Open Access Week 2017 | Digital Collections Programme

October 23 – 29, 2017 is International Open Access Week and on this tenth anniversary of the event, institutions have been asked to discuss the benefits of making data openly accessible.

Photography of Vince Smith, Head of Diversity & Informatics in the Museum collection
Vince Smith, Head of Diversity & Informatics, the Museum’s signatory for the International data accord

Earlier this year, the Natural History Museum signed the International Open Data Accord stating that the Museum recognises the opportunities and challenges of the data revolution and adopts a set of internationally recognised principles support open access to our data.

We are open in order to make our collections available to the largest possible audience, to inspire a love of our natural world and unlock answers to the big issues facing humanity and the planet. V.Smith

This is a bold vision for the collection, Vince Smith, a leading proponent of the Museum’s Digital Collections programme, explained:

We are working towards the digitisation of our collections – some 80 million objects, to make available our unrivalled historical, geographic and taxonomic specimen data gathered in the last 250 years. At present just 4.5% of the Museum’s specimen collection have a digital record. This may not sound much but this is up from just 3% four years ago. These data, along with associated specimen images are released through the Museum’s Data Portal. Through this gateway and those of our partners like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, more than 5.9 billion records have been accessed in over 115,500 downloads since April 2015.

2 data portal october
The Museum’s Data Portal

The vast amount of data being produced by the programme has a huge role to play in safeguarding nature. Museum data is being incorporated in a variety of scientific research, from studies investigating the spread of Zika virus by Aedes mosquitos, research on how biodiversity responds to environmental change, and global conservation planning. While tracking the impact of our open data is challenging, we can point to 39 publications incorporating Museum data by researchers outside the Museum, and many others undertaken by Museum researchers.

Since signing the International Open Data Accord we have improved interfaces on the Data Portal. We now have faceted browsing, allowing users to explore our collections by easily applying multiple filters. There is also a new summary view, displaying key data about our collection records and access to high resolution images.​

Open Access to data and innovations

The Museum not only provides open access to our specimens but we also share our innovations and software development with the natural history community.  One of the applications we have developed is Inselect  a cross-platform, open source desktop application that automates the cropping of individual specimens from high resolution images of whole-drawer scans.

Inselect is now being used by a number of other natural history organisations around the world. For example, the Australian Museum in Sydney are using Inselect to identify individual specimens found in bulk samples of insects stored in ethanol, in their Insect Soup project, and our colleagues at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, are using Inselect to image fossils.

Thanks for Inselect – it’s workflow-changing! We have been whole drawer imaging fossils, but we have also been using Inselect to image concretions (basically a chunk of rock) that hold hundreds of fossils – which is basically only possible to do now that we have Inselect. Thanks again to you and your team – Inselect rules.

Susan H. Butts, Peabody Museum of Natural History

Responsible openness

Through the Museum’s data portal we licence our content with minimal restrictions enabling others to reuse our data. Some writers such as Adam Welz have highlighted concerns about the possible misuse of open specimen data, which could potentially put species at risk. Science depends on the transparency of information, but that we of course have a responsibility around what data goes online.

drawer of Guillemot eggs from the collection
Exquisite Guillemot eggs from the collection.

An example of where we need to be cautious is our egg collection. Douglas Russell, Senior Curator of Birds’ Eggs & Nests at the Museum received a donation of eggs from the RSPB after the clutch failed. These eggs were from an exceptionally rare british bird and were an important set of specimens to understand their breeding. Whilst we could redact the complete record data from publication we also want to be as open as possible. So in this situation we might apply finer control over what data fields we release, allowing researchers to contact us for further information, while not disclosing critical information that might endanger this rare species.

Vince Smith, Head of Diversity & Informatics Division at the Museum explained that “data is a vital resource for scientists around the world looking at the origins and maintenance of biological diversity. We therefore want to be open in order for our collections to reach a much larger audience and share the Museum’s expertise on the natural world. We are delighted to use the opportunity of International Open Access week to promote the impact of open data about the Museum’s collection.”

To find out how you can get involved in Open Access Week visit their website or events listing page. You can stay in touch with the digital collection programme and our digitisation projects by visiting the website or following us on twitter. You can also visit the Data Portal to start making use of the parts of the Museum’s collections that have already been digitised.