THE INFORMATION EXPLOSION AND THE TECHNOLOGY REVOLUTION
Understandable, credible, and easily accessible information is essential for managing our environment and
natural resources. Recent revolutionary changes in computation and communications capabilities have opened
up previously unimagined possibilities in the field of information technology. These trends are expected to
continue for the foreseeable future. Simultaneously, the amount of data beaming down from satellites, emerging
from laboratories, and arriving from environmental research of all kinds is explodingthe equivalent of
more than a Library of Congress worth of data every day. Research and development are needed to harness the
power of the new information technologies, capture the wealth of new information, and provide new and
invaluable information for decision-making and future research (PCAST 1998).
Acquiring data is no longer the major hurdlemanaging, validating, and understanding the data are the new
challenges. The web and Internet connectivity have fueled expectations by citizens, policy-makers, scientists,
and managers for ready access to online data and metadata (i.e., documentation essential for understanding
the who, what, where, and how of the data). While knowledge about environmental systems, even though
incomplete, is a vast and complex information domain, a second source of complexity in this information is
sociologically generated. This type of complexity includes problems of communication and coordination
between agencies; between divergent interests; and across groups of people from different regions, different
backgrounds (academia, industry, government), and different views and requirements. The kinds of data that
have been collected vary in precision, accuracy, and numerous other ways. New methodologies for converting
raw data into comprehensible information are now feasible.
The relatively new field of informatics is developing tools to manage the complexity of scope of modern
databases. The biodiversity databases in museums, for example, are an untapped rich source of knowledge,
representing more than 750 million specimens of animals and plants nationwide and 3 billion worldwide. A
"next generation" National Biological Information Infrastructure is presently being planned to address the
needs of this community of scientists (Frondorf and Waggoner 1996, PCAST 1998). High-performance
computer tools that could integrate access to information from museum collections with ecological, genomic,
weather, and geographical data would be immediately useful for studies of emerging diseases, exotic species,
and ecological restoration.
Much of the talent needed to invent better means of converting data to useful information is currently employed
in the private sector. The potential benefit arising from public-private partnerships that would bring
together software and hardware designers with environmental scientists and engineers is prodigious.