Addressing planetary challenges with open data

At the Natural History Museum, London, we provide global open access by default and share our digital collections data on the Museum’s Data Portal.

Since 2015, 28 billion records have been downloaded over 429,000 download events and more than 1407 research papers have cited data from the Data portal and partner platforms like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), covering topics from biodiversity to climate change, crop security and human health.

Data in Action on the large and small scale

Over 150 new papers have been published so far in 2021 using our data. A recent study by Williams et al used a global dataset of vertebrate species (including 32,000 NHM records from the PREDICTS dataset) and estimated their climatic tolerance limits within habitats that humans had altered (through farming, deforestation, urbanisation) relative to that in natural habitats. Researchers found that where temperature extremes were closer to species’ limits, population abundances were lower in human-altered areas relative to natural habitat.

Ceratitis capitata, the Mediterranean fruit fly, found on a lemon

A smaller study by Gilioli et al looked at 3988 records in total with NHM data making up more than 18% of these records. In this study researchers were looking at a specific crop pest, Ceratitis capitata the Mediterranean fruit fly and its responses to climate change. This fly is considered one of the most important threats for horticulture and the fruit industry. It causes damage to fruits by the female laying its eggs inside the fruit and has been reported on more than 300 host plants including citrus, stone fruits, pome fruits, tomatoes and figs. One of the reasons this insect is so successful is its adaptability to different climatic conditions and its ability to travel long distances. Gilioli et al have used NHM data combined with others to model reliable risk scenarios. This evidence is important for agriculture research and development. By using Museum digital collections in this way, decision based on this research are based on hundreds of years of evidence and data.

If you want to read more about our Data in Action, we have written recent blogs around some of the research that has made use of our digital collection including  looking for evidence to protect rainforests, using UK lepidoptera collection to time travel with butterflies.

Improving Data Access

We have been working on some more media-focused features on the Museum’s Data Portal with a mix of improvements in performance as well as some new features. We have a new integration with ORCID to enable better attribution of the datasets our scientists publish through the Data Portal and we’ll soon be releasing a new bidirectional integration with Phenome10k, allowing users of both sites to connect the specimen data in the Data Portal with the 3D scans and papers of Museum specimens on Phenome10k.

We are in the process of releasing some updates to our specimen image delivery service. The first stage of this work will bring increased performance and stability to specimen images on the Data Portal. The new system also has a few tricks up its sleeve, including instant one-click original downloads (at last!) and larger preview and thumbnail images. We are also expanding the IIIF pilot we implemented last year enabling viewers to interact with high resolution images of beetle drawers to support all specimen images. This is an incredibly exciting development and once fully rolled out will provide researchers and the public alike with the ability to view our specimens like never before. Watch this space!

As we approach the end of the year, we’re going to be focusing our development efforts on improving the user experience when searching for specimens, building on the new image delivery service to capitalise on its new capabilities and we’ll be working on exposing genomic data through the Data Portal to support important projects like Darwin Tree of Life.

We love to find out how our data is being used, so if you are currently using data from the Data Portal in your research, we’d love to hear from you. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram for the latest news on digitising the collection, and keep up to date with our blog posts for more examples of our data in action. 


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