Innovations in Biodiversity Data Management

As part of a webinar series hosted by the CSIRO, the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA) recently held a webinar series that in June included a session on Innovations in Biodiversity Data Management. Mieke and I were able to attend and wanted to share with you how it went. It was interesting to be able to get an overview of some of the many biodiversity information projects going on, particularly since this is an area of interest for both Mieke and I, and one that we work on within Gaia Resources – and many of the initiatives are very close to our corporate mission, too.

The first speakers were from the National Herbarium of NSW, discussing their current digitisation project. Triggered by receiving funding for the construction of a new facility, the Herbarium sought additional funding initially through crowd-sourcing to allow them to launch the digitisation project in parallel. Due to the size and scale of their project, we heard from three speakers; Jo White, Hannah McPherson and Kevin Noakes. At the time of the webinar, they were approximately halfway through a collection of 1.4 million items! At those volumes, the project needed to process 500 images every hour. While they have had some delays due to COVID-19, it was great to hear about the progress that has still been made in making their collection available as a digital asset for Australia and worldwide.

The digitisation project is providing image data from the collection that opens up opportunities in new areas; one of those mentioned was the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) for the characterisation of different species; as well as the future potential for it to be used in identifying changes in leaves due to latitude and longitude! This is something we will have to also review for a few of our projects we’re undertaking with AI (like the previous work we’ve just talked about with Fishscale) – more on those projects in a later blog. In what may seem a more prosaic outcome for most of us, but which will have massive benefits for collection managers, they are also already finding that loans of physical items are in some cases no longer required due to the quality of the digital scans. This helps to keep the physical items in better condition for longer, which extends the longevity of the collections for the future.

After hearing about the herbariums digitisation project, Larissa Braz Sousa spoke to us about the Great Southern Bioblitz; an international event during Spring in the Southern Hemisphere. It aims to use citizen scientist surveys to capture the biodiversity of different regions and the most recent Bioblitz captured over 90,000 observations! Some of the challenges in the event that she discussed were in getting communities engaged in the event, ensuring correct identification of species (specifically a shortage of plant and fungi specialists was mentioned); ensuring appropriate access to and usage of the data; and trying to use the data gathered in conversations of decision-making around biodiversity. It was great to see that so many people around the world engaged with the event and contributed to the data collected – while we are not undertaking as much citizen science involvement these days as we once did at Gaia Resources, we are still keen to hear what’s happening and see how we can continue to support these types of important community initiatives.

The final speaker was Ron Avery, who manages the Biodiversity Information System in NSW, and who we’ve worked with on a number of projects to date, like our BioSys project. Ron spoke about the importance of ensuring that biodiversity information could be made readily available for decision makers; highlighting that while there are biological data aggregators around the country, there is need for further cooperation and investment to coordinate a national approach to biodiversity information.  We share Ron’s views at Gaia Resources and are attempting to facilitate that sort of coordination across a range of projects we’re involved in.

All three speakers spoke about the importance of engaging the community, as well as ensuring that biodiversity information can be made available and understandable to the widest range of people within it as possible. Of the challenges that still exists in this area is ensuring the greatest value is returned from biodiversity information collection efforts, I think that the two that are still the most critical for us to overcome can be encapsulated as:

  • Providing platforms for the collection and sharing of biodiversity data, and
  • Ensuring that this data is made available to the community and decision makers in a meaningful way.

These challenges aren’t new to those of us already working in the domain – we’ve worked very hard on these previously – but there has been renewed interest and investment in the domain as we try to find new ways to address the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals and provide better data for Australia’s own State of the Environment reporting. Hopefully by providing that connection between the research and resources collected and bringing impact-driven feedback into the broader community and to decision makers, we can get better outcomes for the environment and Australia as a whole. I am excited to be working in this space at a time when there is so much opportunity for us to bring more effective data management that can help decision makers and the community.

There’s a lot more in terms of biodiversity innovation out there – and in here at Gaia Resources – so we’ll likely make this an ongoing theme in our blogs over the next few months to outlined a few more of the ways in which we think innovation is occurring as well, and how we can push that envelope a bit further!

If you have any challenges or collaborations you can see on the horizon for biodiversity data within your realm, or even if you have any questions, feel free to email me or strike up a conversation on Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook.

Sophie

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