I hope you’ll come along with me as we experience RootsTech 2019 together.
I’ll be writing a companion piece to this about the vendor’s announcements and new tools, but this article is meant to allow you to virtually enjoy a bit of the ambience of the conference itself.
Night and Day
I have to start out by saying that I was extremely skeptical that the RootsTech powers-that-be would truly listen and take the attendees suggestions from 2018 to heart – and I’m very, very glad to say that my skepticism was unwarranted. The 2019 RootsTech conference was amazing. Night and day difference from last year – with this year being the day😊
And no, in case you’re wondering, I am not and was not a RootsTech Ambassador. Ambassadors receive free passes in exchange for promoting the conference in a positive light. By now, you know that I say what needs to be said, so I’m not (ahem) Ambassador material.
RootsTech is unlike any other conference I’ve ever attended. My expectation last year was that I’d go from session to session and visit with people in-between, at meals and in the evenings. That’s what other conferences are like. Understandably, I was extremely upset when the venue was too big to get from session to session, the sessions were too full, etc. etc. No need to rehash that now.
The reality of RootsTech is that there are many, many sessions to choose from at any one time, yet many people actually don’t attend sessions and instead choose to visit or walk the massive expo hall engaging with the various vendors.
Any vendor who is anyone in the genealogy world is here. I actually wasn’t able to visit with many. Too many people and booths and just not enough hours in the day. Plus, everytime I go anyplace I wind up talking to someone – so I almost never get to where I was going! I think my ancestors immigrated haphazardly in the same manner😊
“Yes, I know we declared that we were going to Minnesota, but let’s stop in Indiana for a break.” 100 years later…
For me, the very best part of RootsTech was catching up with friends, meeting new people, hearing their stories and receiving suggestions about help on my own brick walls.
This year I purchased the Ultimate Pass, which assured me of getting into the sessions I wanted. I must admit, that was a relief for me, but the long lines of yesteryear were gone for everyone, not just Ultimate Pass holders. The only badge scanning that occurred was for the paid labs so they could verify that the attendees were registered and that took only a second.
My evaluation of RootsTech 2019 is that is was a smashing success.
Thank you RootsTech, Steve Rockwood and the amazing RootsTech crew for listening, resolving to and making the needed changes, and for a job well done! I mean that sincerely.
I also want to say an especially big thank you to the amazing RootsTech team – both paid and volunteer. The “ASK” folks in the turquoise shirts were extremely friendly, helpful and were everyplace. You didn’t even need to ask. Just look a mite bewildered and they were right there.
One big difference is that RootsTech this year expanded to take over the entire Salt Palace Convention Center. The rooms for each session were much larger, overflow rooms existed, and the crowds weren’t packed into small spaces. Even with a large number of attendees, the experience was never uncomfortable. Badges were mailed, check-in for goody bags provided by MyHeritage was a breeze and conference life was good.
I didn’t really mean to start this tradition, but most traditions aren’t begun intentionally. I made DNA clothing, wearing something different every day.
Wednesday’s vest is our “genetic family tree.”
Sessions began on Wednesday during the day, but the vendor expo hall didn’t open until Wednesday evening at 6.
I attended Amy Johnson Crow’s class, “Social Media Tools for Your Genealogy Business.”
For those of you who might not know, Amy Johnson Crow initiated the “52 Weeks of Ancestors” series several years ago which is why my (nearly) weekly article about my ancestors includes the words, “52 Ancestors #xxx.” The fact that my 52 Ancestors stories will number 230 with the next article speaks to how inspirational I find Amy.
It was wonderful to meet Amy in person.
RootsTech Selfie Culture
I need to take a minute to explain about the selfie culture at RootsTech. There is almost always someone to take a photo for you, but the act of taking selfies together is part of the RootsTech culture. It’s fun, marks experiences together and creates memories. In other words, it’s not just the picture but the act of taking the selfie.
I took a stroll to see what was going on.
The vendors were still setting up in the hall, and I noticed this lovely family.
Genealogy, even conferences, is truly a family affair.
The belong-connect board is beginning to look like a spider web.
Keynote by Steve Rockwood
The opening keynote was given by Steve Rockwood, CEO of FamilySearch.
This venue is absolutely huge. I took this about half way inside.
