The Natural History Museum in London (NHM) has recently digitised its five millionth item; counted over 30 billion downloads of its openly accessible data; and estimated that the digitisation of its entire natural history collections - 80 million items - could lead to research with a value of more than two billion pounds over the next 30 years, representing a seven to 10 times return on investment.
We go behind the scenes with Helen Hardy, Science Digital Programme Manager, to learn more about why they commissioned an impact study, what they’re doing with these findings, its value for natural history and heritage collections across the globe, and what comes next.
Impact, the Natural History Museum and natural science collections - tell us more!
Impact has been part of my thinking at the Natural History Museum, London since I started leading the digitisation programme almost six years ago. My previous career wasn’t in the heritage sector and there are so many things that have surprised me - for example learning, while we digitised lice, about how they co-evolve with their host species - so I have always wanted to share that variety and importance with others.
Like many other natural science institutions, we often use case studies to demonstrate impact. We have also had insights into access and use (downloads, research papers and citations) which has been a great step forward. In most cases, these data are often enough to encourage financial support for digitisation programmes. However in some countries, like the UK, we need to strengthen the business case and our advocacy by demonstrating a potential return on investment and direct impact.
Work to understand the benefits for the Museum’s planned science and digitisation centre at Harwell campus, Oxfordshire, again highlighted the potential of digitisation and, when the stars of senior leadership support and financial resources aligned, this impact assessment was the logical next step.
What did you learn in the process?
In the report, we focused on five key areas where digitisation has a strong impact and where we had already strong evidence for our change pathways: biodiversity preservation; medicines discovery; invasive species; agricultural research and development; and mineral exploration. The findings, even though they take a conservative perspective on our total impact, validated what we had long been saying about the value of the open accessibility of digitised natural history collections. It also really reinforced the value of each item in our collection. We were reminded of how important our work is for research and how open publishing (most of our data are published with a CC0 licence) really maximises its impact. As a public collection, we believe strongly in making access to collections data free and open, and now have further evidence that we will maximise impact by doing so.
We are glad we used external expertise of the consultancy Frontier Economics to work with us on this modelling and reporting. We had got as far as we could go internally. They helped us focus on the primary audience for these data, the research community, and the links in our change pathways (as Europeana calls them) where we could find strong evidence for the economic value of collections data.
What do you still want to learn?
Some people ask us if this research helps us prioritise what to digitise, or what level to digitise to, but at this stage it’s not granular enough for that - it was focused on understanding the broad impact potential. We have a lot more to explore and while we have no immediate plans for further studies we are keen to continue understanding our research and other users better (for example, what levels of digitisation make data ‘research ready’).
We are also looking at internal efficiency and effectiveness benefits through increased digitisation and digital processes, for example exploring areas such as digitisation on demand, working toward international initiatives like the Distributed System of Scientific Collections (DiSSCo). In time, and as more evidence becomes available, we’d like to broaden the range of impact lenses through which we look at our work and strengthen the pathways that we have created in our Theory of Change. We’d also like to look more closely at whether different degrees of digitisation create different depths of impact, and whether certain impacts are (more) connected to specific items or collections.
Our focus also meant that we didn’t look at impact in other areas outside of the scientific field, like creative and humanities reuse, contribution to climate action, educational value, etc. In some of these areas there was already a good deal of research; in others, it would be harder at present to find a direct path between our digitisation activities and these impact areas. Finally, the impact of the stories our curators create from our collections and which we share with our audiences would be interesting to evaluate.
What will you do with what you’ve learned?
This impact study will inform the scoping study currently under way to shape a UK-wide strategy for digitising natural science collections, hopefully leading to continued and increased digitisation funding for all heritage institutions. We’ll use the findings to make the case for support to the government and philanthropic funders, and to feed into other projects that we are part of in Europe and across the world. We really hope that the report will help others make the case institutionally and nationally for the digitisation of their collections, and to inspire further research so that we all contribute towards making the global case for the value of the digitisation of our natural science collections.
What would you recommend to a smaller organisation that doesn’t have the resources of the Natural History Museum?
For natural science institutions, remember that every specific item is a unique data point and has a role to play in better understanding the distribution of species over time and geography, and what the implications of this are. Every item has value! Similarly, smaller, more niche collections have just as vital a role to play in painting the global (and digital) picture of our planet. For smaller organisations, case studies are an effective way to demonstrate the importance of your collections. The case studies that we have worked on really showed us the lenses through which to look at our impact.
Finally, the methodology we followed is very similar to the Europeana Impact Playbook. It relies mostly on common sense and you can go a long way without needing external help. You can think in practical terms about what is important to measure, what data you have access to, and what case studies you can use to bring your numbers to life. This can all feed into your business case for increased digitisation and support.