ITIS (an explanation of GBIF's data integration activities)

Christopher Lyal chcl at NHM.AC.UK
Wed Jun 23 23:12:30 CDT 2004

Although the Napier schema is perhaps daunting it is part of a concerted
effort to make datasets of many different types interoperable.  If one
is interested only in querying databases of names then an approach such
as Rod outlines may well work, although the multiplicity of formats will
create problems.  However, part of the vision is to have
interoperability between taxonomic (name) databases and specimen-level
databases.  This opens the door to querying a distributed system on a
taxon name, and having as a return the full synonymy and, if required,
of specimen data from a variety of sources that have been retrieved not
only for the name entered but also for junior synonyms and misspellings
(and if anyone thinks that the museums of the world are going to be able
to correct the nomenclatural inaccuracies in a hurry, I fear they are in
for a disappointment).  Moreover, the simultaneous access to such a mass
of data in a standard form allows implementation of analytical tools to
those data. In order to get this level of interoperability an approach
using standards (e.g. Darwin Core / ABCD at the specimen level, Linnean
Core / Napier schema at name and concept level) is vital.  Use of such
standards will bring many databases to 'Level 4' interoperability
standard from the NIH/NIAID/Wellcome Trust Workshop, and GBIF is
striving the help data owners do this.

While the majority of names accessible through GBIF that come from name
providers rather than named specimens in collections are from the
Catalogue of Life Partnership (ITIS and Species 2000), a proportion will
in the future be submitted directly from data providers through a
standard XML schema (which is why we are waiting with keen interest for
the standard to be determined).  With an increasing number of providers,
mapping a portal to each will prove difficult if not impossible, while
if each of them use a standard schema accessibility and interoperability
will be much facilitated.

At present use of XML schemas is difficult for many data providers
because of their unfamiliarity and their rapid development, but we are
still in the early stages of developing interoperability.  As the
schemas settle down, tools will be developed to assist data providers to
use them; the fact that GBIF already is a gateway to over 24 million
specimen-level records from more than 60 data providers is a good
pointer in this direction.

I agree fully with Rod that we need examples of useful tools; I think
that we already have one (well, two) in ABCD and Darwin Core.  I also
think that we will have another for names and concepts in a reasonably
short time.


Christopher H. C. Lyal,
Chair, GBIF Electronic Catalogue of Names Science Subcommittee,
Department of Entomology,
The Natural History Museum,
Cromwell Road,
London SW7 5BD
tel: +44 (0) 207 942 5113
fax: +44 (0) 207 942 5229
e-mail chcl at
personal page  -
electronic Biologia Centrali-Americana -

-----Original Message-----
From: Taxacom Discussion List [mailto:TAXACOM at LISTSERV.NHM.KU.EDU] On
Behalf Of Roderic D. M. Page
Sent: 23 June 2004 22:13
Subject: Re: [TAXACOM] ITIS (an explanation of GBIF's data integration

I wonder whether the exchange standard for taxonomic name
and concept data ( is the
best place to start. The scheme itself is huge (does anybody enjoy
reading these things?), and probably only of interest to those few
who have large databases of names (as opposed to those who would be
interested in contributing names to a database).

For me quickest way towards the vision that Donald Hobern outlines is
to get a simple standard for returning results from querying
taxonomic databases. As an exercise I constructed a "portal" where a
user to types in a name and ITIS, uBio, IPNI, and GenBank are all
queried for that name (see --
"Phyllocladus" is a good name to try). This is really a toy, but I
was interested in seeing how easy it was to query existing databases
to check the status of a name -- perhaps the most basic use of a
taxonomic name database. Certainly, for my own phylogenetic projects
this is what I need.

Of course, each database has its own interface and means of returning
data, and so the portal has to cope with everything from XML to plain
text, and each database returns rather different kinds of information
(ITIS being the most comprehensive).

We need a simple, easily implemented standard way of asking questions
of taxonomic databases. For example, it is pretty easy to get a
Microsoft Excel spreadsheet to use SOAP to talk to an Internet
database (see ) --
wouldn't it be great if users had a list of names in a spreadsheet
and could call an Excel function to check the status of those names?
This is easy to do, and would seem to me to give people a much
stronger incentive to get involved, rather than wade through database
exchange schema.

Lastly, Mary Barkworth alludes to the problem of data availability.
ITIS and GenBank make all their data available by FTP, which is one
reason why these databases are widely used in efforts to build name
databases (ITIS is used by Species 2000, GBIF, SEEK, etc.). Other
databases, such as IPNI which permit only a name (or a few) at a time
are frustrating to use, and hence don't feature much in large scale
efforts. Databases such as IPNI would be vastly more useful if their
content was available for bulk downloading.

There is a useful discussion of database interoperability in the
"Report from the NIH/NIAID/Wellcome Trust Workshop on Model Organism
Databases" ( ). FTP and "screen
scrapping", which pretty much where we are at now, is listed as the
worst level of interoperability (and we're lucky if we have FTP
access. (I should mention that uBio and GenBank provide SOAP access).

To make the vision happen we need compelling, practical examples of
useful tools.



Professor Roderic D. M. Page
Editor Elect, Systematic Biology
Graham Kerr Building
University of Glasgow
Glasgow G12 8QP
United Kingdom

Phone:    +44 141 330 4778
Fax:      +44 141 330 2792
email: at

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