Throughout the evening, the a capella group, Edge Effect performed, and they were amazing!!!
2019 edge effect video
Each of the group members was given DNA tests sponsored by one of the vendors at the conference and their ethnicity results were revealed on videos.
Steve Rockwood followed. Most CEO’s strong suites aren’t public speaking, but Steve is engaging and entertaining.
Of course, the theme of the conference is “connect belong,” so as you might expect, so was his speech.
Michael B. Moore with the International African American Museum Center for Family History traced his family via DNA and returned to Africa. Upon his return, the chief’s wife asked him, “are you my son,” to which he answered, “yes.” The chief and his wife adopted Michael into their family, thereby welcoming him home.
I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house. Why can’t everyone be that inclusive?
This emotional story of discovery and homecoming was followed by the announcement of a 2-million-dollar donation to the International African American Museum Center for Family History by Elder David Bednar with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Museum representatives on stage with David Bednar.
I’m extremely pleased to see the focus on reunification of families. It was also stated that the Church would be involved with other museums in the same way, to encourage that family history be incorporated into history. As I mentioned to Steve Rockwood later, I hope they include DNA, and not just autosomal DNA, but Y and mitochondrial as well. All three types of DNA are critically important to genealogy and finding family no matter who you are.
Martin Luther King III then addressed the audience about his father’s dream…the end of racism and discrimination.
I fervently hope that bringing people and families together will help heal the wounds of slavery, Jim Crow America and perhaps even the divisions we see today.
I was thrilled to hear Mr. King speak and only wish history had been kinder. Dr. King’s life was cut much too short and we are left to wonder what he might have achieved had it not been for racial intolerance that led to cold-blooded murder.
The Edge Effect returned again with a particularly appropriate rendition of a beautiful song.
The Expo Hall
After the opening session, FamilyTreeDNA was kind enough to host the DNAexplain blog meetup in their new presentation center.
I gave two short presentations, one titled, “Taking Sides – Family Finder Maternal and Paternal Bucketing” and the second, “Family Finder Search Tips.”
I wasn’t able to grab any photos since I was presenting, but fortunately, Marie Cappart did and shared. Thanks Marie!
FamilyTreeDNA hosted several sessions throughout the conference, given by staff and other guest speakers as well.
Meeting With Steve Rockwood and Crew
The long day wasn’t over quite yet. Steve Rockwood had been meeting with a focus group to which I was invited from 7-8. I respectfully declined, stating that I was already committed in the FamilyTreeDNA booth with the DNAexplain meetup.
Steve graciously agreed to wait along with much of his staff that had been up since 4 AM. That’s commitment!
I arrived just as the focus group was finishing, but Steve and the RootsTech team had indeed graciously been waiting and were quite welcoming.
Given my criticism after last year’s RootsTech, my reception was surprisingly warm. I expected something entirely different.
About 15 people from the RootsTech team were present.
I was extremely impressed with the professionalism and the fact that they acknowledged that they missed the mark last year and make a commitment at that time to make a course correction.
They remediated every single point.
They also asked for suggestions and feedback and made changes during the conference this year to accommodate those suggestions immediately when possible.
For example, they originally ended the livestreamed sessions when the presenter finished the presentation, but after complains that the people watching wanted to see the Q&A, they extended those sessions to include Q&A.
I must say, kudos to the team and thank you Steve!
I’m not saying that I’ll be back next year, but I’m saying that I’d certainly consider returning.
One of the wonderful aspects of the conference is seeing old friends.
Blaine Bettinger and I have been passing like ships in the night for the past couple of years. We go way, way back to his first FTDNA conference – before either of us were blogging – before he had a family – when he was still in college.
It was so good to see Blaine and to actually have some time to talk, albeit not enough, of course. Genealogists could talk forever.
The RootsTech volunteers were wearing the turquoise “ASK” shirts. This gentleman sews. He noticed my vest and twice we had a chance to compare notes. I’m always so pleased to meet men that sew or quilt.
Ran Snir presenting in the MyHeritage booth. Many of the larger vendors have a presentation center.
Hey look, I found King Henry in the WikiTree booth! If you want to see if you’re related to King Henry, you can make that happen at WikiTree, assuming accurate trees of course.
Peter Roberts, my good friend and WikiTree angel for taking me under his wing long ago and getting my tree set up!
