database integrity

Arthur Chapman arthur at ERIN.GOV.AU
Fri May 7 11:18:23 CDT 1993

> >>From TAXACOM at HARVARDA.HARVARD.EDU Thu May  6 12:46:16 1993
> >>Date:         Wed, 5 May 1993 19:49:45 PDT
> >>Reply-To: Barry Roth <barryr at UCMP1.BERKELEY.EDU>
> >>Sender: Biological Systematics Discussion List
> >>From: Barry Roth <barryr at UCMP1.BERKELEY.EDU>
> >>Subject:      database integrity
> >>X-To:         taxacom at
> >>To: Multiple recipients of list TAXACOM <TAXACOM at HARVARDA.HARVARD.EDU>
> >>Content-Length: 823
> >>
> >>Colleague Rob Guralnick's posting makes me think there is a
> >>natural law that might be expressed like this:  information
> >>degrades in proportion to distance from its originator.

Both in time and space!

> >>
> >>The principle also seems to operate in biodiversity/natural
> >>heritage databases.  Solid information that originated with
> >>systematists may get diluted, overwritten, or incomprehensibly
> >>edited ...  This was not addressed in the February 1993 ASC
> >>Newsletter article on conservation databases.

This is very much the case.  ERIS - Environmental Resources Information
System run by ERIN, the Environmental Resources Information Network in
Australia uses, wherever possible, primary data, along with custodial
arangements for data management.

We use species names, etc. in the database, but wherever possible also
obtain specimen records.  The concept of "Taxon" is not an easy one to
adequately cope with in a database deign, much the same as for most other
classified data.  With classified data, if a classification changes
then the underlying data can not be reassigned unless one also includes the
primary data in the database.  This is particularly so if one uses a
classified data element as the main key to the database - for example
taxonomic names.  If taxon changes, is split etc., then what is meant
by data included under the original name.  This is very relevant with
biological names, even more so than most other classified data, as with our
present nomenclatural systems, when a taxon is split one portion (i.e. that
portion containing the type) retains the original name.  What is now meant
by that "name"?  e.g. Eucalyptus wandoo was split into 19 different species,
only one of which retains the name "Eucalyptus wandoo".  If you have data
in a database under the name "Eucalyptus wandoo" what does that mean?  If
you have the original, primary, data, then it can be reassigned - particularly
if that data is the original specimen data.

As far as is possible, ERIN uses a distributed concept with respect to its
databases.  We "own" very little data, and obtain data through collaborative
custodial arrangements whereby the custodial agency (often a museum of
herbarium) regularly supplies updates of their data as changes occur.  This
also alleviates the problem that has often occurred in the past where several
versions of one dataset may exist.

> >>
> >>Should management of biodiversity/natural heritage databases be
> >>kept in the hands of systematists and collection managers, who
> >>have a personal stake in the quality of the information?  With
> >>the sanctions of peer review to keep us honest?

I don't necessarily agree that "management" of biodiversity/natural heritage
databases be kept in the hands of systematists and collection managers,
however both must have regular input into the currency of those databases.
To imply that only systematists and collection managers "have a personal
stake in the quality of the information" is quite misleading, as many users
such as environmental managers, policy makers, researchers and even legal
practioners have a personal stake in the quality and accuracy of the data.
In many cases, systematists, unless working on a particular group, have
little interest in other data that may be within their institution.  It is
also a fact of life that very few systematic/taxonomic institutions maintain
any tracking of lineage with respect to the data (there are exceptions), or
record information on data/attribute accuracy/error etc.

In other cases, much survey data do not have voucher collections
that can be checked by systematists.  In some of these cases, the data can be
flagged such that a warning as to the accuracy of the data may pop up at
the data analysis stage.  The data may be very good for certain analysis
but not for others.  The same applies to specimen data that may be very
accurate from a taxonomic point of view, but at the same time, quite inaccurate
in its geocoding or positional accuracy.  Again, a flag needs to be placed
to indicate accuracy.  For this type of data to be of most value,
all fields should include some form of accuracy rating, and where possible
all data and datafields should include some statement (in a meta-database) as
to error in the dataset/datafield etc.  Some people  also go so far as to
suggest that systematists should be rated as to their accuracy in providing
identifications.  This is however, next to impossible, as too many variables
enter the equation with different groups (is the person an expert in that
group?), variation in time (was the identification made at the beginning
of his/her revision or near completion?), certainty etc.

Data quality, data accuracy and error etc. are major issues that need to be
more fully addressed.  By data quality, I refer to the STDS (Spatial Data
Transfer Standard) definition viz, "An essential distinguishing
characteristic necessary for [spatial] data to be fit for use".  Fitness for
use is the important criteria here as data that may be quite inaccurate in
some respects, may be perfectly fit for a particular use.  One example I
like to refer to is a specimen record that may only be recorded to
within one degree (c. 200-250km).  This may be quite adequate if all one wants
to know is if the record occurs on a particular continent or in a particular
State for example.  It would not be of any value if you wanted to know on
which side of the hill it occurred on, or whether it was in a particular
reserve or not.  The record would be of high quality in the first case and
of low quality in the second.  Quality is thus very much a relative attribute.

Taxonomic name is only one of many attributes that much of this data includes.
To put it in the hands of just systematists, or just geographers, etc. is
not the question that should be asked.  The baseline question is
are we using primary data, and can we easily update our records whenever one of
the attributes of the primary data changes.

With respect to the question of data accuracy, data quality and error, I am
convenor of a subcommittee of TDWG (International Working Group for Taxonomic
Databases in Plant Sciences) looking at these questions.  I would be very
interested in any feedback on those issues.  I will shortly be preparing
a paper on these issues which I will circulate widely for comment.

> >>
> >>Barry Roth
> >>Museum of Paleontology
> >>University of California, Berkeley
> >>barryr at
> >>Phone: (415) 387-8538
> >>


Arthur D. Chapman  [Scientific Coordinator, Biogeographic Information, ERIN]

Environmental Resources Information Network     internet: arthur at
GPO Box 636, Canberra,                             voice: +61-6-2500 376
ACT 2601, AUSTRALIA                                  fax: +61-6-2500 360

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