Sunday, May 30, 2010

More of the same old stuff: the value of data/information

In this context it is interesting to follow the discussion on the impact of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in Democracy Now on May 28.

This is, what President Obama has said in his press conference

"I think it is a legitimate concern to question whether BP's interests in being fully forthcoming about the extent of the damage is aligned with the public interest. I mean, their interest may be to minimize the damage and, to the extent that they have better information than anybody else, to not be fully forthcoming. So, my attitude is, we HAVE TO VERIFY WHATEVER IT IS THEY SAY [my emphasis] about the damage. This is an area, by the way, where I do think our efforts fell short.

And here is a typical answer from the environmentalists "
JUAN GONZALEZ: This is now the largest oil spill in American history, but there was a prior even bigger oil spill off the coast of Mexico back in-I think it was 1979. Could you talk about what was learned in terms of the impact of that spill on the Gulf?

WENONAH HAUTER: Well, I THINK [my emphasis] that it takes many, many years for the species to be-to come back and that there are still impacts on the Gulf today.
This is not really a lot of detail of understanding what is happening comparing to the details she cites about BP etc. And the Golf is something close to the US, unlike the rest of the world where most of the biodiversity is.

It also shows, WHY it is important that we have real data as opposed to guestimates.

Loss of reality?

"Governments have made “positive moves” towards coming up with a plan to reduce the current loss of biodiversity, which is threatening the future of our planet. Over the past two weeks, delegates at a meeting in Nairobi have been discussing the scientific and technical aspects behind a new “big plan” to save all life on earth, the planet’s biodiversity. Scientists from IUCN, who have been taking part in the discussions, say that they’re encouraged by the commitment shown by governments to develop a new Strategic Plan for the next ten years, which would set targets to reduce the global rate of biodiversity loss." IUCN-SSC, May 23, 2010

Reading this press release together with the recent article in Science "Barometer of Live" I really wonder what these people think. Didn't the target date of Countdown 2010 just pass by? Could we say that within the last eight years the conservation community achieved something really significant towards this clearly ambitious goal? I doubt, and furthermore other competitors came up like the climate change or global financial crisis that use some of the limited resources to be used for the environment.

Now, they either hope that politicians think that this cause is important or that a philanthropist is stepping forwards to pay another 60M USD over the next few years.

I consider our biodiversity conservation a global failure. There are plenty of small initiatives that succeed, but at global level we haven't achieved anything. We still have not even a list of the species of the world, not to speak a global assessment strategy that is living up to modern standards of biodidversiy prospecting and taxonomy.

If such as failure would happen in the industry, heads would have to roll. I think, we need a new generation of leaders that are ingenious, that bring in new approaches, that include the collection of environmental data that can be used and reused; real observation data. That would mean, that we have to talk to each other, we need to build the necessary infrastructure and clever strategies on what we are going to measure, and how we are going to finance it sustainably.

As much as the biodiversity informatics community seems to luck guidance in their development, the conservation community fails the necessary scientific insights to create such a global monitoring program that would stand up to criticism. The funding agencies could steer such an endeavor into the right direction.

Star power obvioulsy is not the way to succeed. We need bold ideas and people with a vision that can be implemented and lives up to scientific rigor. It is, nevertheless the scientific methods and data that have the power to change, not good stories.

More of the same old stuff

A recent article in Science The Barometer of Life arguing for increased investment in expanding the knowledge base for biodiversity, to improve our understanding of biodiversity as a key indicator of both ecological and human wellbeing and enable more effective policy decision making - authored by a group well known in this community.

The Barometer of Life is in my humble view yet an other buzzword. No doubt, we need to expand the knowledge base for biodiversity, but I strongly doubt that the approach described and the institutions have proven that they can deliver. Countdown 2010 has passed by without any real changes nor respective instruments built. More action has been announced in Nairobi ( along the same line. Conservation International’s expensive TEAM effort has not delivered the original global early warning system. SSC’s data is still not easily if at all accessible, for example linked through institutions like GBIF. The Encyclopedia of Life is far from being fully functional, nor does it generate new data. Still the number of expected 1.9M species is cited, similar to 1986 when about this estimate has been circulated for the first time. There is not even an updated list of the global species available, nor are monitoring programs in site, that would allow measuring directly changes at species level, something TEAM planned to deliver.

Whilst we now have almost 1meter resolution remote sensing data for the entire planet and a huge number of physical parameters measured, most of it open access, species are still dealt with crude “guestimates” by few experts, no system has been developed to monitor the global species properly, the underlying observational data made accessible, nor the respective collaborations between the taxonomists, conservation organizations and policy makers set up.

Unless a new approach is chosen, the estimated 60 Million US Dollars could be spent with better return, in a way that is open to such critical scrutiny like the climate data generated, and by scientists that now how to generate the necessary data.

In a world and time where remarkable changes occur in the informatics and taxonomy world, these remarkable changes should be seized. The Global Name Architecture pulling together all the existing names of the species of the world, the Biodiversity Heritage Library scanning millions pages of natural history literature and make them accessible; new publishing models in taxonomy including mark-up of relevant text and links to external resources occur (eg taxpub); numerous efforts to digitize the species at a resolution allowing the identification of an rapidly increasing number of species; DNA Barcoding allows in many areas rapid and large scale assessments with a huge potential in the future; field campaigns in various parts of the world using standardized methods run by specialists. Not least the sharing of data allows the use of this data around the globe. Unless these resources are an integral part of monitoring and content is being generated, yet another Barometer of Life will be doomed again.