Dr Joanne Daly, Chair, and Dr Nick King, Executive Secretary, Global Biodiversity Information Facility
Access to standardised ‘clean’ data is a primary requirement for effective environmental policy making. Here, International Innovation speaks to GBIF Chair of the Governing Board Dr Joanne Daly and Executive Secretary Dr Nick King about their work harmonising access to biodiversity information
GBIF is reaching an important milestone at the end of this year, marking 10 years since the facility started. What are your plans and objectives for this new phase?
JD: Now that GBIF is fully operational, it is timely for us to look at its utility. Does it meet user needs? Is it easy to use? Does it enable good science and good decision making? To address these issues, our new Strategic Plan focuses on advancing three goals: the digital content available on the web, the informatics infrastructure that supports the use of this content, and the engagement of stakeholders that drives both the supply of and need for biodiversity data.
So we will look at the quantity, quality and scope of GBIF-mediated data. Our informatics infrastructure must continue to develop standards, tools and services to enable interoperability, and we must respond to new developments in information sciences. Finally, we must strengthen our engagement with existing participants and strategic partners – and welcome new ones – to ensure that GBIF adds value to national and international efforts to conserve and sustainably use biodiversity.
How near is GBIF to being the world reference point for sharing biodiversity data?
JD: GBIF is already the global reference point for primary biodiversity data, ie. records of where and when a particular organism occurred, how and by whom it was collected or observed. It is unique in that respect.
GBIF’s origins are also unique. It was developed from an initiative of the OECD Global Science Forum in the 1990s, as governments sought to enhance their ability to share and access data relevant to them and their respective scientific communities. Thus, it is government initiated and funded.
What is not well known is that GBIF’s work is as much about facilitating changes in behaviour and attitudes as it is about providing the technical facilities to share data. Resistance by some parties to making data available can create significant barriers, and we have 10 years’ experience of helping to remove those barriers.
Who is GBIF primarily aimed at?
JD: Directly, the scientific community – it is, after all, a ‘global megascience initiative’. So the primary users of data mediated by GBIF are researchers, academics in universities, research institutions and those embedded within government departments. Ultimately, however, GBIF provides a service for the whole of society. It supports research that can help meet policy objectives at national and international levels, such as the targets agreed in Nagoya, Japan last year through the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) for reducing biodiversity loss. Decision making is only as good as the science that underpins it, and the science itself is underpinned by access to and awareness of the biodiversity datasets that are available. That’s where GBIF comes in.
GBIF also has a special interest in assisting developing countries, through capacity building, to access and utilise information about the biodiversity of their countries – vital data that in many cases may lie hidden for years in the form of specimens gathering dust in a museum drawer thousands of miles away.
If GBIF does not own or ‘hold’ any of these data, and they remain in the hands of the institutions or individuals who compile/collect/ observe the data – then what is GBIF’s role?
JD: It is a very important point to stress, as the impression is sometimes wrongly given that datasets are somehow ‘handed over’ to GBIF. This is absolutely not the case. GBIF has developed the IT infrastructure to enable discovery of and access to these datasets. Agreements with the owners ensure that they are published in common digital formats so that they are universally accessible. Ownership remains with the data publisher, but everyone can see what the datasets consist of, where and by whom they are held. This provides access to copies of the various datasets and the individual records they contain, enabling research never before possible.
Another important aspect in this regard is that the data holder always has the option to restrict access to the geographical location of a species record – for instance, where it would not be sensible to divulge publicly the precise location of a threatened species. But through the GBIF portal, legitimate researchers can find out whom to contact for more information about the record.
Earlier this year, GBIF passed the landmark of providing access to more than 300 million species occurrence records via your data portal. How much hard work does this landmark represent? Are you setting future targets for records?
NK: It represents an enormous amount of work, skill and dedication throughout the whole GBIF community worldwide – by hundreds of dedicated scientists and data managers digitising datasets and publishing them according to agreed standards, as well as by developers within the GBIF Secretariat and beyond, ensuring that our informatics tools can efficiently handle the huge volumes of data being processed.
GBIF’s priorities have evolved during its first 10 years. Initially, it was important to prove that such an initiative was technically and politically feasible, and that it would be beneficial. It is only really since the launch of the current data portal in mid-2007 that the volume of data has been important, and we have seen that grow steadily until a recent sharp acceleration. Just in the last year, we have seen a 50 per cent increase. We are starting to see the curve move towards exponential growth; as publishing tools are improved, awareness grows and participation spreads.
