So much of what we know about natural history is handwritten on specimen labels, dispersed throughout the world’s museums, and stored in glass jars.
All this data is the key to answering some of the most pressing scientific and societal challenges but it is difficult to use in its current form. Maximizing this data will require worldwide efforts to digitize natural history collections. However, two hurdles have made this challenging: First, we must transcribe handwritten specimen data into digital records and, second, we must translate descriptions of where specimens come from into coordinates on the map. As many as 91% of digitized specimen records are missing these key elements, diminishing their utility. Estimates put the number of specimens around the world at over three billion. Over the past twenty years, this problem has been getting worse, not better.
This is the digitization gap and we are the digileapers.
We are developing workflows to accelerate specimen digitization and make the data broadly available to museums and stakeholders alike. In our novel approach, humans and computers work synergistically to advance digitization. Computers automate the conversion of scanned specimen labels into properly formatted digital text while human volunteers validate the output. We coordinate our public participation in scientific research (PPSR) on a popular platform called Notes from Nature (NfN). Meanwhile, we are also building on previous efforts to assign map coordinates to specimen collection location using automated tools. Finally, we are working to return this critical specimen data back to museums and other databases. Together, these workflows will result in a 5-fold increase in research-ready natural history data.
The End Product:
Ultimately, we will create tools to make this data available for museum providers, researchers and anyone who has an interest. Not only will we connect community scientists to novel technologies, but we will expand the tools available to the next generation of bioinformatic and museum scientists.