AMplify: Episode 14, Paul Flemons
It was the combination of science and creativity in him, says Paul Flemons, that led to devising new platforms in biodiversity informatics: the recorded data about the breath and width of animal and plant life.
Add in the need for digital access to a centuries-old museum collection and some generous volunteers, and you get DigiVol.
"With museum collections that are hundreds of years old, we are now able to make them available to not just the local people who can get into the museum but people all around the world who do research on particular taxonomic groups and animal groups."
"Five years ago, it was very difficult to find funding to do digitisation of our collections. And I came up with the idea in conjunction with a couple of other people here at the Museum to engage volunteers, because volunteers have always been very actively involved in museums.
"So we created a special lab called the DigiVol lab. We have 70 volunteers come in each week to the museum to take photos of objects. We then have the online component, where once objects have been photographed on site we upload those images to the web and we have people from all around the world transcribe those hand-written labels.
"DigiVol is recognised one of the leading projects in the world. The Smithsonian in America has taken on the same model for transcribing their collections. We have seven countries and 22 organisations involved in DigiVol now."
Kim McKay: Hello, welcome to the Australian Museum's AMplifypodcast, I'm Kim McKay, the director and CEO, and I get to interview some of our best and brightest each week here at the Australian Museum, from our scientists, our collection managers, and specialists, to bring you their stories, and some of the hidden gems that exist behind the scenes here at the Australian Museum. And today I'm very fortunate to be joined by one of our fantastic staff who's been here at the museum, goodness me, for 18 years, the wonderful Paul Flemons. Welcome along Paul.
Paul Flemons: Thanks Kim, lovely to be here.
Kim McKay: It's great to see you. Now, Paul currently is the manager of our digital collections and citizen science, we're going to talk about both of those things today, but before we get there, you were quite a rugby player weren't you once?
Paul Flemons: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, yes. Up until I was about 21 I played competitive rugby, first grade for Manly and Australian Schoolboys and Australian 21s. And yeah, it was a great time, a very special part of my life…
Kim McKay: So did you ever think about becoming a professional rugby union player?
Paul Flemons: It was right on the cusp of the professional period back then, so if I'd waited a couple of more years I could have become a professional but really professional wasn't my gig I guess, I was doing it for the love of rugby, and my life moved on a bit a bit I guess and I became more interested in my studies and work and stuff like that.
Kim McKay: Sure, as it does often. But I've got to ask you now, so do you support a local rugby team?
Paul Flemons: Manly rugby, the Waratahs, Manly rugby league, and of course the Wallabies, although they haven't been doing that well lately.
Kim McKay: No. Well, moving on from that, as you say, here at the Australian Museum, as I said, for 18 years, so how did you end up here Paul?
Paul Flemons: I began my career when I finished uni, I went to Orange and worked for the Department of Agriculture. Following in my father's footsteps actually, he worked for the Department of Agriculture. And so I worked in Orange for a couple of years and then I got seconded over to National Parks and Wildlife Service and I worked there for four or five years. And then the job came up at the museum. Jobs in museums are very rare indeed, and particularly in my area of work. It was kind of one of the first positions of its type in Australia and possibly around the world to do with geographic information systems. And I applied for the position and was a little bit surprised to get it. That was a long time ago, 18 years ago, and it's been a fantastic place to work and I haven't looked back or regretted a day of moving away from National Parks, which itself was a great place to work as well.
Kim McKay: It's interesting, isn't it, how creative you can actually be in the technology space related to museums.
Paul Flemons: It's a combination of science and creativity, and in particular for me I have had a lot of I guess independence to some degree about the projects I've run and being in a kind of innovative sphere around data and the web, and collections was kind of a unique collection of opportunities I guess which has allowed me to create projects which nobody else around the world has done at the time, and kind of create a niche for the Australian Museum as well as myself in terms of what's called biodiversity informatics…
Kim McKay: Biodiversity informatics? Come on, explain that.
Paul Flemons: So biodiversity…that's a hard term to define, but it's the breadth and width of animal life and plant life and all the kingdoms of life, and informatics is related to information about those I guess. So it's self-explanatory to some degree when you break down the two words, but as a phrase it's very opaque I guess.
Kim McKay: Well, as a discipline it's probably best explained through something like the Atlas of Living Australia that you've been intrinsically involved in.
Paul Flemons: That's right. So the atlas combines data from different institutions, museums, the environment agencies, the public from all around Australia, into one place, so it's kind of a one-stop shop to go and look for biodiversity data, and allows you to do some analysis with that data and really understand what the data is all about. So that's a good example of biodiversity informatics at work.
