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Ecological Informatics

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 UCSB’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), "The most important result is that we’ve 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 it’s generally collected by a much larger group of people. As a consequence, the number of standards involved is pretty low. So there’s 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 sources."

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 Foundation’s 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 we’ve developed is a common metadata standard for describing these heterogeneous data objects," he says. "We’ve 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 it’s much easier now for people to develop software tools that can automatically understand heterogeneous data when you’re 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. There’s just different perspectives about what the diversity in the field looks like. That was really important in scoping the solution."


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