you are comfortable using all the aspects of this tool, you may be able to map an easy chromosome in a matter of hours. But other chromosomes may take weeks. It’s a two-step process.

First, we need to identify the places on a chromosome where recombination occurred. (For example, my dad had a copy of chromosome 7 that he got from his dad (Granddad) and another copy of chromosome 7 that he got from his mom (Nana). Those two copies sort of ‘twined’ together and split apart, and one of those recombined copies Dad passed down to me: perhaps with one small chunk of DNA from Granddad, the middle part of the chromosome from Nana, and the end section from Granddad.) By comparing my DNA to my siblings, and seeing where I swapped from matching a sibling on either my paternal or maternal copy of chromosome 7, to matching on both copies or to neither copy, I can hopefully identify those crossover points and determine which sibling had the crossover there. This step takes the most man-hours.

Step 2, then, is to figure out which grandparent passed down which segment, up to the crossover point, where it switches to the other grandparent. This requires having matches on each chromosome (no closer than a 1st cousin once removed), where you can be certain from which grandparent line you got the DNA segment that you share with a known relative. It took me years to find a paternal match on chromosome 13 so I could assign a specific grandparent to those segments. Also, someday in the future I may find a match on, say, chromosome 20 that proves my mapping was wrong. So in a sense, Visual Phasing is never done. You’re always checking new matches against it, and proving or disproving your work.

6. Does it work reliably, or are there frequent hiccups?

Like most genetic genealogy tools, the Facebook group specific to that tool is a great place to go to find out if others are having technical problems. I haven’t experienced any bugs with the VP spreadsheet.

7. Any privacy concerns?

You do enter your GEDmatch password in this tool so it can extract the one-to-one DNA matches of the kits you specify. But the results are all stored on your drive, not on the web. I feel comfortable with this. For any new tool, see if there is a statement of terms to address any privacy questions.

8. Can I accomplish the same results another way? Manually, or with similar tools?

For Visual Phasing, you can manually copy/paste your GEDmatch one-to-one match images to Word or Excel or PowerPoint (or related non-Microsoft options) instead of using Steven Fox’s Spreadsheet tool. I’ve done it with paper and a ruler and crayons!  This VP Spreadsheet saves tons of hours though. It offers extras, like providing stats on your progress, help calculating which sibling ‘owns’ a crossover, back-up options, etc.

9. How much fun is it?

Your mileage may vary. To me? It is SO MUCH *FUN*!

10. And perhaps most important, how will it add value to my genealogy? 

Sometimes a tool is just simple and fun, and worth playing with for no other reason. If it’s complex, though, I want to know how it will help me solve my brick walls before I invest a lot of time or energy with it.

Here’s an example. One of my brick walls is Nancy Agnes Ann Jameson, on my maternal grandfather’s line. She born somewhere in Kentucky in 1810. I haven’t found her parents yet. Billy, a DNA match on FamilyTreeDNA, includes Jameson in his surname list, from Barren County, Kentucky. Maybe Billy has not replied to my messages. Do I want to spend time and/or money trying to discover if we’re related on our Jameson lines? Maybe dig in Barren County, Kentucky, resources?

If we’re not related on my maternal grandfather’s line, that shared Jameson surname may be just a coincidence; our shared DNA came down a different line. Visual phasing can help me figure this out.

So – how do you learn what tools are available?

Read a book, take a class or webinar, join a DNA Special Interest Group, subscribe to blogs, join DNA-central.com ($9.99/month or $99/year), or keep up to date on social media. The Facebook group Genetic Genealogy Tips and Techniques is a great place to start.

For example, the next tool I try is likely to be a tool that gathers and clusters my DNA networks for me (shared matches). A couple blog posts that I’ll review before I decide are:


Have fun! And best wishes for genealogy successes in the New Year!

© 2019 Ann Raymont, CG®

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