Viva la revolucion

Notes from Nature recently surpassed its 200,000th transcription!  Given this milestone, it seems like a good opportunity for the Notes from Nature team to do two things: 1)  We want to show a bit more where – geographically – we have filled in some data gaps; 2)  We want to talk a bit more about the Bigger Picture.  Where do these transcriptions go after they get done!?  We have talked a lot about the scientific uses of these data, and individual projects, but there is a bigger mission and one the Museum world is grappling with right now — how to simultaneously live in an analog and digital world.

Before we talk more about the Big Push to digitize records and get them mobilized for the good of society, lets do something a bit more close to home.  Below is snapshot of an intensity map which shows work done by transcribers state by state.  We focus on the United States here simply because we have had good dropdown list for USA states and could therefore easily get this map made without too much muxing.  We have gotten have gotten a lot of help from transcribers in other counties and you can see more about that in our previous post. You can explore the map in more detail:  click here to see the map .   We made this by simply tallying each record with a particular name of a state, and then linking those state names using a service provided by Google called Fusion Tables.   California (with 64,346 transcriptions) and Florida (with 21,283) make up a lion share of the transcriptions, but there is a lot of effort in the Southeast and West as well.  All things one might expect given the regional foci of CalBug and SERNEC.  Surprising, North Dakota has 1,518 transcriptions completed and Minnesota 2,109!  Go Upper Midwest!

Screen Shot 2013-07-17 at 4.08.53 PM

Merge of nfncountrystateCOUNT and US Regions State Boundaries

All this work really does feed into a larger effort that is happening here in the United States and around the world to make museum data available for broad use.  This isn’t just for scientists, but also for formal and informal science education and the broader public.  Museum specimens are obviously of great value — they even tell us more than the who, what, where, when which serves as a basis for documenting trends in changes in distribution and seasonal and yearly timing events such as emergence from hibernation.  Each specimen yields further secrets — whether it is DNA that can be extracted from the tissues, body size and relation to physiology, and so on.  They also tell stories about landscapes and peoples in the past, and about our own histories.  In this sense, natural history tie into the much larger picture of multiple cultures.

Up until recently, if you wanted to see this vast treasure trove of data, you had to get a special pass to enter the collections, and there under the watchful eyes of curators and collections managers, you could examine specimens.  Museums have always been places where visitors are most welcome, but physically moving around specimens, and figuring out which collection had what remained a challenge.  While access is critical, museum curators have to balance considerations related to the conservation of these precious objects.

In the last ten years, a revolution is unfolding and museums worldwide are digitizing their collections so that the contents can be discovered, searched, and used more effectively and by more people.  This work is very challenging.  Many folks involved in this endeavor have lamented that years of databasing and a lot of time and effort invested in building system to publish data and make them available… and still only 2-3% of the total number of records in museums (based on our best estimates) are digitally discoverable.  We have to hope there is a way to make this whole process more efficient.

So at some point, CalBug and SERNEC will take the hard work done by transcribers and make those digital records available to everyone.  You can see some of the progress that has already happened by checking out projects such as VertNet, GBIF, Map of Life and iDigBio. One of the goals of these projects is to bring together data from various sources in order to create a “one stop shop” for the discovery of biodiversity information.

In sum, the bigger story is that we are witnessing a revolution in how museums make their resources available.  Thanks for taking part and viva la revolucion!

-Rob Guralnick

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