Social network tool for natural history science

10 November 2009

Natural History Museum scientists have created a social networking tool for natural history researchers, called Scratchpads, to help people share and understand knowledge about life on Earth, highlighted today in the journal BMC Bioinformatics.

Scratchpads allow people to organise, present and share biological data, which is often complicated and produced in massive amounts, in a user-friendly way.

Specialist sites

Scientists and amateurs alike have joined forces and produced websites on their specialist areas using the scratchpad tool, covering everything from marine worms and the world of flies to African dung beetles and Alfred Russel Wallace.

Biological data developments

Scratchpads are timely because technological developments in the last few years mean larger and larger amounts of complex biological data are being produced, for example DNA barcodes. These are needed for the Barcode of Life (BOL) and the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) projects, which involve gathering information on all known living species.

Virtual workbench and tools

The scratchpad technology was created by the Natural History Museum scientists Vincent Smith, Simon Rycroft, David Roberts and colleagues. It is based on the Drupal open source content management system.

Users have a choice of tools to help them manage their biological data such as maps, classification systems and phylogeny diagrams (showing evolutionary relationships between species).

The system can incorporate data from other places too such as species distribution maps from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), literature from the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), and images from Flickr. All of this is displayed and managed using a ‘virtual workbench’ that users create for themselves from a template.

Bioinformatics

Managing biological data is known as bioinformatics, and new methods were needed to handle the vast amounts of information now being produced.

Scratchpads play an important role and more than 1000 users have created over 100 websites so far in the 2 years since scratchpads were first created.

‘Our goal was to build a system that could motivate individual researchers in the generation, management and dissemination of their own data for their own needs,’ says Vincent Smith, Museum cybertaxonomist, ‘while empowering a wider constituent of potential users who are free to repurpose this information for other uses.’

Smith and his colleagues hope that scratchpads will make use of the masses of natural history data that could otherwise go unused, and that this will boost natural history’s relevance to the wider scientific community.

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