[Taxacom] Chameleons, GBIF, and the Red List

Stephen Thorpe stephen_thorpe at yahoo.co.nz
Tue Aug 19 19:26:48 CDT 2014

Call me cynical, but I think perhaps that GBIF is designed to meet a specific demand, by bureaucrats, who just want something "official looking" to cite for a broad range of biodiversity related issues. They are less concerned with data quality than they are at just doing their jobs without having to actively search for data.


On Wed, 20/8/14, Bob Mesibov <mesibov at southcom.com.au> wrote:

 Subject: Re: [Taxacom] Chameleons, GBIF, and the Red List
 To: "TAXACOM" <taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu>
 Cc: "Rod Page" <r.page at bio.gla.ac.uk>
 Received: Wednesday, 20 August, 2014, 12:09 PM
 The chameleons paper came out while I
 was in the field here in Australia with two visiting
 European zoologists. They were surprised by the numbers in
 the paper, but not because they or their colleagues rely on
 GBIF. They asked two rhetorical questions:
 Who would use GBIF to obtain reliable records for a
 particular taxon of interest? (The Europeans didn't.)
 Why would anyone use GBIF for multi-taxon or area-focused
 Expanding, they said that any specialist wanting reliable
 records would go first to specialist-compiled data. If they
 didn't exist, the specialist would make a fresh start from
 collections, the assumption being that collections data (the
 stuff uploaded to GBIF) could well be wrong. The Europeans
 gave me alarming examples, both for taxon ID and locality
 information. (My 2013 audit of GBIF's Australian millipede
 data wasn't half so alarming.)
 This is the specialist viewpoint. There is presumably a
 perfectly good answer to Rhetorical Question 2 from a
 non-specialist viewpoint, but if it involves conservation,
 then the dodgy, broad-brush picture you get from GBIF is
 probably inadequate, and the non-specialist needs to find
 specialists for further work: taxon specialists for taxa,
 and area specialists for areas.
 Whether broad-brush users of GBIF data would appreciate that
 the picture is inadequate is just one problem. It could be
 partially solved with more 'Warning!' messages from GBIF,
 and maybe something similar from data providers.
 I suspect the reality is that broad-brush users don't care
 whether GBIF data are OK or not. This is a harder problem.
 'Fit for purpose' is a nice-sounding Band-Aid but it leaves
 open the questions 'How fit?' and 'For what purpose?'
 Getting back to chameleons, the standard against which GBIF
 data were compared was specialist-compiled, as it was in my
 millipedes audit. Maybe the best future for GBIF isn't in
 aggregation, but in *disaggregation*. When GBIF reckons it
 has the bulk of existing records for taxon X, it could cut
 them out and hire specialists to audit them. The annotation
 would be from GBIF: 'This taxon's records need to be checked
 by specialists and should not be used for decision-making'
 In the meantime, while funded aggregators continue to
 accumulate unvetted data from collections and other sources,
 unfunded specialists continue to quietly compile more
 reliable data and put it online. Another valuable GBIF
 annotation would be: 'A vetted alternative to this taxon's
 records is here [hyperlink]'.
 Dr Robert Mesibov
 Honorary Research Associate
 Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, and
 School of Land and Food, University of Tasmania
 Home contact:
 PO Box 101, Penguin, Tasmania, Australia 7316
 (03) 64371195; 61 3 64371195
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