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Digital Volunteering Spikes During Australian Covid Lockdown

A citizen scientist programme in Australia has seen a huge upturn in volunteering during the country’s pandemic lockdown period. Although the institution behind the scheme, the Australian Museum in Sydney, has remained closed to the public during the Covid outbreak, its digital science programme has gone from strength to strength. DigiVol, a scheme which encourages ordinary Australians to record the items they see in the collection, was developed by the museum along with the Atlas Of Living Australia. Huge numbers of volunteers have been taking part during the country’s lockdown to help catalogue the collection and create a digital record that can be seen around the world.

According to the museum, since a website containing the collection was first launched in 2011, in the region of 4.4 million individual items have been looked at by volunteers. Indeed, the DigiVol programme also includes some items that have been drawn from the collections of institutions other than the Australian Museum, such has been its success. The voluntary citizen scientists have used the digital realm to gain virtual access to several institutions’ collections and recorded information about things like specimen labels or scientific documentation to make them easier to find. Another important aspect of the work involved was cataloguing images of wildlife that had been caught on cameras placed in the field.

Time to Help

What has delighted the museum’s management team is the spike in activity this cataloguing process has seen. Of the millions of digital records that have now been created, about half were generated since the lockdown began in March. “People have had more time on their hands,” said Paul Flemons, the DigiVol programme’s manager, before adding that the programme provides something structured to do for each volunteer. Flemons reckoned that the programme was particularly successfully during the period of the pandemic because it allowed people to make a contribution safely from home but it also meant that they were able to interact with others, albeit in a digital manner.

According to the DigiVol team, the greatest level of activity from their home-based volunteers came in June. In this month alone, over half a million digital records from the Australian Museum’s collection were catalogued for future generations. That is hardly surprising when you consider that there were about 100 regular volunteers involved with the scheme prior to the imposition of Covid-related social restrictions in Australia. After these restrictions were introduced around the world, the number of volunteers involved rose steadily, peaking at around 7,500. Of these new volunteers, there were large numbers of Australians but others around the world were also able to help the museum’s staff with their cataloguing work.

One of the volunteers involved in the project, Ron Lovatt, said that he had spent many hours taking photos of various specimens within the Australian Museum’s possession and transcribing the visual information he had recorded on the DigiVol website. Lovatt, who has been working a citizen scientist since DigiVol began back in 2011, estimated that he had been volunteering for as much as 10 hours per week during the lockdown period. “We are assisting scientists in their work,” he said. Lovatt also mentioned that the digital method of working means museum specimens don’t have to be handled so much, either.

Making a Contribution

According to the team of volunteers, the work is enjoyable and exciting. Their contributions to future academic work are likely to be profound for researchers all around the world. For example, nearly all the notes and diaries of scientists the museum held taken in the nineteenth century are now available online for people to study because they have been digitised and transcribed properly.

That said, the programme is far from over. People can still volunteer for cataloguing and transcribing work. There is a project that is ongoing to transcribe the Finnish and Latin labels on botanical prints on behalf of the National History Museum of Utah, for example. The DigiVol scheme also has plenty of the more popular activities to get involved with, such as watching the video footage of field cameras to spot any wild animals that might appear.

Just one of these projects involved watching the images recorded during the Kangaroo Island Dunnart Survey where thousands of hours of footage needs to be sifted through. Volunteers involved in that exercise are asked to assist with making digital records for all of the native and feral species that have been caught on film and stills.

Some of the work is assisting scientists working at the cutting edge of research, too. Some are currently trying to understand how survivor populations interact with their environment following the devastating effects of bushfires. According to Flemons, watching the images involved is very exciting, especially when animals like marsupials come into view, usually at night. He said that the number one thing to remember is that at the volunteers are making a real difference in this important work.

About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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