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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.

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What we’ve been learning thanks to your help and participation – a museum view.

This past month I seem to be in reporting mode, with a number of Conferences all lined up in a row. It’s been a great opportunity to meet many other scientists and researchers with Natural History collections and compare notes about our efforts to fully digitise those and get them online for anyone in the world to research or explore.

As we wait on the final few images in the Miniature Lives Magnified (MLM) expedition to be fully retired (don’t let that 100% complete fool you ), I thought it would be a nice moment to report back to you what we’ve been learning so far, thanks to your help!!

The slideshow below is the one that I presented to my SYNTHESYS consortium partners at a two-day meeting in the Natural History Museum to share all of our outcomes with each other. This is the source of my own funding up until this coming August, and all of us in the consortium have natural history collections that we have been digitising.

I always try not to put too many words on the slides themselves, so I’ve replicated my voice-over for you below, following the slides numerically.

(There is something going wrong with embedding that slideshow in the post here – so please open up the presentation in another tab, and read my notes below at the same time: https://www.slideshare.net/MobileMaggie/setting-collections-data-free-with-the-power-of-the-crowd-synthesys3 to open it.

  1. The title of my talk
  2. Where my work has fit into the total SYNTHESYS project (WP = Work Package, Obj = Objective)
  3. The context of my work here at the Natural History Museum London, it’s a pretty big collection, so a very ambitious project to digitise it all!
  4. We have a huge variety of types of specimens, that all have their own unique photography challenges
  5. And we’ve got some unique specimen label challenges as well!
  6. Not the least of which is, reading handwritten labels – and this is the main reason that we can’t use Optical Character Recognition software to let computers digitise it for us.
  7. Because of the scale of the challenge, we’ve been asking people’s help by donating some of their ‘down-time’ to transcribe these labels – that’s YOU! 🙂 Did you know that you were using your cognitive surplus? 😉  The reason I like this example of how many hours people have spent watching Gangnam Style on YouTube, is that time could have built Wikipedia a time and a half over again. This relates pretty closely to what we’re trying to do – we want to make the data in our collections available for anyone in the world online, and our even longer term goal is to link that to research, curators, scientists, etc…
  8. …getting a giggle from the audience…
  9. We started by scanning all of the things in our collection that are small and flat – because they are the easiest to start with – and that’s why you are seeing so many microscope slides from us!
  10. This is our Open Data Portal, where everything that you help us process will be published. I’m really looking forward to sending you a link to the final data there by the end of the summer (fingers crossed).
  11. As we get better at the scanning work, we’re starting to be able to handle large volumes. This is my colleague Louise, who is currently scanning our Louse collection, both imaging the microscope slides AND making lovely enlarged images of the specimen itself. We’re hoping that this might become an expedition, and it will be FAR more enjoyable to be able to see the specimens up close like that.
  12. And this is what your volunteer effort has helped us to accomplish so far. YAY!
  13. These are the two expeditions that the Natural History Museum London has on Notes from Nature, both in Magnified
  14. Introducing Notes from Nature to the SYNTHESYS audience, with thanks to NfN for their support in being able to use this great platform, and to be working closely with the NfN community – that’s YOU! 🙂
  15. This is what your pattern of contribution has been looking like for the three batches of the MLM expedition.
  16. Those big spikes are the days that we’ve had a group of volunteers in the Museum with us for the whole day on the expedition – it’s been wonderful to be able to give them face-to-face training and support, and once they get the hang of it, some of them have been stellar super-transcribers. This slide is our record holder day 🙂
  17. This is an event format that we call “Visiteering” because it is both volunteer work with us for the day, but also visiting the museum and meeting the curator. If you’re ever in London (yes, I’ve got your name on my list GH!!) please do tell me so that you can join one of these days!!
  18. Some of you are really super 🙂  – super-transcribers that have made a HUGE contribution as an individual – but the whole picture of lots of little contributions also absolutely adds up to something very valuable. (This is the data from our first batch of Chalcid slides).
  19. The first data that we got from the first batch showed us what we already new to a degree – telling the difference between the scientific name of the Chalcid specimen itself, and the host insect it had parasitised, and the host plant on which that was found – is pretty tough!! The errors we were finding were mostly related to that. But your transcription work isn’t lost in those cases – where it looks like a piece of data is in the wrong field, we’ll simply move it over to a catch-all notes section so that it is still fully searchable.
  20. Two of our partners in the SYNTHESYS consortium also have an expedition on Notes from Nature, which I helped them put together and launch.
  21. The Amaranthacae were still not done yet at that time, and they have been more slow going. They are completely transcribed now though – HUGE thanks! We look forward to sharing information with you about what that partner (The Botanisher Garten in Berlin) learns from the collection.
  22. We think (thanks to your comments in Talk and Chat), that this has been more difficult partially because there is such a wide range of label styles, such as this one
  23. and this one.
  24. And we (I) made the mistake of trying to capture all of the possibilities – which resulted in a pretty long workflow, that can be confusing.
  25. Going back up to the other project
  26. The Primulacae from Kew Gardens are still not completed yet, and are similarly slow going.
