New app keeps cousins from kissing in Iceland

In Iceland, most people share descent from 9th-century Viking settlers.

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REYKJAVIK, Iceland — You meet someone, there’s chemistry, and then come the introductory questions: What’s your name? Come here often? Are you my cousin?

In Iceland, a country with a population of 320,000 where most everyone is distantly related, inadvertently kissing cousins is a real risk.

A new smartphone app is on hand to help Icelanders avoid falling in love with someone who’s too closely related. The app lets users “bump” phones, and emits a warning alarm if they are closely related.

Some are hailing it as a welcome solution to a very Icelandic form of social embarrassment.

“Everyone has heard the story of going to a family event and running into a girl you hooked up with some time ago,” said Einar Magnusson, a graphic designer in Reykjavik.

“It’s not a good feeling when you realize that girl is a second cousin. People may think it’s funny, but (the app) is a necessity.”

The Islendiga-App — “App of Icelanders” — is an idea that may only be possible in Iceland, where most of the population shares descent from a group of 9th-century Viking settlers, and where an online database holds most people’s genealogical details.

The app was created by three University of Iceland software engineering students for a contest calling for “new creative uses” of the Islendingabok, or Book of Icelanders, an online database of residents and their family trees stretching back 1,200 years.

Arnar Freyr Adalsteinsson, one of the trio, said it allows any two Icelanders to see how closely related they are, simply by touching phones.

It’s the latest twist on a long-standing passion for genealogy in Iceland, a volcanically active island in the North Atlantic unpopulated before Norse settlers arrived in A.D. 874. Their descendants built a small, relatively homogenous and — crucially — well-organized country, home to the world’s oldest parliament and devoted to thorough record-keeping.

“The Icelandic sagas, written about 1,000 years ago, all begin with page after page of genealogy. It was the common man documenting his own history,” said Kari Stefansson, chief executive of Icelandic biotech company deCODE Genetics, which ran the contest behind the app.

The Book of Icelanders database was developed in 1997 by deCODE and software entrepreneur Fridrik Skulason. Compiled using census data, church records, family archives and other sources, it claims to have information on 95 percent of all Icelanders over the last 300 years.

The database can be scoured online by any Icelandic citizen or legal resident. The app makes the data available to Icelanders on their mobile phones.

Now available for Android phones, it has been downloaded almost 4,000 times since it was launched this month.

Stefansson says the “bump” feature is attention-grabbing, but a minor aspect of an app that brings Icelanders’ love of genealogy into the 21st century.

He hopes it won’t convey the wrong impression about Iceland. “The Icelandic nation is not inbred,” he said. “This app is interesting. It makes the data much more available. But the idea that it will be used by young people to make sure they don’t marry their cousins is of much more interest to the press than a reflection of reality.”

The alarm only alerts users if they and their new acquaintance have a common grandparent. Most people already know who their first cousins are.

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