VertNet Keeps Museum Collections in the Cloud

Some projects are ambitious, but lack the wherewithal to truly excel. Sometimes, though, we’re reminded that all you need to succeed is just a backbone (and maybe a $2.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation [NSF] for good measure).

Online databases for vertebrate collections currently exist at 74 institutions (including the Smithsonian Institution, American Museum of Natural History, National Museum of Natural History in Paris, and UC Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology) and 174 separate collections over four specialized networks: MaNIS for mammals, ORNIS for birds, HerpNET for reptiles and amphibians, and FishNet (for mermaids and mermen, obviously). A project dubbed VertNet aims to consolidate these separate databases into a more efficient, cloud-based system less susceptible to the weaknesses of the Web 1.0 world.

VertNet Keeps Museum Collections in the CloudUC Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology curator and VertNet lead Carla Cicero says: “The architecture of these networks was not able to keep up with the demand, and queries were getting dropped or encountering servers that were offline or down. VertNet will create a completely new cloud-based platform that eliminates the need for any individual collection to have servers or hardware to maintain or manage.”

And while institutions in the academic world can be famously stingy with their data, more are warming to the idea of sharing it as they see the benefits of cloud-based programs like VertNet. In fact, VertNet has a waiting list of about 75 more institutions eager to join and share their collections, and once the system is fully underway, it will be able to draw from data collected by amateur and citizen scientists (such as field observations already incorporated into ORNIS via eBird).

Such a system isn’t intended just for the benefit of satisfying purely academic curiosity, however. David Bloom, VertNet’s coordinator, relays that VertNet could have been of great practical use after the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. “But no one knew where the fauna were and how they might be impacted, even though the information that could tell them resided in bird and fish collections around the country. There was just no single place to go to find out where the collections were, and no easy way to put these data together, even now. We have to get started.”

Future NSF-funded projects are in the works to similarly digitize audio, plant, insect, and paleontology collections for the cloud.