Natural History Museum: ‘We hope people will discover new species with our open data’

By digitising and releasing its collection of 80 million specimens for anyone to access, NHM engages people around the world to discover, analyse and even 3D print them

In the run up to the ODI Summit on 3 November, we speak to Ben Scott, the Natural History Museum’s Data Portal Lead Architect, on how their new data portal is changing the way species are viewed, recorded and discovered.

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The Natural History Museum wants to make its specimens accessible to people across the world. CC BY 3.0, uploaded by Natural History Museum.

Hello Ben. What do you think are the best impacts the Natural History Museum’s new data platform has had so far?​​

The impact I’m most excited about is still yet to happen. We know that within our vast collection of 80 million items there are species new to science, which have either been described incorrectly, or never even been looked at. With a collection of this size and antiquity, inconsistencies are impossible to avoid. As we digitise these specimens and release them onto the portal, we hope someone will be able to discover and name a completely new species. That would be a pretty amazing open data impact!

What was the reason for the Natural History Museum taking this step and releasing specimen data?

The Museum’s efforts to release its collections online stems from our public service remit. The specimens belong to everyone, and we have an obligation to make them available to as many people as possible. Another driver is unlocking the scientific data from our collection. For example, the changing time and location of specimens collected over the past 250 years helps inform climate modelling. We need to transcribe our specimens and record them in databases to make that possible.

What do you think this means for the future of museums and research?

A digital record will never replace the awe and wonder you feel when visiting a museum, but can make a real impact on how the public engages with them. Take the Natural History Museum for example; there wouldn’t be enough space in all of South Kensington to display our 80 million specimens. But once our digitisation work is complete, anyone anywhere in the world can view every one of them.

The data portal will develop alongside other innovative technologies, such as 3D printing: if someone wants to examine the physical specimen, they’ll be able to print a copy, anywhere in the world. Along with many museums we’re already trialing 3D printing for inter-institution loans. Imagine if after visiting the museum you’d be able to print out your own copy of Dippy the Diplodocus or Sophie the Stegosaurus.

Essentially, it’s not enough to make our collection data available – we need to maximise its utility in research, use it to answer some big questions and engage the public by using it to tell interesting stories.

As the number of councils, cities and countries opening up their data increases, which sector do you think stands to gain the most and why?

I think government stands to gain the most, and be the most transformed, by open data. It’s fantastic to see the release of so many open datasets related to parliament, bringing unprecedented transparency and accountability to our politics. We can see how our MPs have voted, their financial interests, even what expenses they’ve claimed. But openness and digital has the potential to completely transform our political landscape. In a connected age, the need to nominate a representative to act on our behalf is no longer as vital as it once was. If the public is privy to the same information as our MPs, and a majority chooses a certain path, to what extent should MPs be bound to their decision? It’ll be fascinating to see if over the coming years greater openness about the decision-making process will make it more inclusive.

What will you be talking about at the ODI Summit?

At the museum I act as an open data publisher, but in previous roles I have been at the other end of the pipeline, helping to build websites like richseam.com, pic.is and mpreportcard.co.uk which aggregate many open data sources. At the summit I will talk about the different challenges facing open data producers and consumers, and how we can make open data more useful and accessible.

The ODI Summit this year celebrates Generation Open: global citizens who embrace network thinking. How is open culture bringing transparency, accessibility, innovation or collaboration to the sector you work in?

The culture of openness is transforming science. Researchers are increasingly expected to deposit their data in open access repositories – and this is often now mandated by research funding bodies. The drive for free, open access publishing is transforming the traditional pay-walled scientific publication model. Similarly, at the Natural History Museum there is the expectation that as a publicly-funded institution we are obliged to make our collection and data publicly available, leading us to adopt our new policy of ‘open by default’.

Which innovation or discovery in open data has most inspired or surprised you?

I find the innovation around geospatial data the most inspirational, especially as historically these data were subject to the most restricted access. The maps produced by the openstreetmap community are superb, and along with the vast amounts of cartographic and satellite data released by institutions like NASA and Ordnance Survey has allowed some really creative applications of the data.

What direction do you see open data heading in over the next five years, and what most excites you about its future?

Open data from the Internet Of Things is going to be very interesting, and there are already some great projects coming out of this, like thingful.net. I think there is also huge potential in joining up different datasets, many of which are still published in institutional silos. This is the promise of linked open data, but the overheads of publishing it is often high. However, many new big data processing technologies are transforming how we can use and meld datasets, allowing people to create new datasets aggregating all knowledge for a particular sphere of interest.

Ben will be presenting his talk ‘The Natural History Museum’s Data Portal Project: opening up locked-away collections’ at the ODI Summit 2015 ODI Summit 2015, NFT1 Keynote Theatre, 14.45-15:05. Book your place today.

If you have ideas or experience in open data that you’d like to share, pitch us a blog or tweet us at @ODIHQ.

Hannah Foulds is Digital Marketing Manager at the ODI.

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