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Florida Natural History Museum Takes Part in Global Data Event

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When Rob Guralnick first dreamed up the idea of WeDigBio, he said he hoped to simply get local museum volunteers involved in scientific research. Like the plants and animals he studies at the Florida Natural History Museum, the idea grew, evolving into a global project as researchers and volunteers teamed up to convert research data from across the world into digital data.

Guralnick’s local event at the Natural History Museum in Gainesville on Oct. 24 was one of 32 happening internationally that weekend.

Senior biology major Clem Chaigne, right, transcribes ornithological data originally collected in the 1800s at one of about 20 laptops set up in the Florida Museum of Natural History as researchers and volunteers around him discuss the WeDigBio event. In the background, live video chats of other WeDigBio events give a peak at the global reach of the days event.
Senior biology student Clem Chaigne, right, transcribes data originally collected in the 1800s at the Florida Museum of Natural History. In the background, live video chats of other WeDigBio events are shown from around the country. Oscar Bergeron-Oakes / WUFT News

WeDigBio, a global-digital transcription effort, invited museum guests to help researchers turn years of handwritten data and field notes into digestible digital material for the public. Curator of Biological Informatics at the museum, Guralnick, said he hopes that it will be the first of many events as he and his team work to transcribe the data over the next year.

Some of the field notes uploaded online dated back to the 1800s.

“The whole point of WeDigBio is to get people engaged doing something crazy and cool,” Guralnick said.

He emphasized that the event was designed to get museum guests involved and interested in the work done in research labs.

Inside the classroom where WeDigBio took place, volunteers worked on 20 laptops, and a large projector screen displayed live looks at similar events happening in Tallahassee and Washington D.C. Words of encouragement and excitement were shared via video chat.

Guralnick said he and his partners recruited museum visitors to volunteer to serve as what he called “citizen scientists” to help transcribe data so researchers around the globe will be able to use it in their own research faster.

“We’ve never had the ability to look at all of this data from all of the museums in mass,” Guralnick said. “We’ll be able to build a global map of biodiversity over time.”

Field data, like pressed plants or pinned insects, are scanned into the Notes From Nature website that Guralnick helped develop to be filed with any accompanying field notes. Volunteers then enter the information from the field notes into the database, and once everything is run through the system four times by volunteers, the data becomes accessible worldwide.

Transcribing a single piece of data, like a pressed plant, takes about three minutes.

Clem Chaigne, a senior biology major at University of Florida, said taking time from his museum visit to transcribe data on birds and fungi was a fun and important thing to do.

“It’s good to help out the researchers,” Chaigne said. “Everything is on the Internet now, so it’s important. It makes everything faster and easier.”

The global event ran from Oct. 22 to 25, but UF’s effort occurred primarily on the 24th.

Pam Soltis, a UF professor and lab curator at the museum, kicked off the event during one of her botany classes on Oct. 22.

Soltis and Guralnick said the students and the public enjoyed the experience. Some were able to make local connections to familiar plants and insects, while others worked with data from countries like Japan and Sweden.

Soltis said she was very excited about the educational experience WeDigBio offered, and she hopes that whoever teaches her class next semester will continue to introduce more students to the project.

Once all the data is transcribed, it will become part of the collaborative digitization project iDigBio, where it will eventually be made globally accessible.

Guralnick said he is thinking of hosting the next WeDigBio event at a brewery and offering free beers to get people even more excited about the project. His hope is that even more will get involved in the future as they work to accomplish WeDigBio’s goals and finish the iDigBio project.

About Oscar Bergeron-Oakes

Oscar is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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