Reinventing the Wheel of Life?

Matthew Chatfield
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The celebrated American entomologist and humanist Professor E.O.Wilson has set out his stall in favour of a new project: The Encyclopedia of Life.

“Imagine an electronic page for each species of organism on Earth available everywhere by single access on command.” – E.O.Wilson

Already the project has some prodigious backers, with 12.5 million U.S. dollars in grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation[1].

EOL

Sounds fantastic. Doesn’t it? Well, doesn’t it? Can The Ranger possibly raise any objection to such a worthy and well-backed project? Actually, he might just do that. He’s no scientist by profession (although he is by training) but he has a lot of experience of drawing down species data from the internet. And this EOL programme just seems somehow out of place to him: a great plan but maybe a bit late off the blocks. Probably that opening quote from E.O.Wilson was what did it. “Imagine an electronic page for each species of organism on Earth available everywhere by single access on command”. Apart from sounding in style like a quote from about 1985 – excusable from such a grand old man – it demonstrates the key issue with this project. It’s just not necessary to imagine such a thing. For many species, and for the majority of other groups, such a page already exists somewhere on the internet. And some of this data is pretty good. Want to see an example? Let’s choose the EOL’s example page about the polar bear:

  • Here’s the EOL version – this is a demo page as their site is not yet live. But there’s plenty of stuff on it.
  • Here’s the ARKive page on the same species. This is in fact a live page. Looks pretty comprehensive, in fact if you click through ‘More information’ there’s even more detail on the next page too.
  • Wikipedia also has a polar bear article, predictably enough. It’s not so authoritative but it’s actually got a lot of the same information there. And you can edit it. Cool!
  • For the technically minded the UNEP-WCMC database has exhaustive records of most endangered species – including polar bears – with a catalogue of data for each one available and searchable by just about anything.

There are many, many more. Now, EOL is honest enough to admit this, and says things like: Wikipedia inspired us… Wikipedia… created some species pages, as have other groups. Encyclopedia of Life will, we hope, unite all such efforts and increase their value. So they do realise there are other resources already in existence. But what do they hope to add to them? In National Geographic News there is a report of the project launch in May 2007:

…the Encyclopedia of Life will standardize the presentation of “information about the plants and animals and microorganisms that share this planet with us,” said James Edwards, the project’s executive director. The information will be accessible to scientists, policymakers, educators, and the general public, who have all clamored for the encyclopedia for years, Edwards said. “No one can really get it together in an edited form and know what’s going on, and without that, there’s no hope of using it for all the purposes where it could be applied,” he said.

So they seem to be suggesting that without the Encyclopedia of Life, nobody can ‘get it together’, and there would be ‘no hope of using it’. That seems a bit harsh to The Ranger and a little dismissive of current efforts. Many of the benefits EOL promises are actually benefits of the internet itself, rather than any one website or format (for example with such marvels as “Wherever a species name occurs, there may also be a hyperlink to its page in the Encyclopedia“[2]): it’s almost as if they are trying to sell the wonders of the web to a pre-internet audience. Undoubtedly there are huge areas of biodiversity which are woefully under-catalogued and under-represented on the internet. There are also large paper resources of biodiversity data which would benefit greatly from digitisation – as EOL acknowledges in referring to the Biodiversity Heritage Library, a successful existing project. But how will EOL actually help? EOL does not seem to be suggesting that it would do anything other than draw such information sources together, and building a kind of portal layer on top for people to access the data. This is a large-scale, centralising, top-down project plan which seems likely to deliver little more than the sum of its parts. This is because it will reply upon constant input from those actually creating the information by research and cataloguing, and this will inevitably come from a wide variety of different sources; just as it does now. Researchers at the front line will not rely on such abstracted, standardised data because they will want to go straight to the source, as they always do – to the journals, to their peers’ websites, and to many diverse small organisations. To control and manage such diverse data into uniformity will take huge ongoing resources – but would that be the best use of those resources? EOL will not in itself make more of this data, nor put more online. Simply centralising and controlling data will not make that data better.

ARKive

Anyway, is the EOL really setting out to do something so new? In 1985, maybe. But in fact, it’s not that hard to find a great deal of quality information online right now. It’s certainly very far from a ‘no hope’ situation, and it’s constantly improving – without the guiding hand of an overarching uber-library. Sites such as ARKive seem already to be doing more or less what EOL is setting out to do, albeit for a sizeable subset of information. And they’ve been doing it for years. So, here’s the suggestion. What if the EOL backing consortium decided not to set up a whole brand new system for data wrangling, but chose instead to offer the resources they have committed to the scheme to enhance existing websites and programmes to achieve the same goals?

Matthew Chatfield

Uncooperative crusty. Unofficial Isle of Wight cultural ambassador. Conservation, countryside and the environment, with extra stuff about spiders.

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