Darwin Core Part 2: Scientific Observation

Black and white image of Charles Darwin
Image of the American Goldfinch

Darwin Core

This is Part 2 in my series of posts (Part 1 here) about how we use the metadata standard Darwin Core to describe the Iowa Ornithologists’ Union (IOU) rare bird documentation forms. We discuss how bird observation information in our collection is turned into scientific data These are forms that people submit as species sighting evidence for birds that rare or uncommon in Iowa. This information on the forms describes the sighting in detail so that IOU can verify the bird was correctly identified and as a result can also be used as observation data by the larger scientific community. We use Darwin Core to standardize and conform the sighting information to larger community standards and enable a variety of people/institutions the ability to use our records. This turns the rare bird documentation forms into useful human and machine-readable records that can be used in a variety of ways. People such as wildlife conservationists can in turn use this information to monitor things like migration patterns over a certain time period.

Colored image of people looking through a telescope

My job is examine these forms and make the information on them conform to Darwin Core. This in turn makes them available to users and institutions as both collection items, similar to library books and other materials, as well as scientific data. As mentioned in the previous post, Darwin Core is a set of resource description standards that support sharing of biodiversity data and information between various institutions. Biodiversity information is generally focused on how to recognize and categorize species sighting or specimen information including location and time. Our use of Darwin Core is for sightings of specific birds by people who spot them within Iowa since the documentation forms are for rare birds spotted in and near Iowa. The IOU collection of forms also dates from the 1970s to the 2000s showing species sighting information over time. This makes the IOU rare bird documentation form collection particularly suited for biodiversity description and use by the scientific community.

Darwin Core provides a standard way of describing information to scientific and collection standards that can be easily understood by both humans and computers at other institutions. Describing the rare bird documentation forms in this way allows for other records to be included with collections of similarly described records. This enables interested researchers and institutions as well as the Iowa State University Library to use the rare bird documentation form records beyond the avIAn collection and online platform. Darwin Core has the type of fields or ‘terms’ in Darwin Core language that allow for resources to describe a species sighting. They also make recommendations or mandates on how we enter information into the fields.

Since Darwin Core is for biodiversity information it has very specific fields and information needed to confirm species sighting. For instance we use their terms location as well as verbatim locality. The broader location field locates the bird sighting on a map or in a large area such as Ames or a specific county in Iowa. The verbatim locality allows for much more specific location information such as a specific tree or area of the larger one contained in the direct transcription of the form. This allows researchers to put the location into a standardized geographic description as well as see how the location was described directly on the form. Darwin Core also recommends ways to write the information that populates the fields such as a citation standard for sources used to help identify the bird. We use the Council of Science Editors citation that is standard for biology journals. This further conforms the forms to the biodiversity community.

The avIAn project standardized as much as the fields as possible providing guidelines on how to enter them. For instance our titles and description fields have a standard way to enter them for these records. We record the date, bird species, and location for all of the rare bird documentation forms. Since the forms are standardized and they are distinct from other parts of the avIAn collection this separates them; it also provides useful sighting information for researchers. The other part of the avIAn collection only conforms to the standards of digital collection records described using Dublin Core that are intended to facilitate many uses such as discovery by researchers, representing the document faithfully, and interoperability.

Mapping and standardizing the rare bird forms information to Darwin Core was relatively easy since the documents themselves are mainly standardized since most of the forms are provided by IOU. They are consistent and allows for easy mapping to the fields necessary for scientific observation as well as creation of a Darwin Core record. Information like location and habitat are contained in both the document and our metadata implementation verbatim. Some of the documents are not the IOU form (oftentimes handwritten accounts by birders in letters) and require a cataloger to extract the information into the Darwin Core terms; this process is more time-intensive and oftentimes information that was part of the forms is missing.

Some of the information did not fit as easily as others in the Darwin Core, but were necessary and useful for our purposes. For example we placed some items such as how the bird was distinguished from similar species into the Occurrence Remarks field as opposed to its own dedicated field. We also brought in fields and practices from our pre-existing metadata implementations such as Dublin Core and content standards for digital collections. This places the records into the larger ISU digital collection context effectively.

Overall, we were able to map the rare bird documentation forms and other documents to Darwin Core effectively. This enables us to have the information as scientific observation data useful for biodiversity institutions and researchers. It also facilitates the documents use by general researchers as Darwin Core also describes them to general collection standards as well. Future posts will be on the specific Darwin Core fields and how they demonstrate scientific observation data as well as specific functionality of the avIAn website such as the major access points and interactive features such as maps. The next post will discuss the differences between Darwin Core and our general digital collection standard Dublin Core.

Colored image of a man using the small Sibley guide

Image 1: Charles Darwin by Elliott & Fry [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Image 2: Carduelis tristis American Goldfinch. May 2007 By Mdf [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Image 3: Identifying waterfowl on Pond 6. April 12 2014 by USFWS Mountain-Prairie. [CC-BY-2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)%5D

Image 4: Using small Sibley guide (western U.S. only). April 12 2014 by USFWS Mountain-Prairie. [CC-BY-2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)%5D