Thursday, August 23, 2007

Turn away from the Earth to the Sky: Google's new star-gazing tool

Recently, Google launched a new tool in its Google Earth program: Watching the sky from Earth (see NYTimes, August 22, 2007). It is another of this mammoth tasks to stitch together more than a million of images to cover the entire sky. Google claimed, that they did it, because some of their engineers did it, because they had an interest in this, and not to generate revenues. I like this.

As a biologist though I can not get around the thought that once again biodiversity has proven to be of little attraction to the real world. This fascinating world we probably are increasingly loosing right now is somehow so elusive, that it can not catch the attention of the important people in this world.

It is elusive in a sense, that it is not easy to go out to even watch a house mouse in your backyard, not to speak of those many nocturnal or shy animals, and not to speak of understanding their population structure and dynamics. We lack just lack the time, patience, knowledge to do so. Plants are even worse. They do not move, so to watch their activity is more difficult, and then to identify them even more so. Despite the hope the BarCode of Life initiative seems to infuse, it makes the problem even more grave: We then need a hand held device to find an organism, of which we do not know how it looks like - so how will we find it in the first place?

The other day I was watching EO Wilson on Youtube presenting his 'Wish' lecture at the TED meeting. The video is 24 minutes, of which he uses about 20 minutes to tell the same old story of trivia of numbers about biodiversity, his personal involvement in this and the last few minutes he referred to some high profile institutions who are taking on his great idea of an Encyclopedia of Life, and that he now wishes that TEDsters would help. So, where is Wilson's true compassion, where can we look at it. There isn't anything visionary about what he does. It is the same content as he presented in 1987 where biodiversity became an issue. Shall we care about this?

We are rapidly approaching 2010, the year in which nearly all countries of the world came together for the World Summit on Sustainable Development to launch the countdown2010, an initiative to halt the increasing rate of loosing species (and halt species loss entirely in the EU). And the only thing we can claim in 2010, that we still do not know. And this is, because not even our leaders (see above), nor the conservation organizations are innovative or want to invest in tools to measure what is out there, nor seem they willing to share the little data they have.

There is some light in the dark by initiatives like GBIF which help to spearhead the distribution of existing data, and show the value of open access. There is EOL, which started with great fanfare to announce to provide for each species an portal of access to all the relevant information, but in the meantime became very secretive in its action despite its call to bring together all the experts. There is the conservation geo-portal, but these are all tools to disseminate existing information. They all build upon somebody collecting new data. And most of this data is very weak, because it has not been collected for the very purpose conservation needs it: to measure the change in species loss, for example. It does not live up the detail of imagery of our planet earth where we can see single trees in Madagascar.

If I would be a TEDster listening to talks from Wilson et al, I would open my handhelp or laptop and drill down in what he says. There isn't anything thrilling to see but some static images, not even text, which is still in his copyrighted book as are most of the new literature due to a strangle of the commercial publishers based on their quasi monopoly on publishing, there is no interesting, intriguing, innovative field campaign going on in his office. In more general terms, there is not even a comprehensive list of all the species of the world nor a phylogeny, which could be used, like the new map of the sky, to surf in the worlds biodiversity.

Wouldn't it be nice, if whenever a new species is described, or even found and thought to be new, an new blimp in the biodiversity sky would show up, immediately accessible with all the data around it. Such as system would bring together not only the curious engineer at Google with the field biologist, but all the many conservationists with the experts of particular taxa. All the technology to do so is here and being developed in many small little initiatives like such as Rod Pages tools or Dave Shorthouse's to visualize is spider data.

But it is not main stream, nor is it being adopted easily by the mainstream institutions. They have a problem with changing their culture, why else do they have such a big problem to sign up and implement ideas such as the Conservation Commons? Why don't invest more of their resources into generating new data rather than regurgitating the same again and again?

I think, an new generation of leaders have to raise in our fields. Leaders who understand the problems, are innovative and committed and thus solve problems rather than love to stay in limelight and rub shoulders; leaders who are not bound by all their relationships, financial constraints, and interest in star power. 20 years of mismanagement of biodiversity ought be reason enough for change. Even the 100M USD supposedly pledged for EOL over the next 10 years will do little if the underlying culture is not being changed.


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