Natural History Museum digitises 5 million specimens with economic benefit valued at £2 billion

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A Stenoperla prasine specimen being digitised at the Natural History Museum in London © Trustees of the Natural History Museum

Over five million specimens – around six percent of the Natural History Museum’s collection – have now been digitised and released onto the Museum’s Data Portal where they can be freely accessed globally. 

A new economic report estimates the value of research enabled by digitisation of natural history collections to be in excess of £2 billion

Specimens range from the tiniest crop pests to bats that could help scientists predict and prevent future pandemics.

Helen Hardy, Science Digital Programme Manager at the Natural History Museum, says:

‘This is a huge landmark for us and the combined effort of many digitisers, curators, researchers, data managers and others. Sharing data from our collections can transform scientific research and help find solutions for nature and from nature.

‘Our digitised collections have helped establish the baseline plant biodiversity in the Amazon, found wheat crops that are more resilient to climate change, and support research into the potential zoonotic origins of Covid-19. The research that comes from sharing our specimens has immense potential to transform our world and help both people and planet thrive.’

The five millionth specimen is Stenoperla prasine, part of a current project to digitise a group of freshwater insects known as EPT. Ephemeroptera (mayflies), Plecoptera (stoneflies) and Trichoptera (caddisflies) are three orders of insects found in freshwater systems across the world.

These three key groups are important bioindicators, meaning that their presence and the size of their populations can give us an idea about the health of a freshwater habitat. There are approximately 89,000 EPT specimens in the Museum’s collection, and setting this data free will aid research being undertaken by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), to further understanding of EPT distribution and assess these species’ vulnerability to extinction.

Close up of Stenoperla prasine, a stonefly © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London
The five millionth specimen, Stenoperla prasine © Trustees of the Natural History Museum 

The process of digitisation involves transforming physical information into a digital format. So far 1.7 million insects, 500,000 fossils and 900,000 plants have been digitised.

The Museum’s specimens have associated data, such as what they are, and where and when they were collected.

This information, along with any additional images or analytical data about the specimen is released onto the Data Portal. These data provide invaluable information for scientists trying to model the past, present and future distributions of organisms across time and space. When this research is used to inform decision-making, these decisions are based on hundreds of years’ worth of data.

The Data Portal is an open data platform which makes the Museum’s research and collection datasets findable, accessible and reusable, allowing anyone to freely explore, download and use these scientific data.

Since 2015, more than 30 billion records have been downloaded in more than 440k download events from the Data Portal and partner platforms like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), and more than 1500 research papers have cited these data.

Natural history collections hold information we need to tackle fundamental scientific and societal challenges of our time. They include specimens collected over the last 200 years, a critical time period, during which humans have had a major impact on the distribution of biodiversity, radically affecting landscapes through increased consumption of natural resources, pollution and climate change. Digitisation unlocks this treasure trove so that everyone can access it.

Economic and Societal Value of Digitised Natural History Collections

Recently, in a world first, the Natural History Museum collaborated with the economic consultants Frontier Economics Ltd to explore the economic and societal value of digitising natural history collections and concluded that digitisation has the potential to see a tenfold return on investment, creating benefits in excess of £2 billion over 30 years.

Frontier Economics Ltd have looked at the impact of collections data in five sectors: biodiversity conservation, invasive species, medicines discovery, agricultural research and development, and mineral exploration.

Dan Popov, Economist at Frontier Economics Ltd, says:

‘The Natural History Museum’s collection is a real treasure trove which, if made easily accessible to scientists all over the world through digitisation, has the potential to unlock ground-breaking research in any number of areas. We can’t be certain as to how this data will be used so have looked at the potential value that new research could create in just five areas, focusing on a relatively narrow set of outcomes. We find that the value at stake is extremely large, running into billions of pounds.’

The new analyses attempt to estimate the economic value of these benefits using a range of approaches, with the results in broad agreement that there are huge economic benefits to digitisation. This represents a compelling case for investment in museum digital infrastructure without which the many benefits will not be realised.

Professor Ken Norris, Head of the Life Sciences Department at the Natural History Museum says:

‘This new analysis shows that the data locked up in our collections has significant societal and economic value, but we need investment to help us release it.’

Anyone in the world can explore, download and reuse data from the Data Portal for their own research, either through the web interface or the API.

The museum says upgrades are continuously being made based on how people use the portal and over the next year the team will add a deep zoom feature that will transform the study of natural history, better supporting digital loans and allowing researchers to examine specimens in the collection remotely in greater detail.

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