Peter provided me with a wonderful tip which I’ll be sharing with you in a blog article soon!
While I was in the WikiTree booth, I asked Mags Gaulden, who writes at Grandmas Genes to take a photo of today’s DNA vest.
This one’s a little different – a rather op art helix.
I really struggled with this vest and wasn’t nearly as happy as with Wednesday’s genetic family tree vest.
Here, Mags and I are sporting our matching helix necklaces! We always have so much fun together and I’m looking forward to seeing Mags again at the FamilyTreeDNA conference at the end of March in Houston.
I had intended to attend the Ancestry lunch, but what I expected and what happened were two different things. I discovered that the Ancestry lunch wasn’t the CEO or product managers with insights or even new product announcements, but that the Ancestry speaker was Henry Louis Gates. I’ve seen Dr. Gates before and my intention was to see what Ancestry had planned for the future. At least I made this discovery before the lunch and not after I had arrived when it would have been awkward to leave.
Instead, I had lunch with a friend and spent the time catching up.
By the end of the day, my every single body part ached, and I was extremely grateful that the hotel I was staying in was across the street and for the heating pad in my suitcase.
Unfortunately, I missed the Living DNA Roundtable dinner, but the thought of walking another few blocks and back was just more than my back could handle. Plus, Friday was the tough day and I HAD to be able to function.
One of the benefits of MyHeritage is their international reach, meaning not only Israel, but Europe and Scandinavia. They are doing amazing things in multiple languages, including closed captioning and ASL at their conferences.
Our table at the MyHeritage breakfast.
After breakfast, on to the expo hall.
Walk tall, test your DNA at FamilyTreeDNA and carry a big stick.
I had been looking forward to the “Google for Genealogists: Maps, Satellite and Earth” class with Lianne Kruger.
I have to tell you, Lianne has the patience of a saint. Lab classes are difficult to teach, even with room assistants.
I learned a great deal and I can’t wait to apply what I learned, mapping for my blog and also planning trips from ancestor location to ancestor location.
The next thing on the agenda was a tech check of my computer equipment in the room where I would be presenting at 3.
Everything went well and fingers crossed that it would in the afternoon as well.
Each day at RootsTech includes a General Session or keynote that is sponsored by one of the vendors.
MyHeritage sponsored Saroo Brierley and Geoff Rasmussen began with announcing their new Genetic Affairs integration.
That quickly moved to how Saroo Brierley had lost his way as a young child in a train station in India and had eventually been adopted by an Australian couple. Saroo always wondered what happened to his family in India and set out to find them, using the few memories he had from childhood.
Not only did Saroo locate his family, they were reunited and in his words, he now has two families.
Saroo wrote a book about his moving miracle story.
MyHeritage then announced the continuation of the DNAQuest project by adding another 5000 free kits for adoptees, in particular those who might not be able to otherwise afford testing.
If you know someone who could benefit, applications will be accepted at www.dnaquest.org until April 30, 2019.
Of the lunches I attended, the MyHeritage lunch was by far the most beneficial.
Gilad Japhet, the CEO and founder of MyHeritage spoke and shared another recovered piece of his own fascinating family history. Gilad recently discovered a missing family photo that he remembered from his childhood.
Gilad’s grandfather immigrated to Israel from Poland in 1920. A year later, the family in Poland took a photo of family members gathered to send to Gilad’s grandfather. He surely must have been feeling at least somewhat homesick by that time.
Gilad’s grandfather kept this photo on the wall of his home, and when he passed away, the photo got packed up and disappeared. Just a few weeks ago, Gilad found the photo safe and sound with an unsuspecting relative.
This is the only photo in existence of many of these people today. The individuals circled in orange perished two decades later in the holocaust.
Can you see that the little boy is holding a photo?
That photo is Gilad’s grandfather, taken before he immigrated. The little boy is holding the photo to show that even though Gilad’s grandfather was physically gone, to Israel, he is still with them. If Gilad’s grandfather hadn’t gone to Israel, Gilad would not be here today.
No wonder Gilad’s grandfather cherished this photo his entire life.
Gilad shared other details as well, such as:
- MyHeritage has now photographed, transcribed and translated all of the cemeteries in Israel, a 5-year project including over 2 million photos of 1.5 million stones in 638 cemeteries. These records are now available on MyHeritage and BillionGraves. Israel is the first country to reach this monumental achievement. I don’t know of any similar initiative in any other country.