We are not really focusing on a target number in future. What is more important, apart from improving data quality of course, is to address key geographic and taxonomic gaps. In other words, are there parts of the world such as biodiversity hotspots or ‘mega-diverse’ countries that could be better represented in the data accessible through our portal? And are there particular branches of the tree of life that may be priority targets for data publishing in order to make the biodiversity information available through GBIF more comprehensive and more useful?
An Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is currently being set up. How does GBIF fi t in to this?
NK: We believe the experience of GBIF and the tools we have developed in the past decade represent invaluable resources for the new platform as it takes shape. The two organisations are entirely complementary. IPBES will be carrying out global and sub-global assessments in order to inform policy makers of the consequences of their decisions on the services provided to people by ecosystems, underpinned by biodiversity – services ranging from provision of food and fresh water, filtration of pollutants and protection from disasters to less tangible but highly-valued spiritual and cultural needs. At the heart of an effective IPBES will be solid science on which to base those assessments, and as Joanne has already pointed out, science in turn depends on the availability of enough and the right kind of data ie. consistent standards and quality from different sources. The technical and human capacity developed by GBIF to get data mobilised and accessible at national and global level will be at the disposal of IPBES. So we are enablers, providing the ‘pipes and plumbing’ in the system to ensure that society has the best possible information on which to base decisions.
How can GBIF help governments to set, monitor and ultimately meet the country-specific targets that start to quantify the broader goals and visions agreed at the Nagoya meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity last year (the ‘Aichi Targets’)?
NK: Irrespective of the national targets set – and these will differ greatly and be the cause of much debate in international policy negotiations – they will all require primary biodiversity datasets that are standardised and readily accessible to all. That is GBIF’s niche, and this will greatly enhance the return on the investment made in GBIF by governments in the form of their (modest) annual contribution. If GBIF didn’t exist, it would have to be created.
Historically, there has been a bias towards membership of OECD countries, since GBIF emerged from a meeting of the OECD’s Global Science Forum. Is it important to attract more of the large developing countries which hold a large proportion of the world’s biodiversity? How do you aim to achieve this?
NK: Yes, we believe it is important for GBIF to become truly global in coverage, so that everyone benefits. Those countries not yet participating will benefit from 10 years of investment already made – they will be able to use the latest tools and services developed by GBIF, and they will gain immediate access to all the data pertaining to their countries which has already been published, and which is accessible because of GBIF’s existence.
For existing participants, of course, they gain by having access to increasing coverage of data as more countries and organisations come on board. So in our next phase, engagement and communications are key strategic priorities – we can show from our experience that an initiative covering the whole international community is technically and politically feasible, and we can show the scientific value as increasing number of research papers are published using data accessible through GBIF.
Given the concerns over biodiversity loss, how is GBIF acting to ensure that the valuable data that can be retrieved from these threatened sources is made quickly available?
NK: Well, of course that is one of the primary objectives of GBIF – to digitally capture and make available the billions of specimens in natural history collections, the unique and irreplaceable record of our biological exploration of the planet. These historic datasets also need to be made compatible with all the observational data currently being captured digitally, by amateur ‘citizen scientists’ worldwide as well as by qualified scientists.
Another important initiative we are encouraging is to ensure that large amounts of biodiversity data currently collected for a variety of specific purposes are not simply discarded but become part of national datasets. For example, Environmental Impact Assessments required before decisions on large projects assemble invaluable information about species in and around the proposed development site. We have drawn up guidelines showing how with relatively little effort, these datasets can be published and used in future decision making, as well as adding to scientific knowledge about species and ecosystems.
Finally, how would you describe the present health of the GBIF?
NK and JK: We feel that we can be proud of what we have achieved over the past 10 years – and by ‘we’, we mean the whole GBIF community, from secretariat staff to national ‘nodes’ coordinating data publishing, to the armies of citizen scientists whose painstaking observations contribute to scientific knowledge about biodiversity. However, GBIF is a work in progress and much remains to be done. With more and more countries participating actively, not only will each benefit, with economies of scale and increasing data volumes, but the global community will benefit as well, as GBIF is a global public good.