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Scientists rack up record downloads from the NHM Data Portal during lockdown

During the month of May 2020, when much of the global scientific community was locked down due to COVID-19, a staggering 379.96M records in 7,328 datasets were downloaded from the Natural History Museum’s Data Portal.

That is a 52% and 38% increase in the number of individual records (such as uploaded specimens) and datasets respectively, compared to May 2019.

From a plethora of invertebrates to the remains of giant dinosaurs from the Jurassic, the Data Portal was created to provide open access to the Museum’s collections and the large array of data which has been collated about the natural world. The Portal includes over 4.5 million digitised items from the Museum’s specimen collections and over 160 research datasets. The data available includes 3D scans, images and audio recordings as well as other structured data. The resource has become even more vital at a time when many more people are working remotely and scientists are unable to visit the Museum’s collections.

Vince Smith, Head of Informatics at the Natural History Museum, said, ‘In the five years since we launched the Data Portal we have transformed access to the collections. The Portal has allowed a tenfold increase in the number of people accessing our specimens and over the last few months has assisted scientists in continuing their research whilst worldwide lockdowns have been in place to combat the global pandemic. Digital access is increasingly becoming the default way to access our collections, and makes the Museum’s plans to invest in a new science and digitisation centre at the Harwell Science Campus, even more important.’

Since going live in 2015 over 22 billion records have been downloaded from the Portal. We also know that over 580 scientific publications have cited data obtained through the Data Portal, either directly or through third party aggregators like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility that draw on data from our Portal. Natural History collections provide a unique historical perspective on the distribution of biodiversity and geodiversity over the last 200 years. Through the scientific publications citing our data, we can see how this is being used to tackle current scientific challenges on agriculture, biodiversity loss, climate change, evolution, human health and a vast array of other topics.

Museum Researcher Dr Natalie Cooper led a recent study using collections data to look into sex biases across natural history collections. Museum specimens from the Data Portal formed part of a larger dataset of two million birds and mammals across five major natural history collections.

Dr Cooper said ‘from that we found there was a bias towards male specimens. It is worse in birds than in mammals, with only about 40% of bird specimens being females, but around 48% female in mammals.’

‘This has huge implications for studies that assume museums are representing the range of diversity of animals in the wild.’

‘Without the Data Portal we would have had to physically inspect countless specimens as well as explore older less accessible record systems’.  A far-reaching study of this type really shows the applications of the Data Portal and the information it can help us discover.’

The real success of the Data Portal is the way that it allows data to be shared, reproduced and updated. For a scientific study to prove its worth, the underlying data must be easy to find, accessible, interoperable and reproducible. Few online repositories support the kind of constant updating of data that happens on the Natural History Museum’s Portal. This not only makes it possible to reproduce the exact version of our collection data that has been incorporated into other research, but also allows users to update this information, generating constant improvement to these datasets.

The resource also allows for greater protection of the Museum’s physical collections. Once a specimen is added, the information can be used for countless studies which may previously all have required access to the individual specimen. This means that specimens, many of which are hundreds of years old and of great historical and scientific importance, are physically accessed far less often and therefore better preserved for the future.

The team behind the Data Portal are continuously working to improve the software. Recent updates have improved search capabilities allowing people to discover data across the hundreds of datasets published by the Museum, and we are currently working to incorporate better access to the genetic data derived from our collections. We have also added a new feature enabling researchers to inspect whole drawers of specimens. This allows researchers to pinpoint specimens that have yet to be fully digitised and speeds up the process of making our collections digitally accessible. 


Notes for editors 

Images available to download here.

Access the Data Portal here.

Access GBIF here.

Read more about Dr Natalie Cooper’s on sex bias in natural history collections here.

Natural History Media contact: Tel: +44 (0)20 7942 5654 / 07799690151 Email: press@nhm.ac.uk

About the Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum is both a world-leading science research centre and the most-visited natural history museum in Europe. With a vision of a future in which both people and the planet thrive, it is uniquely positioned to be a powerful champion for balancing humanity’s needs with those of the natural world.

It is custodian of one of the world’s most important scientific collections comprising over 80 million specimens. The scale of this collection enables researchers from all over the world to document how species have and continue to respond to environmental changes - which is vital in helping predict what might happen in the future and informing future policies and plans to help the planet.

The Museum’s 300 scientists continue to represent one of the largest groups in the world studying and enabling research into every aspect of the natural world. Their science is contributing critical data to help the global fight to save the future of the planet from the major threats of climate change and biodiversity loss through to finding solutions such as the sustainable extraction of natural resources.

The Museum uses its enormous global reach and influence to meet its mission to create advocates for the planet - to inform, inspire and empower everyone to make a difference for nature. We welcome over five million visitors each year; our digital output reaches hundreds of thousands of people in over 200 countries each month and our touring exhibitions have been seen by around 30 million people in the last 10 years.