- Of course, my ancestors didn’t originate in Israel, except perhaps for one that we are still researching in the Netherlands – so I’m very pleased about the fact that MyHeritage has reached out successfully to the European community for DNA testing. Gilad noted that most of their DNA sales today are in Europe, with their data base size being approximately 2.5 million, with 2 million of those being original tests and half a million being transfers. If you haven’t yet transferred, please do by clicking here.
- Gilad mentioned that he had hoped to announce the completion of the stamp and envelope DNA extraction project, but it’s still in process.
- Gilad said that soon MyHeritage will provide a feature to reconstruct the DNA of family members based on the DNA of other family members tested. I can hardly wait. I’ve dreamed of this feature for years and I have a list, believe me.
Gilad then shared with the attendees the details of the new feature announcements at RootsTech.
Theory of Family Relativity
The Theory of Family Relativity is explaining DNA matches using family trees and historical records. This super new feature was rolled out during RootsTech. I’m not going to provide examples and details here, because I’ll be writing separately shortly. I want to emphasize, as did Gilad, that these theories are just that, theories and NEED TO BE VERIFIED!
In fact, you may have more than one theory for any connection based on DNA matching, trees and records, and you can verify or dismiss the theories. This is an incredible tool. The first three I quickly reviewed were all accurate. One person had three separate theories, and of course, only one of those three could be accurate under the circumstances, but I immediately knew which one was the right path based on my already proven genealogy.
Gilad spent some time explaining the Big Tree. The most important aspect to realize is that the “Big Tree” is not constructed and stored indefinitely. The Big Tree is created “as needed” so it’s never stale. It’s not an old tree, and every branch and logical step is documented so you can view the logic for the theory path selected.
I can’t even begin to explain how critical this is for researchers.
There is no “trust me” or actually, “trust other people’s trees” at MyHeritage.
Here’s one last example building upon various relationships and records!
If you want to try this for yourself (please do) you can filter your matches by those that have Theories.
Warning – you may not do anything else for days, including sleep! I looked around in the presentation and you could see people signing on and trying this while Gilad was speaking. If I hadn’t been sitting right in front, I would probably have been doing the same thing.
If you’re wondering how Theories of Family Relativity differs from Ancestry’s ThruLines, here are some of Gilad’s observations.
Genetic Affairs Integrated Autoclustering
The great news is that the science team has improved the clustering software to cluster Jewish people successfully.
The graphic on the left is a Jewish autocluster at Genetic Affairs, and at right, the same person clustered at MyHeritage. Big difference.
Autoclustering can be accessed from the new Tools page. The resulting autocluster file will be sent to you via e-mail. In the days since this announcement, there has been a substantial backlog so expect to wait for several hours or even a day. This tool is exceptionally popular because of the power of clustering matches.
In essence, if you can recognize the known relationships of some cluster members, then you pretty much know that the rest of the group is related through the same ancestral path.
However, in your tree pedigree “above” the ancestral couple identified, the people in a cluster may well diverge. For example, I have a cluster that I can track to my great-grandparents, but I know that some of those people descend from her ancestors and some from his ancestors. Clusters represent the MRCA or most recent common ancestor, not the most distant common ancestor of the cluster members
Gilad described the various cost options. In essence if you tested at MyHeritage, uploaded before December 16, 2018 or if you are a subscriber, these tools are free for you. Initially, I was skeptical about how useful a MyHeritage subscription would be for me, but this past year, my subscription has proven indispensable – and now even more so with the fact that Theories of Family Relativity combines actual records with DNA and trees!
After lunch, I couldn’t sit any longer, so I walked part of the expo hall. One booth that attracted me like a moth to a flame was CelebrateDNA.
Yes, I ordered 3 t-shirts.
New at RootsTech this year is the DNA Basics Learning Center – not sponsored by a vendor but by RootsTech itself. They had a presentation area and various DNA presenters rotated in and out throughout the day. Furthermore, the Learning Center was staffed with knowledgeable volunteers.
I remember the days when every single genealogy society wanted a basic DNA lecture! Today, most societies have people to mentor others in DNA.
