Endorsing the Science International Open Data Accord | Digital Collections Programme

A growing number of museums are joining open data initiatives to publish their collection databases and digital reproductions online. The Museum has operated a policy of open by-default on our digital scientific collections.

Photograph of Vince Smith, Head of Informatics reading the Science International Data Accord
Vince Smith, Head of Informatics reading the Science International Data Accord

By signing the International Open Data Accord, the Museum recognises the opportunities and challenges of the data revolution and adopts a set of internationally recognised principles as our response to these.

We have a programme working towards the digitisation of our 80 million specimens. Once our specimens have been digitised their data is released through the Museum’s open Data Portal, which has had more than 1 billion records accessed by about 5,000 users since April 2015.

Image of Natural History Museum's Data Portal
The Museum’s Data Portal

Through the Data Portal we licence our content with minimal restrictions enabling others to reuse our collection images with a simple attribution statement, and by waiving the rights to our data records these are now effectively in the public domain.

This policy has been in place since 2015 and is paying dividends by exposing the Museum’s collections to new and far larger audiences than would have otherwise been possible.

The beaks of bird specimens housed at the Museum at Tring, such as this robin, were scanned in 3D for the project. Photograph by Lara Nouri.

Researchers from the University of Sheffield have been using the bird collections at the Natural History Museum at Tring for their Mark My Bird research project, to measure the size and shape of 10,000 species of bird. Bird bills are adapted to particular diets and foraging techniques, so can tell us about the ‘ecological niche’ of species – the role an animal plays in its environment.

This data is a vital resource for scientists around the world looking at the origins and maintenance of biological diversity. This is now available as a data set on the Data Portal.

One of the advantages of using open licenses for our content is that widely used sites, such as Wikimedia Commons, can reuse the images. By uploading exemplar content to Wikimedia Commons we can reach a much larger audience and share the Museum’s expertise on the natural world e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ceratophyllus_rossittensis.

Recently we began releasing images of British fleas on Wikimedia Commons to illustrate articles that were previously without images.  In the future we intend to release more exemplar content and are working with Wikimedia UK to make this a more automated and sustainable process.

To stay up to date with our digitisation programme please follow @NHM_Digitse on twitter. You can also follow @MacrobirdEvol to find out more about Mark My Bird and to take part in their #BeakOfTheWeek challenge each Wednesday.