  27. Once again we think that the wide variety of labels is one of the factors
  28. as well as a more complicated workflow that is trying to capture all of the possibilities
  29. And then the most recent Natural History Museum London expedition is the Fossil slides.
  30. This is the display table that I had out at the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival where we launched that project. The pyramid is made out of the same sandstone that the real pyramids are built out of, and they contain Nummulites, a Formanifera fossil that is shown in the specimen beside it. On the smooth side of the pyramid you can see what these fossils look like as a ‘slice’ – which is how they appear on the Miniature Fossils Magnified (MFM) microscope slides!
  31. Here is how the MFM project is going so far
  32. There are a number of things I’ve been learning from your feedback in the Talk forums, and from the data you’ve been generating for us – such as Drop Down menus making the workflows much easier, and lowering the risk of error.
  33. And this is the latest project that I’ve helped a SYNTHESYS partner to launch – the Exploring Tropical Sweden expedition that was built directly onto the Zooniverse platform instead of Notes from Nature, because we were offering both an english and a swedish-language workflow for the local audience of Swedish Museum of Natural History fans. Luckily they needed less information from their labels, so the workflow is very easy!
  34. This project got a huge boost when it first launched, thanks to the communications from the Museum in Stockholm, and the Zooniverse community of testers for new projects built on Panoptes (the open project builder that we used to launch this).
  35. The Museum in Stockholm held an in-house Citizen Science day where they invited the public to take part in helping to transcribe their Brachiopod labels, and they really enjoyed speaking to volunteers like yourselves.
  36. Their Talk forums have been very active, and you can see a few peaks when a person really dove in and did lots of transcribing, and also had lots of interesting questions!
  37. So coming back to the context of the SYNTHESYS project, as this presentation is being given to my consortium partners (21 institutions from all over Europe, who all have natural history collections). In particular I wanted them to know that the value of the effort you’ve been making on our behalves is not just about the volume of transcriptions – there are all sort of other ‘non-quantifiable’ benefits of institutions doing projects like this together with the public.
  38. I shared an example of one of you lovely people who went diving into a thorough research of the web to discover the exact location of Wema Island (with apologies again from me for mis-reporting the country, after an in-house volunteer also did a deep search for this) – I know from the Talk forums that many of you have been enjoying finding out more and are really great detectives for these collections!
  39. I shared the example of our favourite ‘nature blogger’ in the Talk forums 🙂 sharing so many lovely observations of the plants and flowers in her immediate environment, and how she is encouraging others to share their observations as well.
  40. And I shared some of my own examples of a computer-room session I ran at my daughter’s primary school here in England, with a group of 10 and 11 year olds doing the Tiger Beetles. Through this project they learned the names of the provinces of Canada, which we wrote on the whiteboard along with their abbreviations. They learned what ‘altitude’ meant. We talked about why collectors write down all of this information on labels, and why it is important. They had great questions for me, such as ‘Are there any Tiger Beetles in England?’ – so we did some internet searching together. And these quotes are what they told me at the end :).
  41. There are sometimes some lovely little surprises in these collections. For example, some of the Brachiopod fossils in the Swedish Museum of Natural History collection were collected by the then King of Sweden!
  42. And although this example is from someone who works with collections in Ontario, and is not related to one of these projects, it does show that sometimes there is some quite poignant history captured in these collections as well.
  43. From our point of view at the Natural History Museum in London, providing more awareness of our collections behind the scenes is an important part of our public outreach. (That is our Chalcids curator Natalie showing our Visiteers her specimen work space, and some of the pinned Chalcids in her collection)
  44. This is the Data Portal where all of your hard work will be published, and made available for anyone in the world to research. As a Museum we hold these specimens in trust for the public. They don’t belong to us. And that is why it is so important that they are truly available to anyone – which includes folks without research & accommodation budgets to come and spend time physically studying our collections, as well as those who are just generally curious.
  45. We’ve been showcasing this data, via our Data Portal and the Application Programming Interface (API) through which you can access that data, to the developer community as well. This is a ‘Hack Day’ event that I ran with 200+ developers, where we invited them to explore our collections data and do interesting things with it.
  46. This is the team that won our Natural History Open Data Challenge‘, by creating a wonderful interface into our Bioaccoustica data, that allows you to listen to them ‘spatially’.
  47. I then had a moment for our audience to ask any questions.
  48. These are spare photos that I had ready in case anyone had questions about our efforts to digitise all of our collections.
  49. Here you see a contraption that one of my colleagues invented to hold an ancient folio of bound herbarium sheets open for photographing, in a way that won’t tear the pages or break the spine. He built it using LEGO Mechanics, with the cut-off fingers of surgical gloves on their tips to protect the pages!
  50. This is what the first photo looks like, using this method (on the left), and then with software we’re able to straighten that image out a bit better (on the right).
  51. And this is our set-up for photographing the pinned-insects, that not only need to be captured from more than one angle to study them properly, but also to capture the labels that are pinned underneath the insect itself.

