Taking biodiversity data to the next level at BIMF–FBIP 2017

30 October 2017

mediumFew people would disagree that Darwin’s finches are some of the most iconic specimens held by a collections institution; at the same time many would agree that it is proudly and almost exclusively owned by the Natural History Museum (NHM), London.

However, the latter notion might be changing if one reflects on the words of an NHM ‘emissary’ who delivered the keynote address at the 2017 Biodiversity Information Management & Foundational Biodiversity Information Forum. The South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI)’s Biodiversity Information Management & Foundational Biodiversity Information Programmes held the Forum at Salt Rock Hotel, on KwaZulu-Natal’s Dolphin Coast from the 14th to the 16th of August 2017.The forum aims to promote collaboration and develop information management practice across the biodiversity science community.

Dr Vince Smith, who heads up the Informatics Division at the NHM, says biodiversity data industry players often think of their collections as their domain, whether individual or institutional. He sees it differently. ‘This is one big global collection and collectively, if we can start seeing our collections not as the preserve of individual institutions, but [as] one big global scientific infrastructure, then there is an enormous amount of research that we can do for the betterment of society,’ he told about 100 delegates from across South Africa’s biodiversity data sector.

With the backing of the NHM, his ambition is to digitise 20 million specimens between 2015 and 2025, with a vision to ‘collate, organise and make available to global scientific and public audiences, one of the world’s most important natural history collections’.

While technological innovation, mass digitisation and skills development have seen major advances, Smith says that the process of creating a ‘sustained digital culture’ has become a priority. His visit to South Africa was timely, as the country embarks on a large-scale project to establish a Natural Science Collections Facility (NSCF). As part of its Infrastructure Roadmap, the Department of Science and Technology has provided over R51 million over three years for this initiative.

According to SANBI’s Director of Biosystematics Research & Biodiversity Collections, Professor Michelle Hamer, the NSCF will be a network of institutions (i.e. various SA museums and herbaria) working in a coordinated way with a common set of objectives and with a central coordinating hub managed by SANBI. ‘The overall aim of the NSCF is to ensure that collections contribute, through high-quality research and data, to addressing issues of socio-economic importance,’ she says.

According to Hamer it will be incumbent upon the NSCF (with its data) to be openly accessible to researchers, used for training and capacity development, and the collections and associated data must be used to address national priorities.

Closely aligned with the development of the NSCF is a drive at national level to not only generate data and knowledge on SA’s biodiversity, but to also move and steer the data into the relevant policy channels.

Foundational data covers aspects such as where different animal and plant species occur, the proper identification of species, population abundance of species, and why any particular species is important to the natural world and human life. Among other portfolios, Hamer is also the manager of the Foundational Biodiversity Information Programme (FBIP) and describes the data as foundational because ‘it forms the basis of so many aspects of biodiversity research and decision-making’.

The era of Big Data is here, and a common theme at the Forum was that the biodiversity information sector is sitting on heaps of data, with additional data pouring in through the FBIP. This is a good thing but not without challenges as it begs the question of how to ‘move the data’ into the public domain to inform policy decisions.

SANBI has been tasked with mobilising the data and ensuring that biodiversity information lands in the policymaking space. The organisation’s Biodiversity Information Management and Planning Directorate coordinates and manages the foundational data and information generated by initiatives like the FBIP, iSpot and partner organisations. These support instruments like the National Biodiversity Assessment, according to the group’s Deputy Director, Fatima Parker-Allie.

“This foundational data (specimen, species, molecular, multimedia, literature data) contributes to global datasets like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, the Biodiversity Heritage Library and the International Barcode of Life Project,” says Parker-Allie.

“South Africa contributes a significant amount of data to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility and we’ve already mobilised more than 20 million biodiversity records belonging to a range of taxonomic groups including a huge amount of bird records as well as a significant amount of plant data records.” Further along the pipeline the data feeds into expert assessments, such as the National Biodiversity Assessment and Red List assessments.

Parker-Allie says that the data moves further along the value chain, feeding into high level policy such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. It also moves to a number of conventions, namely, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS), Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the Ramsar Convention.

SANBI is also well positioned to facilitate the movement of data among the country’s African partners. One of its objectives within its Strategic Regional Engagement Strategy for Africa is to “strengthen capacity to mobilise foundational data to fill the data and knowledge gaps in support of education, research and analysis necessary for decision making for sustainable development”.

SANBI CEO Dr Tanya Abrahamse said that efforts by the biodiversity information fraternity represented at the Forum “have boosted SA's international standing in the biodiversity data sphere”. Department of Science and Technology representative Dr Yonah Seleti said the department’s partnership with SANBI was growing and its commitment to Biodiversity Information Management & Foundational Biodiversity Information Programmes was a long-term commitment.

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