Kenyatta Berry in the FamilyTreeDNA Booth
I spent the early afternoon, before my own presentation with Kenyatta Berry in the FamilyTreeDNA booth. One of the FamilyTreeDNA giveaways was an individual session with Kenyatta for 3 lucky winners. I served as honorary photographer as well as DNA consultant.
It was fun listening to the brick walls that these lucky winners brought to Kenyatta.
This gentleman is Native American and his family history is sooo interesting.
Kenyatta’s book, The Family Tree Toolkit: A Comprehensive Guide to Uncovering Your Ancestry and Researching Genealogy, was recently released and I can’t wait to actually have a chance to take a look.
After Kenyatta’s meetups, it was time for my own session.
My Session – Beyond Pie Charts: Using Y and Mitochondrial DNA to Solve Genealogical Puzzles
I have a confession to make. I had a terrible case of nerves about my session. I’m used to speaking in general – it wasn’t that.
My jitters arose from a combination of the fact that I had to create not one, not two, but three sessions with about a week’s notice. If these sessions had been “intro to DNA,” I could have done them blindfolded and from memory – but the topic had been selected by the original presenter – and I had to work around that.
I needed case studies, and I didn’t have time to remember and then obtain permission for other people’s stories – so they had to come from my own family. Thankfully, I have done a lot of work, so I had fodder to work with. I was SOOOO grateful for those 52 Ancestor stories!
On top of that, the session had to fit exactly into the time slot, and this was the first time presenting this particular presentation. Getting the timing down pat means lots of practice and tweaking.
RootsTech encourages their speakers to dress professionally, of course, so I took a business suit along with me. However, every person I spoke with in the days before my session encouraged me to ditch the suit and wear my DNA clothes which have become somewhat of a signature item. Who knew that I had a “personal brand?”😊
I dressed in the morning in my black DNA vest and red leggings. But wow, is this bright!
Perhaps I should have opted for a black shirt and leggings, but that seemed too dull. Maybe the suit after all??? I went back and forth and back and forth.
Needless to say, this was the first time I’ve presented in something this bright and unconventional at a national conference.
I made my last tweak to my presentation about half an hour before the session, AND, I hoped fervently that the humor I planned went off as planned. Some of my jokes were a bit subtle and others, less so.
Humor is particularly difficult and requires impeccable timing.
Nerves, timing and humor sometimes don’t work well together. That made me even more nervous!
In case you wonder what these rooms look like empty. They sort of run from sea to sea. The lights are so bright on the speaker that they generally can’t see much of the audience after the house lights are dimmed in these types of venues, except for the first row or two directly in front of the stage.
I should have given my cell to someone to snap some candid photos, but since I had a professional photographer, I didn’t see the need to do that. The professional photos won’t be ready for a few days.
I included my brother Dave’s story as an example of integrating Y and autosomal DNA results, thinking I could get through it dry-eyed. I did in practice, but not so much in the session. My voice cracked and let’s say that there is no graceful way to hide that – and if you try to sneak a little nose wipe the mic picks it up as something that sounds entirely different. I’ll just claim that was part of the planned humor – right?
The attendees are asked to provide feedback on the sessions, so I’ll be interested to see what worked and what didn’t. Since I was a last-minute speaker covering for someone else, I wasn’t able to provide a handout in time to be included for attendees, so I’ll make up for that by writing blog articles in the weeks to come. I hope everyone subscribed! To help make up for no handout, I gave everyone who attended a DNAexplain ribbon!
After my session, I was pleased to meet people back in the FamilyTreeDNA booth to answer any remaining questions. The ballrooms are too large to take questions from the floor.
By the end of the day, everyone was exhausted,
Friday was my very long super-tough day, so by Saturday, for me, the conference had begun to wind down. That wasn’t true for everyone though, because Saturday is the busiest day.
RootsTech opens the doors for free for members of the LDS Church and specifically encourages children with the hope of infecting them with the genealogy bug early. Roughly 30,000 people attend.
In that vein, there are lots of interesting family-friendly activities for everyone.
For example, Jason Hewlett who had been emceeing all week told a story about his young daughter who shocked him by announcing that her favorite artist was Lady Gaga. Jason says that sometimes he “rewrites” songs in a more child-appropriate way for his daughters and proceeded to demonstrate.