And that’s a wrap 🙂 Do let me know if you have any questions!! You can contact me at any time at m.gold@nhm.ac.uk.

If you’re interested in finding out more about our digisitsation work at the Natural History Museum in London, you can read our own blog here: https://blog.nhm.ac.uk/tag/digital-collections-programme/, and you can find out more about the Digital Collections Programme itself here: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/our-science/our-work/digital-museum/digital-collections-programme.html

Miniature Fossils Magnified

Help scientists learn secrets of ancient seas

Today we drove down from the Natural History Museum in London to the jurassic coast of Dorset for the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival – where we are launching our latest crowdsourcing project – Miniature Fossils Magnified – just in time for #FossilFriday!!

The slides feature fossils of single-celled organisms called foraminifera, or forams for short, embedded in slices of rock.

Foraminifera are found in both modern and ancient marine environments and preserve well thanks to shells called tests.

The foraminifera specimens in the Miniature Fossils Magnified project lived in shallow tropical seas from 500 million years ago to the present day.

More than 2,000 microscope slides have been digitally imaged so far. Now the Museum needs as many people as possible to help transcribe the information on the specimen labels – such as the species name, location of where the sample material came from and its geological age – so that the data can be used for scientific research.

The project was set up by Dr Stephen Stukins and Dr Giles Miller, senior curators of micropalaeontology, and Science Community Coordinator Margaret Gold.

Dr Stukins says,

These fossilised organisms were very sensitive to their environment, so with this data we can better understand past conditions in the oceans and climate change through time.

‘All of this knowledge can be applied to what is happening now and in the future, giving us a better understanding of how our climate and oceans are changing.