Kim McKay: It's sort of a really interesting field to be in now in museums because technology is leading us into so many new areas and new ways of exploring the use of the data that has been collected by scientists and could be collected in the future, and really applying that information in a very practical way so that we can share it with audiences everywhere.
Paul Flemons: Yes, the stage we're now is the collections that are many hundreds of years old we will now be able to make available not just to the local people who can get into the museum but people all around the world that do research on particular taxonomic groups, particular animal groups. And everybody has access to our collections once we make them digital, and the tools for analysis of those, looking at changing the distribution of these animals over time, the impacts of climate change on different organisms and different groups of organisms, museum collections facilitate that in a way that no other data sources can.
Kim McKay: It's really extraordinary how you've looked at that and thought, well, how can we actually digitise this extraordinary collection of 18 million specimens and objects at the Australian Museum. And of course we don't have a huge funding source that says, here guys, go off and employ lots of people to do that. So you came up with a solution, Paul, five years ago. Do you want to tell us about DigiVol?
Paul Flemons: Yes, so four or five years ago, it was actually five years ago because we had a celebration recently of five years, it was very difficult to find funding to do digitisation of our collections, and I came up with the idea, in conjunction with a couple of other people here at the museum, to engage volunteers because volunteers have always been very actively involved in museums, so we thought of the opportunity to engage volunteers in actually digitising our collections in a two-stage process. The first stage was to have them take photos of the objects and their labels.
Kim McKay: So these are the volunteers who actually physically come on site.
Paul Flemons: Come into the museum, that's right. We created a special group and a special lab called the DigiVol Lab, and so we have 70 volunteers come in each week to take photos of…
Kim McKay: So that's 70 volunteers.
Paul Flemons: 70, yes.
Kim McKay: And who are they?
Paul Flemons: They are people from all walks of life, from students, we've got people under 20 in our group, right up to people…the oldest is 85.
Kim McKay: Extraordinary.
Paul Flemons: Neville, yeah, he's 85, and they are an extraordinary bunch of people, a lot of them very highly educated. They are people that want to contribute both to the museum but to science as well. And the social side is kind of secondary but it's still very important to them.
Kim McKay: It always is with volunteering, isn't it, that you get that great network of new friends and people who share a common passion for something. And it is passion because many of our collection items were collected during the 1800s and early 1900s. And of course they have handwritten labels, often in a beautiful script, but often very hard to decipher.
Paul Flemons: That's right, and the people that get involved with these collections through volunteering are amazed at the things they discover every day. They feel very privileged to be able to handle these things in helping us digitise them. And then we have the online component where once they've been photographed on site we upload those images to the web and we have people from all around the world transcribing those handwritten labels.
Kim McKay: So they're sitting at home or at their office, at their desk at their computer, and when they've got a spare hour or so they log on and they see what has been uploaded and they help transcribe the label by re-keying it in, is that it?
Paul Flemons: Well, we call it volunteering in your pyjamas because that was one of the catch cries…
Kim McKay: Maybe we need special Australian Museum pyjamas.
Paul Flemons: DigiVol pyjamas. So they are transcribing from home. They are usually not a spare hour but they actually build it into their lives. So a lot of those people will set aside an hour or two a day every day. We have people transcribing every day, seven days a week. And we even have some people who come into the museum to volunteer here taking the photos who also then go home and transcribe at home.
Kim McKay: It's just extraordinary and it's a really practical way you can volunteer and give something back I guess to the community, but you learn so much by doing it at the same time and that's I guess the added benefit too. As you said, we just celebrated the fifth anniversary of DigiVol, and I remember giving out an award with you to one of our volunteers, I think she transcribed…
Paul Flemons: Megan, yes, she has done over 75,000 transcriptions online. So a transcription task online might be a two-page diary…sorry, two pages from field notes where they are transcribing all the text, or might be a label from a specimen. And she has been easily our most prolific person in doing that. So she comes into the museum on a Wednesday and then she goes home for the rest of the week and transcribes every day for us.
Kim McKay: So Paul, if people want to volunteer for DigiVol who are listening, can they go to the website and look it up?
Paul Flemons: They can go to the Australian Museum website and look up 'DigiVol' or 'volunteering', and there's also a website online, www.digivol.org, which they can then join the DigiVol community and start contributing.
Kim McKay: It's such an innovative project but I guess one of the most exciting things about it too, apart from helping share our collection with so many people is that your DigiVol concept has now been adopted by some leading institutions around the world. You've set a new benchmark I think.
Paul Flemons: Well yes, certainly it's recognised as one of the leading projects in the world. The Smithsonian in the US has taken it on and it's taken on the same model for transcribing their collection.