Respite in the Speaker’s Lounge
I had originally planned to attend a couple of classes, but I was physically and emotionally drained. I escaped to the speaker’s lounge for a respite.
RootsTech provides a speaker’s lounge so those of us who are speaking, and therefore generally available for questions throughout the conference can find for some peace and quiet, to prepare for sessions or sometimes for interviews. The background noise makes recording interviews difficult elsewhere.
Yes, the black DNA vest is reversible to this white one. Trust me, I’ll never do that again. Reversible=engineering challenge!
Jake Shimabukuro – Ukulele Master
Saturday’s main event was sponsored by 23andMe who opened by encouraging everyone to test and told the story of a woman who discovered that she, her mother and sister have the BRCA1 gene that may signal a propensity to breast cancer, especially in Ashkenazi Jewish women. Please note that there are multiple genetic factors and genes that contribute to some types of breast cancer, so if you DON’T have this mutation, that does NOT mean you should rest easy if breast cancer is a particular concern. 23andMe only tests for a limited number of breast cancer genetic indicators. Talk to your physician who may order medical genetic testing.
Jake Shimabukuro, a very talented young ukulele player, was up next.
Here’s a very short clip just to give you an idea.
After Saturday’s general session, I discovered hula dancers in the main hallway that I enjoyed immensely.
I know you can’t see their clothing very well in the video, so here’s a cropped photo. It was snowing outside. I’d think they were freezing to death.
While I was watching the dancers, I noticed a gentleman filming over my shoulder. I turned around to see if I was in his way. The dancers ended about that time, and the man filming, Jarrett Ross and I began chatting. That’s the RootsTech way.
Jarrett is a videographer who can be seen at his GeneaVlogger YouTube channel here.
As luck would have it, I was on my way to find the face painting, and Jarrett wanted to video face-painting. Voila! Match made in Heaven.
Here’s Denise Cole who owns Painted Party, the artist who created my wonderful double helix face painting last year. She hit a home run this year too.
You can count on the fact that I’ll be looking for her if I attend next year!
Jarrett and I with the finished product in our obligatory RootsTech selfie!
Instead of going to the 23andMe lunch, Jarrett and I hung out in the hallway where he interviewed me and we ate snacks. I’m actually glad I spent the time getting to know Jarrett and learning about Jewish genealogy in the Netherlands. 23andMe didn’t make any product announcements or provide insights, so the only thing I missed was mediocre food.
Jarrett will be posting the videos of several RootsTech interviews, including mine, on his YouTube channel soon.
I did eventually have to try a Sushi Burrito though and it was pretty good, consisting or all of the typical sushi fixings inside a nori wrapper wrapped like a burrito.
Back to the entrance on the last day, the yarn on the connect-belong board is almost solid.
The conference ended mid-afternoon, but my flight wasn’t scheduled until Sunday mid-day.
My last evening in Salt Lake City was spent having a nice leisurely dinner decompressing with Blaine Bettinger and Angie Bush (left). In the lobby, we found Michelle Patient from Australia who I had never met before in person.
Often at conferences, people are unable to connect for more than a few minutes. I hadn’t seen Blaine and Angie in years, let alone long enough to sit down and actually visit. The perfect ending to a wonderful conference.
I know this article has been long, but I hope for those who weren’t able to attend RootsTech in person that this conveys a bit of the feel of the actual experience. I hope everyone took advantage of viewing the livestreamed sessions. The general sessions and the dozen or so free livestreamed sessions will be available here.
RootsTech has the ambiance of a very large family reunion. My goal in sharing the photos and in essence “taking you along” is to provide the RootsTech experience through the eyes of an attendee.
RootsTech has made a concerted effort to remediate the issues present in 2018 and they have done an excellent job. I have a few suggestions, but no complaints.
It’s not an inexpensive trip between the airfare, hotel and food, so I don’t know if I will return, but I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to sign up for RootsTech 2020.
My take away was something we discussed on Saturday evening at dinner. At one time not so long ago in history, we had “internet” classes, but now the internet is ubiquitous. DNA and genealogy is becoming the same way. It’s no longer separate and different, but part of an integrated genealogical whole.
Please join me in the next couple days when I’ll be reviewing the new DNA feature announcements by both Ancestry and MyHeritage.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little mini-tour of RootsTech 2019.