Portraits inspired by data |Digital Collections Programme

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An algorithm produced portraits of Museum visitors made up of digital specimens instead of pixels – zoom in to see the specimens in each image.

On Friday 28 September we took part in European Researchers Night and tried something new with museum visitors. We have been experimenting with recreating photographs that contain digital specimens in place of the usual pixels.

Museum developer Alice Butcher has written a program which can search and sort thousands of images of specimens on the basis of colour. We have used this algorithm to produce images of Hintze Hall, Carl Linnaeus and Sir Richard Owen to help us communicate about the scale of our digitisation aims and the uses of natural history collection data.

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We recreated a portrait of Carl Linnaeus to mark reaching 4 million specimens on the Data Portal.

We also had some of our digitised specimens, 3D models and digitisation kit on display, to illustrate the challenge of imaging, transcribing and releasing data for the Museum’s collection at a mass scale, and talk to visitors about the benefits.

Digitiser Phaedra and Programme Manager Helen talking to visitors.

‘Activities like this help us reach new audiences beyond scientific researchers in the fascinating challenges and techniques of digitisation, and encourage new ways of thinking about collections by being a ‘digital specimen’. We also launched our @NHM_Digitise Instagram on the night, to share the fascinating specimens and stories we uncover while digitising the collection’ Digital Collections Programme Manager, Helen Hardy  

European Researchers Night was the first time we used this technique live and for the public. Participants pose in front of a green screen for their photo, which is then processed by Alice’s program to search a pool of 80,000 digital specimens’ images from the Museum’s Data Portal and place the best fitting into the correct position for each image. The process in total takes less than a minute. It then takes a further minute or so for the participant to send themselves an email of their digital portrait. We ran the activity for two hours and ‘digitised’ 50 visitors. To help communicate the scientific importance of digitisation, and encourage people to think about being a ‘digital specimen’, the portraits were placed within an image of a microscope slide.

‘It’s always a challenge to get technology to work under time constraints and in front of a live audience, but it was great to see how much everyone enjoyed the activity. I think the mosaics are a really interesting, interactive way to demonstrate the diversity of our collections.’ Alice Butcher

The Digital Collections Programme was initiated in 2014 to tackle digitisation on a mass scale. We want to get as much of the collection online and openly accessible as possible. We are digitising primarily for a scientific audience, capturing the most useful and important information for researchers – this is often the label data: the species, collection date and site, and location in the Museum. There have already been over 14 million digital records downloaded in over 170,000 download events, and these have been cited in hundreds of scientific papers addressing some of the biggest challenges of our time. For example, collections data on the distribution of Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes has been combined with population density data to improve understanding about global exposure to Zika virus.

Lead author Alberto Jose Alaniz comments on the use of Museum Specimens:

‘…if this kind of data are not available the possibility to lead spatial epidemiological studies of vector-borne infectious diseases is significantly reduced…It would have been necessary to generate the information through field campaigns, or by travelling to see the collections in person, which could have represented a very high amount of time/resources.’

Anyone in the world can explore, download and reuse the data for their own research or other uses. The Data Portal, like the Museum, is organised taxonomically, but has the potential to be digitally reorganised to suit any requirement.

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Eager participants at European Researchers’ Night.

We want to find new ways to interest all audiences in our collection online so that we can cater for everyone. In the future we’re planning to redesign parts of the site to improve the user experience and implement more advanced search features. We are currently working to integrate data from collections assessment exercises. This will allow users to understand what parts of the collections have been digitised and make recommendations on what should be digitised in the future.

If you are using Museum collection data or came to take part in our activity at European Researchers Night, we would love to hear from you – follow us on twitter or our brand new instagram channel to stay up to date with the programme and to tell us how you are using our specimens and what you would like to see in the future.

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