Published May 10, 2013
What do any two random Icelanders have in common, genetically? If this sounds like the beginning of a bad knock-knock joke (or Jimmy Kimmel sketch), that’s probably because by now you’ve read at least some of the pun-heavy headlines popping up everywhere from Bloomberg Businessweek and NBC to the BBC, The Huffington Post and The Independent. A quick sampling if you haven’t: “App Aims to Keep Cousins from Kissing,” or “Icelanders Avoid Inbreeding Through Online Database.”
So then let’s get this out of the way early: two random Icelanders have about as much in common as second cousins, once removed, according to Dr. Kári Stefansson, CEO and co-founder of deCODE Genetics. That might sound like a lot, but accounting for the vast possibilities for genetic recombination in each generation, it really isn’t. Breaking it down in very, very simple terms—call it ‘genetics for literature students in five minutes’— Kári says, two Icelanders share a lot of DNA, but only in tiny bits and pieces.
If it seems strange that one of the world’s more prominent neurologists would be taking the time to parse basic genetics for a freelance journalist with a high school level understanding of DNA, then well, you can see just how far the joke has really gone.
New bömp technology
In early 2013, deCODE Genetics and the University of Iceland’s School of Engineering and Natural Sciences challenged the nation’s university students to design a smart phone app for the online genealogical database Íslendingabók for its 10th anniversary.
The Íslendingabók website takes its name from the Book of Icelanders, a 12th century historical text which details the Icelandic settlement. Currently, the database contains 810,000 genealogical records of “the inhabitants of Iceland, dating more than 1,200 years back.” It is viewable only by Icelandic citizens and permanent residents, about 200,000 of who have sought access to the site.
A collaborative venture between deCODE and software engineer Friðrik Skúlason, the Íslendingabók site developed as a corollary to deCODE’s genealogical research. “The reason why we have been able to lead the world in genetic research,” Kári Stefansson says, “is because we understand the structure of Iceland’s population so well.” DeCODE has an advantage over “the big guys in human genetics” because the organisation has intimate understanding of Icelandic genealogy, he says. “Our history is mapped in our DNA.”
DeCODE has attracted no small amount of international press over the years, but it is unlikely that its student app competition would have created such fervour now were it not for one of the novelty features of the winning ÍslendingaApp: the Sifjaspellspillir or “Incest Spoiler” alarm which alerts a user if the person she plans on going home with is a near relation. Using the app’s “new bömp technology,” users can tap their phones together and see how closely they are related. If the alarm has been activated—it’s turned off in default settings—it will either erupt with a discouraging siren, or issue a gleeful “No relation: go for it!” message, while a Barry White-esque voice urges you on with a subtle “Oh, Yeeeaaah.”
Sad Engineers with a sense of humor
The winning “ÍslendingaApp” was submitted by Alexander Annas Helgason, Arnar Freyr Aðalsteinsson, and Hákon Þrastar Björnsson, three student software engineers at the University of Iceland, who collaborate under the business moniker Sad Engineer Studios (SES). The Sad Engineers are, by their own account, “actually rather jolly” and they have good reason to be. In winning the ÍslendingaApp competition, they’ve not only made headlines around the world, but they’ve also received 1,000,000 ISK (just under 8,500 USD) for their app concept, as well as the possibility of further development opportunities with deCODE.
In addressing the “incest alarm,” and resulting jokes about dating risks in Iceland, many people involved in administering the app competition expressed a surprising amount of incredulity that it has garnered so much attention from the international media. Some individuals are frustrated at the fact that the feature was drawing attention away from deCODE’s research endeavours, while others shrug it off—any press is good press. For their part, SES can laugh about it: “it is a running joke in Icelandic culture,” Hákon Þrastar says, though he and his collaborators had “no knowledge of anyone actually accidentally sleeping with a relative.”
Connecting with younger generations
While this is obviously all rather amusing, the “Incest Spoiler” feature, which SES says is “purely for fun,” does perhaps belie the sincerity and creativity which they and other participants put into designing their apps, which primarily focused on finding inventive ways to connect Icelandic youth with their genealogical heritage.
“I considered the competition a wonderful opportunity to create a fun app with a positive societal purpose,” said Hlín Leifsdóttir, a humanities student with an interest in entrepreneurship. She’s part of the design team Skyldleikur whose app placed second in the competition. “The fact that the app would be based on Íslendingabók really sparked my interest,” she said. “I believe that awareness of one’s own historical roots can contribute to one’s general historical awareness.”
