Thursday, February 22, 2007

EO Wilson recipient of the TED award 2007

On March 8, EO Wilson will receive the TED Prize. It is a very prestigious award by the 1000 thought-leaders, movers and shakers in Technology, Entertainment and Design. The winners receive USD100,000 and can formulate a wish which the members of the TED community pledged to help to fulfill.

Congratulations to Ed Wilson to yet another great award, another confirmation of his outstanding achievements!

Let’s speculate that Ed Wilson is going to fulfill his boyhood dream of an encyclopedia of life for ants. So, what would be needed to make this dream reality?

Ants are already on of the best documented group of animals in the world. There is an online catalogue of all the ants of the world updated as soon as another species is added to the currently known 11,981 species. This includes a digital library linked to from the species citations to pdfs of all the non-copyrighted descriptions. Currently, all these over 4,000 publications are being transformed to text by the Internet Archive, and the special mark-up schema, taxonx. is added for species and treatments or the descriptions of the species. There are an estimated 6,500 species documented with high resolution, magnificent standard images, even well worth printing in large scale and hanging them on your wall. Through Brian Fisher’s and Jack Longino’s superb collecting efforts in such biologically important areas as Madagascar and Costa Rica, ants have most likely one of the best documented surveys for any group of animals world wide, easily accessible online. The evolution of ants is well documented through large scale DNA-based analysis. On top of this, data aggregator such as ispecies are using mash-up technologies to collect all these information automatically – information which is added by a large, sprawling community worldwide. This infrastructure and its content already has a broad impact beyond the ant world, especially into education and other life sciences sectors

What is missing? There are three issues, that is building up and maintaining the global infrastructure, the transfer of legacy data, that is publications and specimen data into the digital realm, and the generation of new research as input into such a system, which .

TED could help make advances in each of these three areas. Most likely, the biggest impact, and one with an impact well beyond ants alone, would be to get the TED crowd to agree to build up a Digital Object Identifier (DOI) repository and resolver for all the systematics legacy publications, the descriptions of the species, the species names, and the specimens. These are the basic building blocks of systematics through which the entire information on animals and plants could be pulled together now, but especially in a semantic Web or Web2.0 environment. It would also be the best complement to the Biodiversity Heritage Library by the large US and UK natural history museums and institutions which will free knowledge hidden in millions of published literature.

Linking a statement with its evidence
Such a DOI based system would allow linking any comment made on the distribution or behavior of a species to its original observation or reference specimen with an attached Global Positioning System record. This will allow to pinpoint not only the proper name of and the specimen itself, but also its precise geographic origin which is living up to and can made the best out of high resolution satellite or map data, such as now publicly available at Google-Earth. Mash-up technologies would allow getting all additional information needed automatically, such as DNA-BarCode sequence, conservation status, studies on the biology or medical use or the increasing number of images and movies on Youtube or Yahoo as examples.

Open access to biodiversity knowlege
An agreement by the publishers to allow open access to all the articles in their journal covering the description of species, or even better biodiversity and conservation will have a similar impact as the applications of DOI’s. Alternatively, the use of specific mark-up in their journal articles, delimiting the description allowing automatic data mining and extraction and thus building up the global Encyclopedia of Life.

Finally, taking images of all those groups of ants which are increasingly used in surveys and to measure the loss of biodiversity ought to be another priority, since images are by far the most important element to identify species. This would ideally complement ongoing world wide efforts by a rapidly increasing crowd of specialists and amateurs.

Getting this infrastructure up would enable anybody in the world, from E.O. Wilson in his little home town in Alabama to any place in the developing world to participate in this feast of knowledge and motivate more people like Awatif Omer in Khartoum to pursue the discovery of new species in such places like Sudan. The usage of all this information by the crowd, rather then expert’s opinion, would then decide what the most authoritative contributions are

Catalogue of the ants of the World: (in collaboration with the Hymenoptera Name Server): literature digitized with partial support from the Atherton Seidall Foundation at the Smithsonian Institution.

Online scientific images of ants:
Costa Rican Ants
Ant Types at MCZ / Harvard

Mashups: ispecies

Biodiversity Heritage Library

Taxonx: an example of a systematics specific mark-up schema

An overview of the global ant community


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