Ocean organisms with a tale to tell

Foraminifera are among the most abundant shelled organisms in our oceans. A cubic centimetre of sediment may hold hundreds of living individuals, and many more shells.

Some forams spend their lives floating in the ocean. When they die, they sink to the seafloor and gradually become buried in sediment. Others – benthic foraminifera – live on or near the seafloor. The Miniature Fossils Magnified project features a collection of large benthic foraminifera.

Their sizes range from a few tens of microns in diameter – like a small grain of sand – to several centimetres across.

The material was collected during the mid-twentieth century as part of oil exploration in the Middle East. The scientists involved in dating rocks described many new foraminifera species and the slides were later given to the Museum due to their scientific value.

The data on the slide labels are invaluable. Analysing them can help us to understand how our climate and sea levels have changed, and also tell us the geological history of the area in which they were found.

A record of ancient environments

Foraminifera shells are often divided into chambers and can be quite elaborate, although simple open tube or hollow sphere forms exist.

Because of the abundance and variety of foraminifera, their fossils are extremely important for dating rocks.

They also provide a record of the environment where they’re found. Sea level and temperature changes affect the diversity and population sizes of foraminifera species, as well as the growth of individuals, impacting their size. Studying fossil foraminifera can therefore help scientists to understand past conditions.

Scientists can also study fossils from known periods of change to observe how foraminifera responded to particular climate and ocean conditions. If we then see similar changes to foraminfera living on tropical reefs in the future, this can help scientists to deduce how quickly the changes are happening and predict what may happen.

People-powered science

Dr Miller says,

‘The Museum collection of larger benthic foraminifera is one of the most significant in the world but is little used because much of it remains undigitised.

‘By helping to digitise this collection, you will keep it relevant for scientific studies long into the future.’

 

3rd expedition of the NHM Chalcids launched in ‘Magnified’

Well, that came quick! We’re thrilled to now be launching our third and final batch of Chalcid slides on Notes from Nature!

Before you dive in, we thought you might like to find out more about these astonishing creatures in this article about the third-smallest winged insect ever known, which was discovered by our now-retired NHM colleague John Noyes and fellow researcher John Huber while on a research trip in Costa Rica:

The mysteries of the tinker bell wasp, one of smallest bugs ever discovered

Shots of a tinkerbella nana female taken under a microscope. From the top of its head to the bottom of its abdomen, the tinker bell wasp is 0.25 mm in length, about three times the width of the average human hair. (From the Journal of Hymenoptera Research)

Thank-you to everyone who gave us feedback about how we might make this last set easier to transcribe, with some additional information about where to find the required data on the labels.

There are three collectors in particular who have made a very large contribution to this collection, so we thought it might be useful to highlight their slide labels and point out some information that might have been hard to interpret.

JS Noyes

John Noyes is a recently-retired colleague at the Natural History Museum who we still regularly see in our collection room pursuing his love of studying the Chalcidoidae – in fact he created a database that you may find to be a valuable resource when puzzling out scientific names: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/our-science/data/chalcidoids/. We like how neat and tidy his slides always are!

SB / S.C.B. 

Sydney Charles Scarsdale Brown lived in Bournemouth, and seems to have gone on lots of local jaunts to collect the Mymaridae, using Malaise Traps. You can learn more about him in our post The Dentist who collected Fairyflies . His slides are some of the most frustrating in the collection because they’ll get your head flipping from one side to the other, but once you know that there are typically only a few pieces of data we need here, they are much easier to process.

 

C. Waterhouse

Charles Waterhouse  was an Assistant Keeper at the Natural History Museum, and seems to have preferred Richmond and Burnham Beeches to go on his collection trips for the Chalcidoideae. His slides will often have nicely printed labels with old fashioned hand-writing and a neatly typed British Museum registration number.

