November 25, 2020

Storing Vertebrates in the Cloud

What Google is attempting for books, the University of California, Berkeley, plans to do for the world’s vertebrate specimens: store them in “the cloud.”

Online storage of information from vertebrate collections at the Smithsonian Institution, American Museum of Natural History, National Museum of Natural History in Paris, UC Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (MVZ) and from hundreds of other animal collections around the world – or at least, all collections that include animals with backbones – will make them readily available to academic researchers and citizen scientists alike.

Computing clouds are shared pools of servers that can be accessed from anywhere, anytime, and are far more reliable than computer servers at individual institutions.

The project to create VertNet, a cloud-based collection of vertebrate specimens, got off the ground this summer thanks to a three-year, $2.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The effort is led by UC Berkeley museum curators and involves colleagues from the University of Colorado, Boulder; University of Kansas in Lawrence; and Tulane University in New Orleans.

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VertNet will merge four successful but financially unsupported database networks – MaNIS for mammals, ORNIS for birds, HerpNET for reptiles and amphibians; and FishNet. UC Berkeley museum scientists have played a leadership role in creating and maintaining all but FishNet.

The current version of VertNet allows scientists to search these four specialized networks, but only by sending simultaneous queries to online databases at 74 institutions housing 174 separate collections.

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By summer of next year, Bloom, Cicero and Wieczorek should have the current vertebrate collections “mobilized” to the cloud and have started to bring onboard some 75 institutions now on the waiting list, including museums in Ecuador and Africa.

VertNet also can draw more amateur or citizen scientists into research. Already, ORNIS, by far the largest of the vertebrate databases at 75 million of VertNet’s 85 million records, incorporates field observations from birders via eBird.

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About Gary Price

Gary Price (gprice@mediasourceinc.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.

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