[Taxacom] Chameleons, GBIF, and the Red List

Donat Agosti agosti at amnh.org
Mon Aug 25 01:53:57 CDT 2014

There are three points that appear again and again and need some thoughts.

Money spent on a useless institution

I think it is a myth that GBIF is siphoning off a lot of funding for  biodiversity (taxonomy). I rather argue, if there is no GBIF, a lot of money would not be spoken for the biodiversity community at all. GBIF established itself, as a rare kind, from with the OECD, a long tedious process that people like Jim Edwards, Meredith Lane and Ebbe Nielsen initiated and went through long gruesome meetings. It is also partially enabled through the fact that the Convention on Biological Diversity  asks the parties (countries) to build biodiversity observation systems (see eg two recently EU-funded projects EU-BON and pro-iBiosphere, the former being requested from the EU to build a the European leg of the Global Biodiversity Observation Network the latter got funded in competition with all sciences and thus should be regarded as a resource that has been successfully created from scratch.

But we taxonomists do a very bad job in creating such opportunities: This current discussion just confirms it. We complain about bad data - data we create and should create. At the same time we are not able to provide a reference list of all the species in the world. We are not able to provide a response to the need to build the bases for global biodiversity monitoring system as bases for biodiversity conservation. This goal would define the quality of the data we need, and will have to collect.

Even if GBIF would compete for resources: Compete against whom? Stephen Thorpe? An institution? GBIF is a global institution that has members (States) and thus competes at a global level. The global level though are more than 3400 herbaria worldwide, an unknown number of natural history museums, an unknown number of grants awarded in the area of biodiversity. Is this money that GBIF gets really that big, or rather a small fraction? It is rather the latter.

In a sense, the discussion we are having regarding the use of GBIF is very similar to the discussion on the usefulness of the United Nations. There are plenty of folks out there that consider this a waste of money. At the same time, if there is no UN, there is no system that allows States to meet, to bring up such obviously unrelated issue and discussions at global level such as Regulation of Small Firearms to Biodiversity (eg Rio Earth Summit). We are global, we cannot deny it even if many of us want to this such as the Climate Change deniers, we need global solutions that cannot be found and created at an ad hoc basis.

Look at scientific names. Here we do not have a GBIF that we can complain about. We have some sort of many one man shows that do not talk to each other and thus a critical assessment like the one on occurrences is NOT even possible. And this is pretty much reflected in, and the cause of in the complaint about taxonomic correctness in GBIF data. We do not try to get our acts together, like Ebbe, Meredith and Jim many years ago, to build such a system. For example, we do not take BHL as a bases to build a global catalogue of life that brings together the names, bibliographies and the published record which would allow understanding each taxonomic name usage, to link the TNU to the original observation record cited and thus build a much more powerful GBIF. With few exceptions (I.e. Pensoft) we rather willingly defend publishing in a very obstructive way (PDF, not Open Access) that inhibits building such a system because of its prohibitive price tag to extract this information later, and even to discover this bit of information.
We really need to put this discussion about the value of GBIF into a bigger context, and use the same criteria over our entire field of biodiversity information for other kind of data.

IUCN does a better job

IUCN with its Red List has a much more direct effect on policy making, especially in conservation. Therefore, the data they use should be much more scrutinized and in fact all the raw data should be available tochallenge the red listing. Can you do this? Why aren't you question their data and results as you do with GBIF? Are you happy that you have to be for access to their data sets, one by one? Is it legitimation enough that you have a monopoly that nobody can challenge? Are you happy with a polygon or with observation data? Can you get all the data the UNEP/WCMC is using for their analyses? No, you cannot in many cases for various reasons, and thus you cannot challenge them in the same way.

I think, I prefer GBIF-data with all its weaknesses as opposed to analyses I just have to believe because of an "inner circle". I can challenge GBIF data, complain about it, and hopefully use the lessons learned to create a better system for the future that delivers what I want.

Data need be cleaned up

Yes, data need be cleaned up, BUT the best cleaning of data doesn't help to create the data standards that you envision: Properly identified with spatially high and accurate resolution data. You only get out what you put in. You can't create a highly precise GPS read from most of label data we have. Also, as much as we complain about data quality, as much should we stress to get metadata that defines the source of the data: Why has it been collected? What is the geographic resolution? What is the taxonomic authority? This then would define data quality much more accurately.


-----Original Message-----
From: Stephen Thorpe [mailto:stephen_thorpe at yahoo.co.nz] 
Sent: Sunday, August 24, 2014 11:46 PM
To: Donat Agosti; Bob Mesibov
Cc: TAXACOM; quentin groom
Subject: Re: [Taxacom] Chameleons, GBIF, and the Red List

Let's take a deep breath, stand back, and look at this again, shall we? The key points are getting obscured somewhat by ranting.

GBIF harvests data from various data providers, many of which are already freely available online. In these cases, we have a dilemma: on the one hand, it is convenient to have one place to go for data from various providers. But the data providers are typically kept more up-to-date than GBIF (which only harvests data occasionally). One solution would be for GBIF to simply point to data provider sites (so you could look up a taxon on GBIF, and it would tell you where to go for data). But, then GBIF would be very simple, and not much better than Google! So instead, GBIF offers some sort of "standard data output" for the various data providers, and some sort of overall analysis of all the data, though the details are a bit "vague", and the overall analysis may break down for multiple data providers of varying quality. One crucial point is that GBIF in no way "validates/confirms/annotates" data from data providers. There is no "quality filter" (or even  "quality assessor") which can be standardly applied to all data harvested by GBIF.

I guess the obvious question now is "so what"? Well, given the amount of funding that GBIF chews up, we really must ask ourselves if it is money well spent? Who uses GBIF and why? I have already offered an answer to that one (i.e. it is effectively a great big bureaucratic "placebo").


On Mon, 25/8/14, Bob Mesibov <mesibov at southcom.com.au> wrote:

 Subject: Re: [Taxacom] Chameleons, GBIF, and the Red List
 To: "Donat Agosti" <agosti at amnh.org>
 Cc: "TAXACOM" <taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu>, "quentin groom" <quentin at br.fgov.be>
 Received: Monday, 25 August, 2014, 9:27 AM
 Donat Agosti wrote:
 "I feel, the discussion
 is too much centered on data that has not the information  content needed, like studying a Landsat image at 30 meter  resolution and discussing what tree species is  shown"
 metaphor! For most scientific uses, you need much more data  than is provided by any available database. Can you get  everything you need online? No. Do existing aggregators like  GBIF offer a helpful starting point? For some people and  some uses, yes.
 But now the
 important question: when you have all the information you  need, and clean it and enrich it, do you publish it online  in a usable form? I don't know what Quentin Groom's  project was about, nor do I know if he published his final  data.
 In my own case, every
 one of my 12123 locality records for Australian Millipedes  is freely available in CSV format (and in abbreviated form  in KML) from the 'Millipedes of Australia' website.
 This store is larger and more up to date and contains fewer  errors than any aggregator store, or even, the combined data  providers' stores (because certain providers have been  slow to add my edits to particular records, or to upload  them to their own or aggregator stores).
 But if people like me and Quentin publish data  freely to the Web and aggregators don't use this  improved/extended data, aggregation looks less and less  useful.
 Dr Robert Mesibov
 Honorary Research Associate
 Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, and  School of Land and Food, University of  Tasmania  Home contact:
 Box 101, Penguin, Tasmania, Australia 7316
 (03) 64371195; 61 3 64371195
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