[Taxacom] Global biodiversity databases

Stephen Thorpe stephen_thorpe at yahoo.co.nz
Tue Aug 7 18:27:16 CDT 2012

>It became hard to demonstrate whether anyone outside the acronym industry was actually using the data, and for what purposes<
speaking from the N.Z. perspective, NZOR is aimed at users in conservation (DoC) and biosecurity (MPI) agencies. The latest NZOR promotional flyer promises "These data are able to be streamed directly into the mission critical decision support database systems in agencies such as MPI ". Sound slighly o.t.t.?? Particularly since the "mission critical" data is in some important groups very dirty indeed!
As I mentioned in a recent post on this thread, I hope that a comprehensive GBD can and will be used by the biological community to help to facilitate research into the composition of biotic communities ... millipedes don't exist in a vacuum!
As Bob somewhat subtly alludes to below, the acronym "industry" has become just that, an "industry", driven by economic rather than scientific factors (to some significant extent, anyway) ...

From: Robert Mesibov <mesibov at southcom.com.au>
To: TAXACOM <taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu> 
Sent: Wednesday, 8 August 2012 11:08 AM
Subject: Re: [Taxacom] Global biodiversity databases

This discussion demonstrates how thinking about GBDs has matured.

We started (1970s? long ago, anyway) with specialist-built databases that put a lot of taxonomic information about (some) taxa in one digital place. The users were specialists and their colleagues.

The 1980s and 1990s saw in-government efforts to put vast amounts of occurrence and habitat data into enormous databases, because you could. Database access was restricted, users were few, and for any given acronym you could count on one hand the cases where finding something out couldn't have been done faster and more reliably by other means. (Like consulting a specialist.)

The 2000s (and please excuse the tired old 'decades' metaphor, but in this instance it works) brought a wave of database projects aiming to suck up every digitally available scrap of (taxonomic and/or ecological and/or spatial) information about every organism and make the lot available on the Web. This new lot of acronyms had several features in common:

- the projects were extra-governmental or inter-governmental
- budgets were often large and person-hour contributions enormous
- there were carefully branded Web interfaces that users were meant to find attractive and workable
- the projects did a lot of self-promotion
- the main customers for database use were *other, similar projects*.

That last point is important. It became hard to demonstrate whether anyone outside the acronym industry was actually using the data, and for what purposes. Stats are reported as page hits. The sales pitch had to be 'Just *think* of what you could do with all this data!!'

The 2010s have brought a new perspective, best expressed by Rod Page and also evident in the current discussion. OK, we're not going to have everything at our digital fingertips, and what we've got may not be 100% reliable. And the sales claims made by those 2000s-era projects were a bit overreaching. But what we *can* do is link all this stuff together, because we can, and just *think* of what you could do with all that linked data!

Meanwhile, in the low-rent districts of the biodiversity data world, specialists continue to compile, check and improve databases, primarily for their own use and the use of their colleagues, but putting them on the Web so they become freely available to anyone with Internet access. The content of these resources may or may not be vacuumed up by acronyms; the specialists don't care, because they will go first to the specialist database interface, not the acronym one.

And in 2012, we have a Linnean Society symposium (http://www.linnean.org/fileadmin/events2/events.php?detail=331) in which someone is finally asking the question: 'eTaxonomy - what do the non-taxonomic user communities want?' It's a sign of maturity when a young man no longer wants the latest, flashiest, most powerful car, but asks instead 'I want to drive from A to B, so what's the cheapest, easiest and most reliable vehicle to do the job?'
Dr Robert Mesibov
Honorary Research Associate
Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, and
School of Agricultural Science, University of Tasmania
Home contact: PO Box 101, Penguin, Tasmania, Australia 7316
Ph: (03) 64371195; 61 3 64371195


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