Cisco UK & Ireland Blog

Natural History Museum hackathon with Digital Catapult

March 17, 2016

How do you go about digitising every single species, artefact and paper record at the Natural History Museum’s archives?
As part of a hackathon we hosted with Digital Catapult, we’re aiming to help tackle this monumental challenge. We’re talking about tens of thousands (millions if we’re talking insects) of different species, stretching over millions of years of life. If you were to try and do that by hand, it would take you more than 200 years to digitise the whole collection.

Natural History Museum cisco pitstop

Quite the task! To help, we crowd-sourced some collective brainpower and wisdom from some of the brightest minds in the technology industry.

Called Cisco Pitstop, over 1.5 -days we brought together a whole range of start-ups, experts and academics from across a spectrum of different industries.

By bringing this melting pot of brains and ideas under one roof (the Natural History Museum, no less) we thought this was a great way of helping others think differently when it comes to innovation.

For the first evening we took everyone around a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum archives to see first-hand the challenges it faces.

The one example that struck me was the trays and trays (and trays!) of fruit flies. All these different variations and species; each were labelled differently, some hand-written, some weren’t.

There are literally millions of these insects. This was to get everyone thinking about how do you collect all that data in digital form? And how do you overcome the different variations on labelling things?

There’s big data, and then there is this….

We got to work on the hackathon to try and solve this. We also created six different use cases that would see the benefits of making all this data open.

The enthusiasm of the museum’s experts is amazing – and actually seeing them spark off each other, and the people from the tech industry, was really enjoyable to watch.

Why are we doing it? You just have to look elsewhere to see the benefits that open data can bring.

This mass of information locked away in the museum’s stores could be used to help us gain a better understanding of weather patterns, and the impact on different species for instance. There are huge amounts of valuable data, we just need to unlock it and make it useful.

From Cisco’s perspective, it all about helping people think differently about the world around them while also sparking new innovations. We’ll keep you posted on these plans for the museum’s archives as they develop! 

For great pictures from the Cisco Pitstop event, take a look at the Natural History Museum blog

Image credit: Gary Ullah via Creative Commons

Leave a comment


  1. I like this blog it’s a master piece! Glad I discovered this
    on google.

    • Glad you enjoyed the read !

  2. Thanks a lot.Would like to learn more about how this was done.

    • Richard – the project is in no way finished (!) – but we helped the Museum work through some valuable use cases.