New video depicts human migration across generations

October 18, 2012

Tags: Evolution + Development

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. —Throughout history, people have been on the move. Now we can actually “see” our ancestors cross the ocean blue to North America or make the long voyage to Australia.

A new video created by Whitehead Institute in collaboration with the genealogical website Geni.com shows the births of millions people, from the Middle Ages through the early 20th Century, as single dots on a black background. As time advances, those births define the coastlines and countries of Europe and Great Britain, then the Pilgrims’ voyage to the New World, the migration to Australia, the overland expansion of the United States through the Oregon Trail and Gold Rush, and the founding of Johannesburg, South Africa.

The video project was led by Whitehead Fellow Yaniv Erlich, whose work harnesses the power of computers to transform massive amounts of data into usable information. Erlich and  Michael Gershovits, then a student in Erlich’s lab and now a graduate student at Tel-Aviv University, used Geni’s open application programming interface (API), the largest for genealogy data, to access the research of more than 7 million collaborative genealogists. Erlich and Gershovits spent weeks cleaning and organizing the public genealogical input of more than 43 million Geni profiles into a format that could easily be mined for specific data. A unique aspect of the project is that it is based solely on data submitted by Geni users, rather than central databases, such as census or church records.

To create the video, Joanna Kaplanis, a researcher in Erlich’s lab, focused primarily on birthdates and places. For each ten-year segment, Kaplanis had all of the births during that time period glow at their specific geographic points. As time advances, those dots fade and are superseded by the next ten years of births, and so on, creating a striking representation of numerous generations’ travels through time.

In the future, Erlich and Daniel MacArthur, a Group Leader in Genetics at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Broad Institute, will be partnering with Geni to delve even deeper into the information submitted to the world’s largest collaborative genealogical website.

This project was supported by a Scientific Planning and Allocation of Resources Committee (SPARC) award from the Broad Institute and a gift from Jim and Cathy Stone.

Whitehead Institute is a world-renowned non-profit research institution dedicated to improving human health through basic biomedical research.
Wholly independent in its governance, finances, and research programs, Whitehead shares a close affiliation with Massachusetts Institute of Technology
through its faculty, who hold joint MIT appointments.

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