Kim McKay: Which is just extraordinary really because people hold the Smithsonian up as being the leader but here little old Australia, we've managed to put this great project together that has been adopted by them and I think by Kew Gardens too in the UK.
Paul Flemons: Kew Gardens, New York Botanic Gardens, South African National Biodiversity Institute, Belgium are looking at taking it on as well. So we've got seven countries and 22 organisations around the world.
Kim McKay: Wow, congratulations. I mean, that's a wonderful thing because if people can imagine as these objects and specimens have been collected here well over…well, next year of course we turn 190 years of age, so during that period they have come from many remote communities sometimes and countries and this is a great way to share our collection with a new audience and reconnect audiences with objects from their local communities as well.
Paul Flemons: Absolutely, and people are discovering new things for us, and they are connecting with something and a community and an addition to their lives I guess which enriches their lives and provides scientific data for us to carry on our research.
Kim McKay: One of the things that you are also responsible for here at the museum are our expeditions, and of course we've got an expedition going later this year to the Solomon Islands and we are planning on next year for Lord Howe Island as part of our 190th anniversary where we are visiting some of those major expeditions the Australian Museum has done in the past, comparing the datasets. I know you yourself have been on an expedition in the past year at Lord Howe Island.
Paul Flemons: Yes, that was I think in 2002. I joined Chris Reid here from the museum, a beetle taxonomist, and we stayed on top of Mount Gower on Lord Howe Island, which is about 800 metres above sea level. So we had to walk up there with all our equipment.
Kim McKay: That's right, there are those two beautiful mountains at the end of Lord Howe Island, Mount Lidgbird and Mount Gower, and if you look up a photograph of Lord Howe, they just stand out, they are magnificent, and of course they hold such unique wildlife up there, don't they.
Paul Flemons: Yes, and we were there to discover what sort of insects, particularly beetles, were living on top of Lord Howe Island on Mount Gower, and we stayed in an igloo up there which was perched on the edge of this 800-metre high cliff, and it wasn't held down by any ropes or anything so it was just this plastic igloo. And looking at it you thought I'm not going to sleep in that because it looks like it will blow off the edge of the cliff. And it gets quite windy on the top of Mount Gower, and so we'd be lying in bed trying to go to sleep at night and you'd hear the wind coming from the other side of the island like a train, and then you'd tense yourself for when it hit the igloo, worried that it was going to be blown off the edge of the cliff, which was only 5 metres away.
Kim McKay: Wow, a bit scary. You have to risk your life sometimes, don't you, in the quest for science. But for those who are listening, Lord Howe Island sits about 700 km north-east of Sydney out in the Tasman Sea, reaching out into the Pacific Ocean. And of course the Tasman Sea is notorious for its weather patterns, and so sometimes Lord Howe can have the most magical perfect subtropical Pacific weather and other times it can be a ferocious storm blasting through there. So I can imagine being up on the top of Mount Gower must've been a challenge.
Paul Flemons: It was a wonderful challenge for nine days, yes.
Kim McKay: And guess what Paul, we are going to send you back there.
Paul Flemons: Oh fantastic!
Kim McKay: Make you hang out again on the top like that and see what specimens you can collect this time. But those expeditions are really fantastic because it does point us back to the work that the museum did for the last 190 years and, as you said before, that it gives us great insights into changing biodiversity and the impacts of climate change. What's the thing here at the museum that you've really gained the most from over the years from your involvement in all the different projects? What's the thing where you've gone…apart from DigiVol obviously which is extraordinary…
Paul Flemons: It's a very good question.
Kim McKay: Because you've been involved in so many great projects here and worked with so many other scientists and you'd been able to develop the whole geospatial mapping technology. What is it that has made you really go 'wow'?
Paul Flemons: I think it's just being involved with the scientific community in developing new tools for facilitating science and making our data and our science available to the world. So when I first started here we did some work around the south-east forests process where we did a lot of survey work, the north and south-east forests, and we developed datasets for those areas which were important in defining national parks and determining decisions around those. And then moving on to developing websites for making our collections available to the world through web mapping and modelling of species distributions from the data that's in our collections.
Kim McKay: And that's so important here at the Australian Museum, to share our knowledge, data and information with people all over the world, and we're going to be doing that as well through some exciting citizen science initiatives in the future, which Paul is also overseeing. So Paul, we'll get you back to hear about those in the future. Thank you so much, Paul Flemons, outstanding rugby player and scientist here at the Australian Museum, thanks for sharing your story with us.
Paul Flemons: Thanks for having me Kim.