Cataloguing Life On Earth: An Inside Look at ARKive

Three months after starting at Wildscreen as an ARKive media researcher, I announced to my flatmate that my first batch of species had been uploaded to the website. My role at ARKive is to track down media for various species, so I was quite pleased to see my first lot go ‘live’. Rather than a pat on the back for a job well done, I received only a look of ‘three months and that’s all?’ - an expression he happens to excel at.

Looking back, my flatmate’s preconceptions of life at ARKive were not so different to the ones I used to have. There can’t be that much to uploading a few pictures to a website. What exactly had I been doing for the past three months?

ARKive is aiming to create audiovisual fact files for all life on Earth, then make that information available to anybody with an internet connection. It’s no small task, so where to begin?

Falling in line with Wildscreen’s most basic imperative, to promote conservation, ARKive prioritises rare and endangered species. Nearly 17, 000 species are categorised by the IUCN as at risk of extinction. Endangered lists from the IUCN and other authorities such as CITES are drawn upon to create the species lists which give ARKive it’s content.

Every day, up to 30, 000 people from across the globe visit ARKive. The site currently has a rapidly growing collection of over 33,000 film clips and images. All collated and catalogued by a small team in Bristol.

Many people may not know what a certain species looks like, yet alone how it behaves. ARKive hopes to allow people to experience this, thereby inspiring action. It’s not easy to make somebody care whether we loose Paradisaea rudolphi unless that person knows it looks like this and sounds like this. As you can see, images and footage can be an important part of the process.

Everything on ARKive is stored in the media vault, a 70 TB (71, 680 GB) database composed of 72 hard disks formed into three disk arrays. The 60 plus hours of footage available on the website alone takes up approximately 5.5 TB (5476 GB) of this. Creating a safe centralised digital bank of material is a crucial part of the project.

One of the biggest providers of moving images to ARKive is the BBC. The BBC Motion Gallery is one of the first stops once a species list has been allocated. Footage is inherently less common than images, but you might be surprised at some of the species you can find if you look.

Tapes are rented from the archive at the Natural History Unit. Some species bring with them a lot more tapes than others. For a ‘big’ species, this could mean a mixed pile of up to 30 or more trims and programmes. Wildscreen itself holds a fair amount of programmes in its own library of festival entries. This dates back to 1986, but it doesn’t have everything and certainly won’t have trims tapes, which are important for the ‘small’ species.

Assuming each tape contains footage of the correct species, it would be incredibly impractical to catalogue it all. Not to mention you wouldn’t be inspiring anybody with hours of a lion pride resting. The aim is to create a comprehensive cross-section of the species’ life history, from birth to death and as much behaviour in-between.

Dredging through hours of archive footage inevitably stirs up a few great clips although, unfortunately, often of non-target species. Seeing a northern giant petrel pick at a still flapping gentoo penguin from the inside out is one such gem, something that didn’t quite make it into Blue Planet. Or Gerald Durrell’s useful tips on leech removal from Two in the Bush - using the butt of a cigarette. However, those of target species often do make it to the website.

Once timecodes and metadata have been catalogued, the next phase is to call in master quality tapes for digitisation and editing. At this point, footage leaves the hands of the researchers. All editing is carried out by an in-house team.

Track laying and audio mixing is outsourced for almost all clips, then sent back to Wildscreen where they are synched to moving images. The clips can then be re-uploaded to the vault where they are transcoded into a variety of formats, including the final low resolution form seen on the website.

So, before footage is made available on the website, it passes through several hands and is dealt with in a variety of forms and formats. Moving footage is just one part of an audio-visual factfile. Still images and species text make up the rest. Read more about these and the unique ARKive database in my next post.

Rob Morgan

1 comment:

  1. Great overview of the project. Sounds like a very rewarding job - and a very valuable one. I always enjoy a visit to the Arkive site.
    - Paul