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Insect specimen ready for crowdsourcing (all images courtesy Calbug/Notes from Nature)

Bugs number in the billions in natural history museums worldwide, but the information embedded in their label text that could indicate changes in climate, species, and geographic distribution has yet to be digitized and so remains inaccessible. Now a project called Calbug has teamed up with Notes from Nature to turn to crowdsourcing to unlock this data.

Pinned Beetle on Calbug

“If we want to understand biodiversity and the impact of natural and human changes on the environment, we need to look to where most of the biodiversity is,” said Kipling Will, Associate Professor and Insect Systematist at the University of California, Berkeley. “Without a doubt the diversity is in insects, spiders, and their relatives.”

Will and Rosemary Gillespie, Professor of Environmental Science and Director of the Essig Museum of Entomology at UC Berkeley, are co-Principal Investigators of Calbug. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the project is aimed at engaging volunteers to transcribe the field notes for more than a million insects and spiders (or “terrestrial arthropods”) contained in nine California natural history museums.

Insect on Calbug

“Interpreting often poorly written handwriting, written by hundreds of different people, on tiny labels, mixed with all kinds of printed fonts, without any standard arrangement of the information, is the kind of mess that humans can create and so far it seems that only human eyes and minds can sort out,” Will explained. “Given the many millions of such records, we need help. On the crowd side, they get a chance to participate in the science and see what sort of specimens and data we have in our natural history collections.”

Calbug was started in 2010 by the Essig Museum with a protocol for the label entry, but the Notes for Nature partnership with Zooniverse was just launched this year to bring in the public. Through it, they found an elegant solution to the quantity of material and internet engagement. Although the photographs were taken for documentation purposes, the sharp details of the pinned insects are actually quite beautiful, and the process of entering the data on the label is user-friendly. If you’re the type who gets excited about digital congratulation tokens à la Foursquare, there are even badges for your progress, from an egg to a caterpillar to a glorious butterfly if you reach 100 specimens.

Tiny fly on Calbug

“What we can gain from it, first and foremost, is exposing the wealth of historical information to people who are ready to explore, and seeing how they engage with the material,” Gillespie said. “The second is the use of the information provided — how it can be incorporated into the museum database to inform us about changes in biodiversity over the history of the collection.”

Just one of these little tags for, say, a moth might reveal little, yet if you have the information for thousands of these moths, you get an impression of how the species has changed over time in terms of where it lives and where it no longer lives, reflecting issues of climate, land use, and other environmental changes. Most of the insects are from western North America, particularly California, and were collected over the space of about a 100 years, but the hope is to expand the project to a global scale. As Gillespie stated, based on the rate they had been going, this task “would take several lifetimes,” and by taking a different approach with the “citizen scientists” the project can be accelerated.

Hesperia harpalus butterfly on Calbug

Notes from Nature is also currently hosting a citizen scientist project for plants, SERNEC’s Herbarium, and one on orinthology is upcoming. As of this writing, 2,406 people had participated with the Calbug project with it at 46% competition  and a group of experts and undergraduates are also participating on the UC Berkeley side. With the collaboration between scientists both citizen and professional, this torrent of information scattered among the delicate tiny insect bodies can perhaps help to reveal our environment’s history, and project its future.

Click here to participate in the Essig Museum Collections’ Calbug project on Notes from Nature.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

One reply on “Museums Turn to Crowdsourcing to Unlock Secrets of their Collections”

  1. ​Really interesting Allison, thanks​!

    ​Given your interest, I think that you (and the other readers here) would be really interested in some recent research that I have come across that theorizes about crowds and such similar phenomena.​ ​

    It’s called “The Theory of Crowd Capital” and you can download it here if you’re interested: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2193115

    In my view it provides a powerful, yet simple model, getting to the heart of the matter. Enjoy!

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