The Skyldleikur app is an all-ages game which uses the information archived in Íslendingabók to generate personalized questions about the player’s ancestors: When did they live; where were they born? From graphics down to the soft colour palette, Skyldleikur’s central image—a tree whose branches blossom and fill with birds as you answer more questions correctly—was specifically designed to “spark interest in genealogy among the youngest generation,” says one of her teammates, Björn Þór Jónsson, “while still appealing to the older generations.”
The design concept seems to have worked, too. “The most enthusiastic of its fans that I have met so far,” Hlín says, “are a great grandmother and her five year old great grandson. The great grandmother considers the game a wonderful opportunity to finally be able to share all the stories of her family, much to the enjoyment of her admiring young great grandson. ‘My great grandma knows everything!’ he exclaimed. ‘She is the best at playing computer games of everyone! Way better than daddy!’ He considered this quite remarkable, since his father is a software engineer.” In the future, the Skyldleikur team can imagine all sorts of possible expansions for the app, such as users writing in their own advanced questions which could be integrated into family games.
A national interest in genealogy
“It has often been said that there is a national interest in genealogy here,” SES member Hákon Þrastar remarked. All three SES engineers readily shared their own prior experiences using the Íslendingabók website. Alexander Annas had discovered, for instance, that he was distantly related to Arnar Freyr’s girlfriend. Arnar Freyr thought that the website had always been “a fun tool…you make a new friend, look them up, and find out, for instance, that you are 5th cousins.” It was their interest in these unexpected personal connections which inspired the bömp tapping feature in the first place—they thought it would be great to be able to quickly find out if you and a friend had any shared ancestors.
Aside from the bömp feature, the ÍslendingaApp also allows users to search for any name in the database to see how they are related to that individual. While personal details about people listed in the registry are only viewable by close relatives—you can’t sift through Jónsi or Vigdís Finnbogadóttir’s family tree, for instance, if your only relation to them is 12 generations back—it is possible to look through and see how close your family connections really are. Additionally, the ÍslendingaApp includes compiled statistics, popular names, a calendar of relatives’ birthdays, and reminders so that you “never forget grandma’s birthday again.”
In reaching out to student designers in this app competition, Ingi Rafn Ólafsson, the University of Iceland’s marketing and community director, said the organisers were “tapping into the vast creativity and spirit of the generation that is currently in the Universities” and looking for new ideas for highlighting the wealth of information contained in the Íslendingabók database. They have certainly accomplished this, as evidenced by the vastly different approaches that the top placing teams took in their app designs, while still having similar goals in mind. “Older generations tend to be more interested in learning about their roots,” says Skyldleikur’s Hlín. “I think this has everything to do with how the information is presented, and that a more youth friendly approach would most certainly spark the interest of the younger generations.”
Perhaps fascinating the foreign press with the “Incest Spoiler” will have its side benefits, too. Comments sections around the web may now be chock full of crass suggestions about the services that foreign tourists might render in Iceland’s gene pool, but the Sad Engineers keep their sense of humour about this: “If it actually does expand tourism, that’d be fantastic.”
Since its original inception, the Íslendingabók database has undergone some interesting structural changes. When it began, the software programme was designed so that every individual listed in the app had to have both a mother and a father. The software simply would not recognise a record showing two mothers, for instance. But as society has moved forward, the structure of the database has also had to adjust. Today, the Íslendingabók website accurately represents gay and lesbian parents in genealogical trees.
An individual can specifically request that his or her record in Íslendingabók be updated or adjusted to reflect a wide variety of personal information. Someone who has been adopted, for instance, can decide whether or not both their biological and adopted parents are shown in their family trees. An individual who transitions from one sex to another can likewise have their record updated to reflect their new sex, name, and gender.
All children who are registered in the National Registry are automatically added to the Íslendingabók website. However, if one or both of a child’s parents are of foreign origin, the parents’ records will not necessarily be added.
Although the genealogists working on Íslendingabók have compiled painstaking records from a wide variety of print sources (three historical censuses dating back to 1703, parish records, church records, etc.) there are undoubtedly some records that were fictionalised. Burial records compiled from cemeteries, for instance, might reflect “embellishments” that were engraved on headstones. And early on in Iceland’s history, when only wealthy families who could afford to have their genealogies recorded, it was not unheard of that people would request that their genealogies be adjusted to show that they were related to great saga heroes, a member of the founding families, or other noteworthy individual.