Case Study

The Evolving Earth Foundation leverages third-party tools to share fossil collections online

The challenge

The Evolving Earth Foundation is a not-for-profit organization promoting Earth Science education and research. Evolving Earth scientists curate the Rock Room, an online public database of paleobotanical specimens (i.e. plant fossils).

With the legacy Rock Room, Admins were limited in their ability to improve and expand collections to support public research, causing years of delayed maintenance. The Admin user interface (UI) was not intuitive, and key actions like editing or sorting data were time-consuming or lacking features. Public users needed essential UI reforms to improve the quality of their research, including better search tools, correct scientific notation, better cross-browser support, and the ability to search across collections.

We needed to rapidly design, develop, test, and deploy a new solution based on the legacy functionality, with enhancements to empower users to manage and search the fossils. We designed the new Rock Room powered by Specimen Manager with user-friendly Admin and Public UIs, and a more flexible architecture that would make it easier to extend functionality and add new data sets.

The priorities

We identified key priorities for the solution: ease of use, a simple, improved UI for both user roles (Admin and Public), reliability, performance, and security. Costs to implement and maintain the solution are also important factors for any nonprofit organization.

Next, we considered what users did not like about the legacy solution:

  • Admin UI was not intuitive, and had limited functionality.
  • Limited data validation and error messaging.
  • Bulk import not functional.
  • Admins had to manually create and import thumbnail, web, and full sizes of each image.
  • Admins could not style the names of specimens to match standard scientific notation.
  • Admins could not intuitively manage the flow chart category hierarchy.
  • Public UI rendered with iframe did not work reliably in all browsers.
  • Public UI had minor defects and limited search tools.
Due to sensitive and confidential information, we can’t share the client’s name, but we can talk about the challenges and outcomes of the project.
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The action

Production ready in under six months

We prioritized a lightweight solution that would enable rapid development, testing, and future flexibility, and output a clean UI for Admin and Public users. Specimen Manager integrates third-party tools and libraries, delivering powerful features at a reasonable cost. A simple step-by-step user guide ensures scientists can manage the Rock Room without us.

Intuitive UI means easier administration

We used DevExtreme Controls Suite for a streamlined Admin interface. Admins can easily login, navigate data types, and sort, view, create, edit, update, delete, or export data. Shared data types (family, genus, author, etc.) are updated in one place with correct scientific notation, and flow cart categories are viewed in their hierarchy. Meaningful error messages ensure Admins understand what action to take.

Cleaned and conformed data

Analysts cleaned and conformed the original dataset in CSV to match the new data structure. We built a stand-alone data importer that enables an engineer to move the cleaned data files into the new database. Functionality for Admins to clean and import data in bulk is in the backlog for future improvements.

Easy image management

The ImageMagick library automatically optimizes and resizes original, full-size images at upload. No more manual image sizing and selection.

Simple, secure access

We leveraged the existing Evolving Earth Azure Active Directory (Azure AD) to control access to the Administrator Interface. Admins sign in with the same username and password they use for their email account.

Research made simple

People around the world use Evolving Earth fossil collections to feed their research and curiosity. The new Rock Room gives users a better experience on any device or browser, with more powerful and efficient search controls to explore fossils from multiple localities.

Results

The new Rock Room unblocked the scientists, who immediately began curating their fossil collections without any need for support from our team. We are proud to build tools that support scientists in their mission to share learning with the world.

"I’ve been doing quite a bit with the database lately and it has been working very well for me. I appreciate the ability to go through and change just about any part of the fields without blowing everything up and I’m very pleased with how it’s performing. Thanks for all of the work that went into this." – Executive Director, The Evolving Earth Foundation

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