Scientists at the University of California at Santa Barbara
(UCSB) are spearheading substantial progress in development of the field of
ecological informatics. Their efforts are intended to deal more effectively
with the complexity of ecological data collected by researchers around the
world and to make the data readily available through an online network.
As explained by Professor Matthew B. Jones, of UCSBs
National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), "The most
important result is that weve learned a lot about building a distributed
infrastructure for heterogeneous ecological data."
"A lot of the other sciences, physical sciences, will do
their work on large but relatively homogenous data sets. A lot of spatial
imagery, for example, can be very large ... but there aren't usually a lot
of different sources for those. With telescopes and things like that, it often
ends up with one or a few sources," Jones says.
But he points out that "with ecological data, the data is
generated about individual organisms, and its generally collected by a
much larger group of people. As a consequence, the number of standards involved
is pretty low. So theres a lot of variance in the type of data that
people are actually working with on a day-to-day basis. To try to build a
uniform data management system for that data is a very difficult task, because
the data is distributed ... and the semantics of methods and protocols that
were used for generating the data differ among all of those different data
The result has been the development and launch of the
Knowledge Network for Biocomplexity (KNB), a national network intended to
facilitate ecological and environmental research on biocomplexity. The project
was supported by a grant under the National Science Foundations KDI
(Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence) program. In addition to UCSB, the
effort has been sponsored and developed by the San Diego Supercomputer Center;
the Long-Term Ecological Research Network (LTER), based at the University of
New Mexico in Albuquerque; and Texas Tech University.
Jones says the project has led to significant advances in
the science of ecological informatics. "One of the things that weve
developed is a common metadata standard for describing these heterogeneous data
objects," he says. "Weve gotten very widespread agreement in the
discipline, which is a pretty broad discipline, to use that metadata standard
for describing these objects. Which means that its much easier now for
people to develop software tools that can automatically understand
heterogeneous data when youre trying to develop new types of analyses and
modes. It just opens up a whole new layer of ability to understand the data
objects that are used in the field."
NCEAS, an NSF-funded center, has about 20 full-time staff.
About 800 to 900 scientists from other universities and institutes visit the
center each year to work on advanced ecological projects.
"One of the things that made us succeed was that this was
really a cross-institutional effort and that bringing the different
researchers together from different institutions to work on a common problem
was really critical in getting the whole thing to work," Jones says. "The LTER
network has strong ties to a lot of scientists that are different from the
scientists whom we have access to at NCEAS. Theres just different
perspectives about what the diversity in the field looks like. That was really
important in scoping the solution."
Back to Top of Page