Reviving an old and valuable collection of microscope slides of physical samples through the use of Citizen Science

Mr John Pring1, Dr Lesley Wyborn2, Mr Neal Evans1

1Geoscience Australia, Canberra, Australia,,

2Australian National University, Canberra, Australia,


The importance of Australia’s mineral wealth has been well recognised since at least Federation in 1901, however the perceived importance and value of the underlying data has fluctuated.

Through successive agencies the Australian Federal Government has collected a considerable quantity of physical samples and data over the last 100 years including historically significant samples, many of which cannot be replaced as the source locations are no longer accessible.  One of the more valuable collections now hosted by Geoscience Australia (GA) comprises 250,000+ microscope slide thin sections of these physical samples collected during hundreds of field mapping campaigns from across Australia, Papua New Guinea, Antarctica and beyond.

Figure 1: BMR Field Camp 1956

With the progress of time and technology, and the inherent human nature to only access things readily available, the largely paper based management system for the slide collection has seen the use of this public collection greatly reduced since its heyday in the latter half of the 20th century.

GA initiated a project to rescue the microscope collection and its metadata. Much of metadata was recorded on hand written cards or log books, and this needed to be captured and then updated to be compatible with current GA online management systems. With the tight fiscal constraints on the agency, there were insufficient geoscience experts available for the task, and this necessitated that the approach to capturing the large quantify of card and register based information in a usable digital form be done in a non-traditional way. The project decided to make extensive use of the DigiVol [1] citizen science portal to initially transcribe the paper based records, letter for letter, number for number using citizen scientists with no geological expertise.

However, because of the age of the collection, it was not just a simple matter of transcribing handwritten data and then making this information available as is. The legacy information had to be updated if it was it to be reusable and compatible with modern GA corporate databases, particularly for content that now follows international standards and specifications for digital data that were not in existence when the original samples and descriptive information was collected. A few subject matter experts (SMEs) (including volunteer retirees who collected some of the material) were then involved in a consultative manner for the data validation stage. Firstly, the location of each sample needed to be translated into modern datums and spatial referencing techniques. Some of the locations needed to be retrieved from pin holes in air photographs or text-based location descriptions (eg “Fullerton Gully 3.5M S.S.E. Gurrumba”[2]).  Because of uncertainty of many of the locations, care was also taken to record the accuracy of the position, which in some cases was +/- some kilometers. Secondly, the SMEs provided valuable expertise to help update the information to modern standards so that it could be seamlessly integrated into the GA databases. Once there, it will be possible to make this legacy data available to industry, research and the general public through the current GA data access mechanisms.

This combination of using citizen scientists to do the valuable initial transcription, made much more effective use of the few SMEs available to the project. The SMEs simply had to focus on improving the quality of the information and providing consulting support to the citizen scientists.

This presentation will explore the approach taken by Geoscience Australia and the benefits to the organisation, the roles of citizen science participants (without whom this legacy collection would not have been made accessible), and the untapped potential for this valuable new data collection.


  1. DigiVol citizen science transcription site available from accessed 21 June 2018
  2. Geoscience Australia Rock Register #2, page 34 (Reg No. 16583)


John Pring holds a Masters of Management Studies (Project Management/Technology and Equipment) from the University of New South Wales and an Electrical Engineering Degree from the University of Southern Queensland.

He has been Senior Project Manager within the Environmental Geoscience Division of Geoscience Australia for some 10 years and has run a number of projects associated with the management of the agencies data and physical collections over that time.

He has held similar roles within other government agencies prior to joining Geoscience Australia.

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