Project Summary

Overview: Biological collections in the United States have amassed over 500 million specimens, yet there are still no tools and methods to efficiently digitize specimen data. This project addresses this need by transforming Symbiota, one of the most widely used software platforms for mobilizing specimens in US research collections. Symbiota is an online biodiversity data management software platform that integrates data and images from networks of data providers. It has helped mobilize over 37 million specimen records from 766 natural history collections and is one of the most successful platforms for creating large collaborative data communities for sharing and displaying biodiversity data. Symbiota is used by 74% of the projects funded by the NSF Advancing Digitization of Biological Collections program and is thus a key platform to help digitize the estimated 430 million specimens in US collections that have yet to be digitized. Symbiota’s success is largely due to its low learning curve and powerful set of tools for documenting species occurrences and integrating them with images and detailed taxonomic descriptions. But its widespread use has yielded significant feedback on how it could be made more effective. To accomplish this and aid its future development, Symbiota needs a fundamental restructuring. This project will transform Symbiota into a new version, Symbiota2, to catalyze contributions, expand research use, enrich education-outreach activities, and increase sustainability.

Intellectual Merit: The transformation of Symbiota into Symbiota2 will completely refactor its code structure to emphasize modularity and improve usability and accessibility. This transformation will achieve the following goals, derived through direct management of Symbiota data portals and concerted interactions with the Symbiota user community: 1) Provide RESTful web services so that data can be easily incorporated into a scientific workflow, 2) Build a plugin architecture to ease the development of new features, 3) Create a database abstraction layer to include a wide variety of backend database management systems, 4) Increase data utility by supporting analytical and visualization tools, 5) Separate the Graphical User Interface (GUI) from other processing so that new GUIs can be used, and 6) Enhance the data collection by making it easier to add new kinds of data and work offline. With these goals met, Symbiota2 will be a powerful biodiversity data management system fulfilling the needs of developers, data providers, researchers, and education professionals, as well as being interoperable with other biodiversity initiatives.

Broader Impacts: Symbiota2 will enhance our ability to address a broad spectrum of biodiversity-related research questions by facilitating data visualization, linking multiple data sources (e.g., publications), creating better tools for data quality assessment, and monitoring data usage. By improving usability and interoperability with collaborating software platforms, Symbiota2 will boost the productivity of developers and data providers, and encourage more institutions to participate in biodiversity information networks. Research guides will help researchers use the research tools developed during the project. Annually, over 1,000 people contribute data to Symbiota portals. Symbiota2 workflows, in combination with enhanced training material, will better support these users and grow this user base further. Tutorials for Symbiota2 will help these individuals understand biodiversity concepts and engage in inquiry-based activities that will allow them to understand concepts and answer key questions. A dedicated support website will facilitate engagement of citizen scientists in both digitization and research. Two complementary education activities will reach K-12 through undergraduate students and citizen scientists. Educators will benefit from the development of education modules and through development of a high school level biodiversity portal covering ecology and biodiversity. Our training programs will encourage students in biodiversity to include programming ability in their repertoire. We have the organizational support through the Symbiota Working Group to implement this strong program of broader impacts.