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NaturalHeritage.be: Modular interoperable database system and Portal for Belgian Natural History Collections

Project: Research

Description

European natural science collections contain the largest and most significant part of the world's scientific knowledge of the earth’s structure, environment and biosphere. They constitute a key international research infrastructure for tackling major socio-economic and scientific challenges. The Belgian collections cover all the fields of Natural History including Zoology, Botany, Geology, Palaeontology and Anthropology. Belgian scientific institutions house some 55 million specimens and is one of the most important collections relating to Natural Sciences worldwide. The 3 collection partners of this project are members of CETAF, the Consortium of European Taxonomic Facilities, which contributes to Europe's knowledge-base by enhancing synergy between the collections and research capabilities of its members. CETAF facilitates the normalization of data and metadata in Natural Sciences databases as well as the implementation of unique identifiers for collection specimens, which is essential data aggregation. Several European Natural History Institutions are presently working on a proposal for the coming ESFRI Roadmap 2018. This initiative, called DiSSCo (Distributed System of Scientific Collections), is a long-term project aiming to ensure open access to European natural history collections thereby broadening the user community and finding innovative solutions through the use of natural science related data. As partner of NaturalHeritage CETAF will be the interface between the project and the other European institutions active in the domain. The three Belgian institutions RBINS, RMCA and APM have a long history of collaboration and have for the past 15 years formed the informal yet solid Be-TAF consortium. The directors and middle management of the 3 institutions take strategic decisions for joint activities as well as defining Belgium’s position in the national and international arena. They also form the National Task Force (NTF) for the Belgian participation in DiSSCo, write proposals together and represent each other at key meetings where relevant. The three institutions have appointed staff members to play the role of facilitators and following up the Be-TAF joint activities, namely Patricia Mergen for RMCA and APM, and Carole Paleco for RBINS. Despite Be-TAF not being a legal entity, the 3 partners regularly sign more formal Memoranda of Understanding or Collaboration Agreements where objectives are clearly stated and the roles of each partners defined. The intention to sign a 5 year MoU for a joint digital collection management agreement including this Natural Heritage.be activity, if it is funded. More than a decade ago, RBINS decided to develop an “in-house” solution, called DaRWIN. The current version, still used by RBINS and more recently also by RMCA, is an Open Source system. However, it was built as a system predominantly taxonomically based to accommodate information for RBINS Natural History collections. The recent ratification of the Nagoya Protocol by the EU members and its implementation, as well as the impact of other European protocols related to access to public data (INSPIRE, Open Data, Open Science) define also a new framework of collaboration where interoperability between different data sources are crucial. The fast evolution in programming and data exchange together with the exponential development of web- and cloud- based applications can provide distributed access to a wide variety of geo-coded or geo-referenced natural sciences information. This imposes now the use of a totally new architecture, with the interconnection of separate modules covering the different disciplines in the Natural Sciences at its core. This interoperability both within the NaturalHeritage.be portal, as well as outside with other sources of references and/or with other similar on-line collection systems will help scientists and decision makers to address Belgian Natural History Collections using cross-linked and big-data approaches. The project will research and evaluate how a modular architecture can address these new requirements. This architecture will be based on two levels of interoperability between small modules and with international authority files. Based on this research, the project will develop a new database system and search portal so that there is an interoperation between all the Belgian natural history collections. The consortium will valorise the long term existing in-house expertise in Open Source systems in the three collection-based institutions in order to reach the expected goals, respecting the workflow in each institution. Open source technologies allow resource sharing for development and maintenance, thus ensuring sustainability. Proven functionality in the existing version of DaRWIN will be transferred to the new system with enhancements. New modules will be developed for geological, botanical and living collections. The rendering of embedded multimedia files hosted by external specialized platforms will be added. A common search portal overlaying the local query interfaces with interoperable databases that use compatible technologies will reinforce synergy between partners by establishing links between data which are unconnected at present (e.g. relationship between soil/substrate, vegetation and associated fauna). This approach will also improve cross-validation of data and avoid multiple encoding, which is time-consuming and a source of error. To achieve modularity of NaturalHeritage.be and to insure independence of each module, we will implement all of them by extending the principle of dependency injection based on a service container (or dependency injection container). Each module will therefore be a service provided by the application, which can stand alone or in combination with others as required. The dependency between modules is therefore dynamically constructed and unique to each installation or to each “orientation” in the application (Zoology, Botany, Geology and Palaeontology).
AcronymNaturalHeritage
StatusFinished
Effective start/end date1/01/171/01/21

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