Tom Humphrey, Herbaria@home: crowd-sourcing the documentation of natural science collections

Herbaria@home, herbarium records, snapshot of the world before agriculture, including areas now completely obliterated. Found plant, Ghost Orchid, thought to be extinct.

Plant don’t move, but they do invade, e.g. Oxford Ragwort. Scilian plant introduced in 1700 to an Oxford botanical garden, escaped, and now has spread out across UK. Roesbay willowherb, but railways have distributed seeds and now it’s everywhere. Plants also go by road, e.g. Danish scurvy grass, should be coastal, but now has colonised verges.

Plant populations are in flux. Modern survey data alone isn’t enough, so need the historic data to give context.

Web based project to catalogue old data. Collection of 50,000 documents he is working on, several million UK-wide, but even with willing volunteers (in person) there are too many records.

Online, Wikipedia established that people would do this sort of online work, you can allow open access editing and it wouldn’t be mayhem. Distributed Proofreaders showed that people will transcribe text from the internet.

Have taken photos of documents and put them online along with a form that people can fill out to say what they see in the label data around the specimen image, e.g. site names, collectors, date.

Some of the documents are quite clear, because they are printed, but there are a lot of hand-written documents, e.g. from 1859, and the handwriting poses quite a problem. Handwriting recognition may eventually get there but it is quite a long way off.

Once you have the data, can give it a grid reference and put it on a map. Can validate a lot of the data as they enter it. Need volunteers to collaborate and discuss what they see, so have active message boards. Have a pretty expert volunteer set, e.g. with plant recognition especially of rare plants.

Have worked on collections from several large universities and museums, and often they don’t have a full time curator for these collections so that data is inaccessible otherwise.

Peer-revuew of records, people have free access to edit anything, and public edit history for every record. Botanists able to spot errors and make changes, but a lot of non-professional botanical expertise, people keen to work on a project like this.

Some similar collections likely to come online in similar projects soon, e.g. insects.

Benefits: improve access to collections, raise profile of collections, and people enjoy it as a hobby.