Fred Enock

You will also see many slides that have been prepared by Fred Enock, who worked at the Museum at the same time as C. Waterhouse, and was an Entomologist in his own right – naming many species (see if you can spot ‘enock’ written after any of the scientific species name on some of these labels). But more commonly found in our collection will be his preparation labels, where he is NOT the Collector. He’s quite an interesting person who we know a fair bit about – so keep your eyes peeled for a future blog post!

Three cheers for Visiteers!

Thanks to an awesome group of volunteers who came to visit us at the Natural History Museum London today (Visiteers), the second batch of Chalcid slides in the Magnified section have now been completely classified! Hurray!

 

 

Visiteering is one of the ways in which we invite the public to take part in our science at the museum, and today’s stellar group has set an all-time record for number of classifications in one day. Absolutely Awesome.

 

We’ll try to get the third and final batch of Chalcid slides launched in a new Expedition soon – but in the meantime, a VERY big thank-you to the Notes from Nature community and our Visiteers in the museum for all of your help in setting this data free.

 

Explore the world of the wasps with our Curator Gavin Broad

For all of you who have been helping us transcribe the specimen labels of the Chalcids – our slide-mounted parasitoid wasps, we thought you might enjoy learning about these fascinating creatures, and other members of the wasp family. Gavin Broad, who is Curator of Hymenoptera at the Natural History Museum did an #NHM_Live on Facebook last night (a weekly broadcast). Do watch the recording to find out why wasps are so undeserving of their bad reputation and that some even make honey.

2nd expedition of the NHM Chalcids launched on ‘Magnified’

We’re pleased to launch our second batch of microscope slides featuring the parasitoid wasps called Chalcids (pronounced ‘kal-sids’), which lay their eggs inside other insects. 

The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed that we have updated the Expedition title from ‘Killer Wasps’ to “Miniature Lives Magnified” and have made some small tweaks to the structure of the Workflow, and have also attempted to make our instructions and ‘Need more Help?’ text and examples more clear. Do drop us a note in the Talk forum if we can continue to make further improvements.

miniature-lives-magnified

The Background Story

As part of our effort to digitise the collections of the Natural History Museum London, we have been collaborating with the Notes from Nature team to explore the potential of crowdsourcing the transcription of our specimen labels. 

Our first pilot project was called The killer within: Wasps but not as you know them, and was launched in the newly-created ‘Magnified’ section on Notes from Nature on August 16th, 2016.

The purpose of this initial Expedition was to test the functionality of the platform, and the difficulty of the task for the community of volunteers.

Your response was stellar – over 600 people got involved in completing the first batch of 2,000+ slides  – a particular thank-you goes out to our 9 super-transcribers @maggiej , @reinheitscat , @dfreezor , @Sagaman , @HDumas , @RedBee , @stevenhm , @rgerman , and @Mikusan. The data-set that you have created for us is looking good. We are therefore launching our second batch of slides with confidence!

About the Chalcids

These microscope slides feature parasitoid wasps called Chalcids (pronounced ‘kal-sids’), which lay their eggs inside other insects. These tiny wasps are parasitoids, meaning they lay their eggs inside other insects. When chalcid eggs hatch the emerging larvae eat the inside of their host. They then grow and pupate until mature enough to burst out as adults, finally killing the host.

We have 6286 microscope slides in the collection and are asking the crowdsourcing community to collect data about when and where the specimen was collected, who by, and what host species it was collected from, as well as some museum collection data.

Here’s an example:

example-slide

These microscope slides contain the smallest members of the Chalcidoidea Superfamily, which are unfortunately impossible to see in the images on Notes from Nature – we encourage you to take a peak at those that are large enough to pin – their variety and beauty is amazing!

lycisca-ogloblina-hedqvist-1961

Hundreds of Chalcidoidea species have been used in biological control programs to combat insect pest species that damage crops, this translates into millions of pounds of savings in the agricultural sector.  Digitisation of Museum specimens such as those in our Miniature Lives Magnified project will help unlock and preserve species and distribution data essential for carrying out research to develop such programs.”- Natalie Dale-Skey Curator, Entomology

 

 

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