Wanted (soon): observations from environment-minded citizens that will allow science to study biodiversity at a planetary level in a massive, comprehensive virtual observatory of historic importance.
The online information system for life on Earth, now under construction, will take its place alongside the global network that records earthquakes, or the world meteorology data network that pools information to predict the weather.
The global scientific collaboration to construct a virtual observatory for the unprecedented study and monitoring of life in an integrative way will be announced by some 500 biology and technology experts from 50 countries, meeting for the first time in London June 1 to 3.
Says organizer James Edwards, Executive Director of the Encyclopedia of Life, based at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC: "We are creating a virtual observatory for world biodiversity, where environmental observations, specimen data, experimental results, and sophisticated modeling can be done across all levels of biodiversity -- from genes to ecosystems."
"Information about the biology and distribution of Earth's species is enormously important to science and our quality of life. And the impact of that information increases tremendously when it is connected and made easily accessible online to all."
The integrated global knowledge base being created will also function as a high-tech "field guide" for the 21st Century, Dr. Edwards explains, allowing citizen users to click seamlessly from images of a plant or animal specimen, to information about its species and genetic code, to maps of its range and more.
Interested in the forest on your favourite mountain trail? You'll soon be able to start with an online satellite image, then click to obtain the wanted information - from the forests' tree species, the shapes of each tree's leaves and the color of its flowers, the insects that feed on the flower, to the DNA of microbes that live in the insects.
Or start small and move up. Found a strange insect in your garden? Online identification guides, digital images and maps, and global databases will help puzzle out the species name, where it came from and whether it's a harmful invasive species.
Then join tens of thousands of users who report their observations and build the global database - an army of citizen scientists who help reveal and verify planetary changes such as the density and area of forest cover or the time plants flower locally.
What may sound like a Star Trek fantasy in fact is a high-tech tool within reach, with many components already in place.
Experts participating at the first e-Biosphere 09 International Conference on Biodiversity Informatics (June 1-3, London) are applying the latest in information technologies to build new software tools that make a global, free access biodiversity information network a reality.
Participants will accelerate their fusion into a powerful information apparatus of historic promise for biodiversity mapping, climate change monitoring and species conservation, among many other benefits.
Within 10 years, scientists say, they could have an efficient and effective way of tracking changes over time in the range and abundance of plants and animals as worldwide temperature and precipitation patterns shift.
Other public interest benefits, some already being realized, include the improved management of:
Hosted by the Natural History Museum, London, and co-sponsored by the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) and 12 other leading biodiversity research institutions, e-Biosphere 09 will take place at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre.
Expert groups are working on key aspects of this massive undertaking, from images of species (ARKive), to maps of the marine environment (Aquamaps), to genes (DNA barcoding of species), to display portals, to name but a few. The conference in London represents a landmark step towards the integration of these elements to achieve a dynamic new scientific capability.
Biological informatics, and its subset biodiversity informatics, grew out of a union between biologists and "informaticians" - the branch of computer science that deals with managing data and making it available to users.
Until recently, geneticists, botanists, zoologists, microbiologists, and ecologists talked almost exclusively to other researchers working in the same field.
Thanks to biodiversity informatics, scientists can create a "virtual observatory" to describe, analyze and model world biodiversity at scales that transcend simple landscape. Biomes, ecosystems, phyla, flora, fauna, hotspots, rarities, genetic erosion, the impact of alien species - none of these can actually be physically "observed"; understanding requires the synthesis of information from extensive primary data.
Under construction is an integrated online platform for:
Analysing global biodiversity, including across time, geography and species; and
Moving beyond analysis to global biodiversity modelling, past, present and future.
About half of the 400 conference participants will present their work, highlighting connections between their studies of the Web of Life with others underway elsewhere:
More than 30 other organizations will demonstrate how they are collecting, synthesizing, aggregating and publishing massive assortments of global information, including:
Next steps for building the world biodiversity macro-lab
Prof. Norman MacLeod, The Natural History Museum's Keeper of Palaeontology, comments: "The democratization of biodiversity information is a development of profound importance being accomplished through integrated, easy-to-use tools that allow anyone in the world to extract, manipulate, interact with and contribute information about the plants, animals, microbes, fungi, and other organisms with which we share this planet.
"Tools under development to achieve this goal range from fiendishly complex mathematics of automated species recognition software to teaching aids that will allow schoolchildren to access and analyse primary scientific data for class reports."
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