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The Natural History Museum’s Digital Collections Programme

Crowdsourcing our data in 2017

The Digital Collections Programme at the Natural History Museum in London

The Digital Collections Programme has run two crowdsourcing projects on Notes from Nature in 2017. We wanted to say a massive thank-you to the 2,000+ volunteers who together have helped us to capture data from over 15,000 specimens this year. You have made a significant contribution to Science.

1) collage for blog

Crowdsourcing our data in 2017

We can digitally image individual microscope slides at a rate of up to 1000 slides per day, but we still need help with capturing the label information on each slide. Transcription is an essential part of our digitisation process.

By reading the labels and typing information such as the collection date and location into the relevant data fields, our digital volunteers make it possible for us to release this data freely and openly on the Museum’s Data Portal. This data is available worldwide for researchers to study and explore.

Over the past year we showcased our crowdsourcing projects at the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, Science Uncovered 2017 and the global WeDigBio transcription event. We have also hosted 14 Visiteering Days, in which over 120 people took part. Anyone interested in taking part in our one-day Visiteering programme to support the Museum’s work can register online here.

The Killer Within: Wasps, but not as you know them

Fairy fly

Fairyflies average at only 0.5 to 1.0 mm long

Our first crowdsourcing project within the Digital Collections Programme consisted of 6,285 microscope slides containing tiny parasitoid wasps called chalcids (pronounced ‘kal-sids’), which lay their eggs inside other insects. Chalcids are the natural enemies of many insect pest species that damage our food crops, and are therefore used commercially as biological control agents.

Thanks to the help of over 1,300 digital volunteers for the Museum, the scientific information contained on these microscope slide labels have now been fully transcribed and are currently being processed for publication on the Data Portal.

From this data we learned that John S. Noyes, formerly of the Natural History Museum and developer of the Universal  Chalcidoidea Database, was our most active collector, that the majority of the specimens were collected in the 1980s and that the UK is the most prominently represented country in this collection.

Recently, we have been digitising the Museum’s parasitic louse slide collection – consisting of 70,667 slides at present. For each specimen, the whole slide has been imaged in to capture both the specimen and the labels.

From this collection we have isolated two subsets of louse specimens for two different crowdsourcing projects, each of which trialled a new platform for the transcription effort: lice from marsupial mammals – ‘Boopidae of Australasia’, hosted on DigiVol, and Lice of the Open Oceans, hosted on the Zooniverse.


Miniature Fossils Magnified: The smallest shells in the ocean

world oceans day

Foraminifera can help us learn how our ocean has changed over 500 million years

Our Miniature Fossils Magnified project features a collection of ~ 3,000 microscopic fossils, called foraminifera (or forams for short), embedded in slices of rock. The Museum has a strong tradition of foraminifera research dating back to the late 1800s, and the foraminifera collection – with approximately 250,000 slides – is one of the the most extensive in the world.

Foraminifera are microscopic single-celled organisms with shells (called tests), found in both modern and ancient marine environments. They either live on the sea bottom (benthic) or float in the upper water column (planktonic).

The 600+ digital volunteers have been helping to transcribe this label data so far and enabling research that can help us learn how our environment, climate and ocean have changed over 500 million years.

This project is almost complete, and with your help, we can start processing all of this data in the new year. As we process this data we look forward to sharing this data with you, and telling you of the scientific research that has thus been made possible.

If you have a few minutes to donate over the coming days, do join us on Notes from Nature to help finish off the Miniature Fossils Magnified Project. In the new year there will be new projects to join, and more outcomes to report.


We’re preparing for WeDigBio – will you help us spread the word?

The Natural History Museum in London is pleased to be taking part in the upcoming WeDigBio global event again this year, from the 19th to the 22nd of October, and we hope that you’ll join us!

WeDigBio 2017 is all about digitising natural history collections to make them available to all to research and study, and participating Museums and Institutions around the world will be hosting live events  as well as inviting others to join us online.

The Natural History Museum will be hosting two Visiteer groups on the Thursday and Friday of WeDigBio to tackle Miniature Fossils Magnified. We’re going to aim to get this Expedition completed, so the more people you can invite to join us, the merrier!  You can follow our progress at @NHM_Digitise.

WeDigBio will be a great opportunity to meet other natural history enthusiasts around the world online, so be sure to follow the communications on @WeDigBio and #WeDigBio2017 to find out how to join the live video feeds during the day to connect with folks from Australia to Europe to North America.

The 3rd and final batch of Forams has launched

We’re thrilled to let you know that the Natural History Museum London launched the third and final batch of the Miniature Fossils Magnified expedition on Notes from Nature last week, although many of you have already discovered it, and the intrepid @PVerbeeck has already done one full sweep of the entire subject set!

At our annual European Researcher’s Night, which we dub Science Uncovered, we showcased the work of the Digital Collections Programme at one of the many tables showing off research that happens at the Museum, which you can see in this image to the left.

We had out our scanning equipment which we’ve been using to digitise our entire louse collection, which you can read about in more detail in this blog post on our Museum website.

As the theme for the night was Oceans, in keeping with our new blue whale display in the main hall and exhibition on wales, we also had a number of marine louse slides for folks to take a closer look at under the microscope.

We also invited folks to help us to process this newly digitised collection by typing in the collection date for each of the marine louse specimen records, using an interface that we developed especially for the night. They did a great job, and processed 129 classifications for us – a great result for a fun night out!

We may be asking for more help with this collection soon, so do keep your eyes peeled.

But in the meantime, a huge thank-you to all of you who are helping us to set our Foraminifera data free, the microscopic single-celled organisms that can tell us so much about the history of our oceans, going back 150 million years!


A brief summer break for the microscopic Foraminifera

A big thank-you to everyone who has helped us transcribe the first two batches of 2,071 foram slides. We are currently preparing the third and final batch, which will go live on Notes from Nature in September. Please share any suggestions with us on how we can improve the workflow and tutorials!

In the meantime, we thought you might like this piece on the Natural History Museum website about how much we can learn from these microscopic fossils:

Oceans under the microscope: mapping the future with fossils

Coral fossils dating back to the Palaeozoic Era (about 541 to 252 million years ago). Different types of corals have thrived at different times in the past. Ancestors of living corals first appear in the fossil record about 245 million years ago, after a mass extinction at the end of the Permian Period (252 million years ago) wiped out all Palaeozoic corals.

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