At the International Congress of Entomology | Digital Collections Programme

This October, several colleagues from the insects division of the Museum attended the 25th International Congress of Entomology (ICE2016), an event that is held every four years. This year’s took place in Orlando, Florida with the theme “entomology without borders.” The Museum’s Vince Smith writes about his experiences at the world’s biggest entomological conference.

Photo of a lake plus fountain in front of trees and the convention centre building
Part of the cavernous Orange County Convention Center which hosted ICE2016

With 6,682 delegates from 102 countries, giving a staggering 5,396 presentations, the plenary sessions were more like attending a football match (in scale if not in tone) than a scientific meeting! This is the largest conference I’ve ever attended – my heartfelt congratulations to the organisers for ensuring ICE2016 ran smoothly.

Navigating ICE2016 was no small challenge, the printed conference proceedings were the size of a telephone directory. The practical solution was to use a dedicated mobile app. This provided the latest program information, while a dashboard allowed me to create a personal schedule, link to exhibitors, and connect with other attendees. You could even see all the show chatter via the built-in social media feeds. It didn’t crash once, the only constraint was the battery life on my phone.

The size of the venue meant that it was near-impossible to move between sessions, so many delegates tended to camp out in symposia of interest. With nearly 40 parallel sessions there was no shortage to choose from – unfortunately that meant  sessions of great interest were sometimes scheduled concurrently.

This was especially the case for those covering digital entomological projects, including the session I was speaking in (Building the Biodiversity Knowledge Graph for Insects), which ran parallel to another session (Data Without Borders: Collecting, Digitizing, Using, and Reusing Biological Specimen Data) run by colleagues at iDigBio. Fortunately, iDigBio’s symposium was recorded, but alas our session was not. All speakers have thankfully agreed to make their slides available post-event, but it was a shame to split the digital entomological audience.

I presented on a series of digital entomology projects at the Museum, that form part of our Digital Collections Programme. These are part-funded through the SYNTHESYS3 project and cover a broad selection of digital activities including specimen digitisation, crowdsourcing, data portals, linked open data, mobile apps and some computer vision research. Representing many people’s work in just 12 minutes of speaking time I could do little more than present a quick summary of each project, but this provided a good overview of our activities. (You can view a PDF of my slides here: Digital Entomology at the Museum.pdf)

Other highlights from the session included an update on Taxon Works by Matt Yoder, the successor to Special File which occupies a similar niche to our own Scratchpads initiative, and Global Biodiversity Information Facility’s presentation by Donald Holburn on Virtual Natural History Museums. 

A combination of 4 images. Top left: a drawer of beetles visualised as part of the computer vision research project. Top right: a screen shot of the online Data Portal's home page. Bottom left: Screen shots of the Fossil Explorer app. Bottom right: A volunteer peering at a computer screen.
Images of the Digital Collections Programme’s computer vision research, Data Portal and Fossil Explorer app, and of a Citizen Scientist transcribing microscopic slide data.

As an entomologist at heart, I should highlight a few entomological talks. Julie Allen (part of the Notes From Nature team), spoke about the new aTRAM method for use in in insect phylogenomics. Julie along with Kevin Johnson have been developing this method as a rapid way of assembling genes from next-generation sequencing data. This is having a huge impact on understanding of parasitic louse phylogeny. You can read more in their recent paper in BMC Bioinformatics.

The most surprising session for me was one on “Psocoptera” (i.e. non-parasitic lice). I expected a handful of entomologists interested in this obscure group (the closest relatives of the parasitic lice.) To my surprise, I found a room of nearly 100 people, all listening to a fascinating set of talks on Psocids as global pests of stored products. This session covered the latest in control and management, and included some fascinating research by Li Zhihong on molecular fingerprinting of different species as well as efforts to develop a field device that would support rapid molecular-based identification.

Overall, ICE2016 was a great success, in no small part due to the organisers. I was particularly pleased with the sessions on digital projects which are gaining more traction with the entomological community. Insects make up almost half of all known species, and entomological collections arguably face the greatest challenge when it comes to digitisation.

Is bigger necessarily better when it comes to conferences? Well possibly not, but since ICE is only every four years, the positive impact of bringing so many people together across such a diverse set of topics outweighs the cost.