The point-radius method for georeferencing locality descriptions and calculating associated uncertainty
Natural history museums store millions of specimens of geological, biological, and cultural entities. Data related to these objects are in increasing demand for investigations of biodiversity and its relationship to the environment and anthropogenic disturbance. A major barrier to the use of these data in GIS is that collecting localities have typically been recorded as textual descriptions, without geographic coordinates. We describe a method for georeferencing locality descriptions that accounts for the idiosyncrasies, sources of uncertainty, and practical maintenance requirements encountered when working with natural history collections. Each locality is described as a circle, with a point to mark the position most closely described by the locality description, and a radius to describe the maximum distance from that point within which the locality is expected to occur. The calculation of the radius takes into account aspects of the precision and specificity of the locality description, as well as the map scale, datum, precision and accuracy of the sources used to determine coordinates. This method minimizes the subjectivity involved in the georeferencing process. The resulting georeferences are consistent, reproducible, and allow for the use of uncertainty in analyses that use these data.
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