Where Working with Rocks can Take You

Written by John Pring, Project Manager | Environmental Geoscience Division, at Geoscience Australia.

December was a big month for me. Not just the anticipation of Christmas and a few days off but a month that would include 3 different continents, lots of public speaking, a bit of mountain hiking, picking up part of the moon, and meeting a lot of new interesting people. Let me fill in some of the blanks.

I work for the Australian Government organisation Geoscience Australia. We are a Federal Government geoscience agency, involved with a diverse range of things but most pertinent here is geology.

A couple of years ago I floated the idea of reviving one of our older sample collections. It is a “small” collection of microscope thin sections (about 250,000) from Australia, Antarctica and the region, that had been somewhat languishing for quite some time. This languishing was largely due to the management system being mostly paper based in an electronic world. The suggested project was agreed and I found myself with a large collection of glass slides, a small budget and some ideas, and knowing that the traditional approach to this project would just not cut it.

The biggest hurdle was converting the paper based records, see below, to something that was usable in the modern world.

Example Sample Submission Card. © Geoscience Australia.

We explored a number of potential solutions including discussions with large multinational tech companies about various AI solutions but to no avail.  Finally we came to the conclusion that there was no way round it but for the transcription to be done by hand. That left the conundrum “how do you transcribe a very large number of science records with a shoe string budget?”. The solution turned out to be the marrying of technology and people via the web based citizen science platform DigiVol (1).

The use of the transcription function of the DigiVol platform saw us start a process that has so far seen some 40,000 data records transcribed and in parallel we have physically catalogued 60,000 slides as to their location. The transcription process involved online volunteers conducting a letter for letter, word for word transcription followed by a selected group of other online volunteers validating each record. These records were then downloaded from the platform and reviewed by the project team. While the volunteers may not have formal qualifications in geology they do have a very sharp eye for detail. (To the point that volunteers where querying what to do with spelling mistakes of the original geologists.)

The project sparked some interest locally. Both with respect to the collection itself but also the methods used to revive it. This interest resulted in an invitation to present the work at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting in Washington DC, in December 2018.

As part of my background investigations for the project I was aware of work that had been done by the British Geological Survey (BGS) on making their thin sections available online, again with the heavy involvement of volunteers, and I was keen to get more details. I argued the case for including the UK and was provided with a round the world ticket, and the excitement began.

Now back to December.

The UK

The United Kingdom was my first stop and the countryside was much as I remember it from a visit in my youth. Compared to the parched paddocks of back home in Australia, the vibrant green fields as I drove from Heathrow to Cardiff could easily have seemed a little exaggerated.

The visit to Cardiff was to attend the Geological Curators Group Winter Seminar held at the Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum of Wales Cardiff, themed Inspiring Volunteers. Meant in both senses. The seminar covered a variety of topics from online studies to volunteers, their roles and what drives them. It was interesting to hear the ideas from both the perspective of a different country, but also from that of the volunteers. I have learned that volunteers the world over tend to be very passionate about the area that they volunteer in. This holds true not only for those volunteering at museums and agencies like Geoscience Australia, but also community groups.

My presentation on the slide collection was well received, with interest from a number of institutions on how they might access the same process. The short answer on this, having checked in advance with the people that run it, is that yes it is open to organisations from outside Australia. In fact examples of the overseas institutions that have used the platform to date include: Museum of Comparative Zoology (Harvard University, USA), National Zoological Gardens of South Africa and Royal Botanic Gardens – Kew, in the UK.

From Cardiff, I headed across to Keyworth to spend some time with the folk at the British Geological Survey. Here I was shown how they have managed to image many thousands of thin section slides. My hat is off to them and the volunteers. They have made use of some standard equipment and achieved some extraordinary results. I am going to be working on people over here to see if we can emulate them.

The USA

A week after arriving in the UK it was time to head on to the USA, specifically to Washington DC and the AGU conference.

Well the AGU conference was like no conference that I have attended before. The image below is an indication of the scale! This is the poster hall and I believe some 70,000 posters were displayed over the course of the 5 days to the anticipated 27,000 conference attendees.

Poster Hall AGU meeting in December 2018. © John Pring.

The conference covers pretty much all things geoscience and not just earth based. There were presentations on geoscience education, actual geology, geophysics, satellite imagery and yes I do believe there were some discussions on fossils.

Other than presenting my project, my focus was to explore what different areas were doing with citizen science. The sheer size of the conference (stretching across a number of city blocks and multiple storeys to boot) meant that this was as much a logistical exercise as anything. I was able to identify a goodly number of posters, electronic posters and presentations that I then proceeded to attend and view. Topics included using citizen science to:  monitor air pollution and flooding and how different communications approaches work, disaster risk reduction and resilience building, community driven research and improving environmental health outcomes, Aurora research, mapping mosquito outbreaks, water quality, and citizen scientists as part of achieving early detection of earth quakes (using their smart phones).

I also managed to make contact with a number of people who are also interested in the part that citizen science can play in the geosciences. I am hoping that these people will be an ongoing source of ideas and inspirations.

The end of the conference saw me with one last thing to do before leaving the USA. Geoscience Australia had organised to host a NASA moon touch stone that needed to be brought back. I had calmly been told “just come home via Houston and pick it up”. So early on the Saturday morning following the conference, I boarded a plane for Houston destined for the Johnson Space Centre. Picking up the piece of rock was a simple process, the paperwork took a while though, and of course I had to have a look through the Space Centre. The most interesting part was carrying the rock back to Australia as cabin luggage and the interest it created at each security check. I will leave you to imagine the conversations with the airport security personnel, half of whom I don’t think initially believed my response when asked what was in the box.

NASA Moon touch stone, brought back from the USA for Geoscience Australia. © John Pring.

After starting my journey home early Saturday morning in Washington I arrived back in Canberra mid-morning Monday.  Let me just say I was quite glad to stop moving.

Australia

So back in Australia having travelled 40,000 km, visited 3 countries, delivered multiple presentations, networked with people from across the world, picked up a moon rock, climbed Mount Snowdon (my day off) and learned from, and been inspired by, the work of multiple organisations and individuals (all in the first half of December), it was time to head off on Christmas leave. So what did I do… what else, boarded another plane, but this 3000 km journey did not even leave the country. This time I was simply travelling north to tropical Cairns in Queensland.

For those that might be interested my Christmas was 28° Celcius and approximately 90 % relative humidity.

I will leave you with the view I had for Christmas.

Cairns (Queensland, Australia), December 2018. © John Pring.
  1. DigiVol citizen science transcription site available here, accessed by the author on 17th August 2018.

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