When I was a child, I’d often study books of Australian birds and mammals, rifling through the pages to see which species lived nearby. My source of information were the maps printed next to photos of the species, distribution maps showing the extent of the species range. These days, many of these species ranges are declining. Or at least, many ecologists believe they are. One of the problems with knowing exactly where species exist or how they are faring is a lack of data. The more data we have, the more precise an idea we get of the future of the species. Some data is difficult to collect, but yet more data has been collected, and is simply inaccessible.
At the Living Norway seminar earlier this month I sat down with Tim Robertson, Head of Informatics and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility. GBIF is an international network that works to solve this data problem worldwide, both by making collected data accessible and by helping everyday people to collect scientific data. I spoke with Tim about the journey from a species observation to a species distribution map, the role of GBIF, and the future of data collection.
Ecological data is constantly being collected worldwide, but how accessible is it? (Image Credit: GBIF, CC BY 2.0)
This week Trondheim played host to Living Norway, a Norwegian collective that aims to promote FAIR data use and management. It might sound dry from an ecological perspective, but I was told I’d see my supervisor wearing a suit jacket, an opportunity too preposterous to miss. While the latter opportunity was certainly a highlight, the seminar itself proved fascinating, and underlined just how important FAIR data is for ecology, and science in general. So why is it so important, what can we do to help, and why do I keep capitalising FAIR?
Not all GPS coordinate data are created equal, and some of it may actually be meaningless. (Image Credit: Daniel Johansson, CC BY-NC 2.0)
The smartphone fallacy – when spatial data are reported at spatial scales finer than the organisms themselves (2018) Meiri, S., Frontiers of Biogeography, DOI: https://escholarship.org/uc/item/2n3349jg
One of the greatest annoyances when using museum specimens, old datasets, or large occurrence databases (such as GBIF) is when the locality of an occurrence is only vaguely described, and the coordinate uncertainty is high; “Norway” or “Indochina” doesn’t really tell you much about where that specific animal or plant was seen. Luckily, the days where such vague descriptions were the best you could get are long gone, as most of us now walk around with a GPS in our pockets, and even community science data can be reported very accurately, and more or less in real-time.
However, we have now encountered the opposite problem: the reported coordinates of organisms are often too precise to be realistic, and in the worst-case scenario, they might be borderline meaningless. The author of this study wanted to highlight how this advance in technology coupled with our eagerness to get more accurate data and results have made us too bold in our positional claims.
Bill Sutherland giving the plenary lecture at INTECOL 2013 (Image Credit: British Ecological Society)
It’s not every day you get to meet someone who has been cited more times than The Origin of Species. But at the 2018 Oikos conference in Trondheim, Norway, Kate Layton-Mattthews and I had the privilege of talking to renowned conservation biologist and author of The Conservation Handbook, Professor William Sutherland.
With Bill giving a keynote speech at the conference about making ecological decisions in a post-truth world, we took the chance to grill him about global conservation progress and science in the world of Trump and Brexit.