by Deborah Paul, on Twitter @idbdeb
Sustainability. Collaboration. Virtual Communities. Current themes (mandates?) for many of us participating in broad international initiatives to connect our digitization and scientific research efforts. Creating an international interoperable network for all of us requires data standards, the development of services that support data sharing/use and enhancement, and use of those standards and services by all of us. The Biodiversity Information Standards (TDWG*) 2013 yearly conference is the place where those building this much needed infrastructure gather once a year. Over 175 people attended this year's meeting held in Florence, Italy. While some were first-timers, many have been attending for years. Seven members of the iDigBio team participated in BIS (TDWG) 2013 presenting talks, a poster, and convening symposia.
Conveners, Deborah Paul (iDigBio), Reed Beaman (iDigBio), and Gail Kampmeier (Illinois Natural History Survey) put together a symposium titled: Empowering International eCollaboration for Sustainability. (see complete symposium abstract).
"TDWG is well-positioned as an international body to promote the exchange of biodiversity information and empower and implement improved international collaborations. What are the successful models of collaboration? Can they be broadened to facilitate, encourage, and encompass attempts by those disciplines and geopolitical regions working on their own efforts to effectively and sustainably document and share information about biodiversity?"
What can we learn from past and present collaborations? Speakers were asked to share what works and what remains challenging. Invited and supported by iDigBio, Eric T. Meyer, of the Oxford Internet Institute, was the opening Keynote Speaker at TDWG 2013, sharing his views and insights about large scientific collaborations in his talk Long Live the Data. (see complete abstract).
"All research depends on data in one form or another. From physical field specimens that are themselves raw data but also objects that are measured, classified, sorted, and recorded as both data and meta-data, to born digital data that occur as a result of people’s activities on the Internet and interacting with technological systems, data feed the research enterprise. ... Case studies from science, medicine, the social sciences, and the arts and humanities [were] used to illustrate [Eric's] overall argument that data-intensive research collaborations should be viewed as socio-technical interaction networks (STINs) comprised of people, machines, and objects both physical and digital. Only by understanding how these parts of the network interact can collaborations succeed (while hopefully avoiding the pitfalls of previous collaborations). ... These issues are particularly important when data have a long-life span, sometimes much longer than the lives of the people creating and managing it. Examples from marine biology, genomics, and publishing will show how some fields are dealing with these issues, and the lessons it suggests for organizations such as TDWG."
In addition, speakers were encouraged to share their vision for how TDWG can help as well as how we (each organization and individual) can all help TDWG to foster e-collaboration for sustainability. Note that some of these visionary ideas and insights are not challeging or expensive to implement. They have much potential, as the often referred to "low-hanging fruit." Here are some highlights from these nine talks...
Interdisciplinarity is often an integral feature of collaborations. Our Keynote speaker, Eric T. Meyer, shared some quotes (see slides 48 -51) that emphasize some key issues when working across multiple disciplines. In another recent presentation, a speaker (Cody Meche) shared that while companies often ask for help to streamline their software development procedures, the issues usually turn out to be social, not technical, issues. Eric's selected quotes help to illustrate some of these socio-technical challenges.
Whether you are collecting data for your own use, or building something for your own project, use standards and think collaboratively. In doing so, there are greater opportunities to increase the value, discoverability, and interoperability of your work. Speaker Antonio Saraiva reminds us that "Not every area has such potential to collaborate as Biodiversity Informatics" and suggests perhaps a new TDWG Interest Group to focus on collaboration, collaborative development, and says,...
How much effort (& time & money) could be saved if we could develop new systems building on top of the best of previous systems?
- Learning from previous experiences (good and bad)
- Sharing code or services
- Advancing technically mutually
- Leveraging funding mutually
- Speeding up biodiversity informatics worldwide
- Heterosis or hybrid vigor: Hybrids are sometimes stronger than either parent variety
Many of these elements are also themes in the talks of Anne Maglia, Fredrik Ronquist, and Dimitrios Koureas. Fredrik suggests the possibility a Global Network of Regional Biocenters (North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia). This may be happening organically; how would it be if we could do it in a bit more synergistic manner? Fredrik also noted that natural history collection institutions, with their long-term time perspectives, may then be well-suited to enhancing sustainability. Also from Fredrik, "Digital assets are just another collection, and the museum community is increasingly used to international collaborations."
David Shindel provided an elegant example of what he calls a centripetal eCollaboration. The Barcode of Wildlife Project (BWP) results in different users converging around a shared need and solution. In doing so they demand a stronger data standard and then the community wants to comply with data standards as a core value.
Much more is now known about what makes collaboration work (or not) and speaker, Deborah Paul, shared there are now projects like The Toolbox Project. Before beginning a collaboration, or to begin one, check out the workshops offered by The Toolbox Project to get a collaborative, interdisciplinary effort off to the best possible start. And, in our efforts to build and sustain these interoperable digitization projects, a workforce trained in biodiversity informatics is needed. Got ideas for what skills our biodiversity informatics managers need to manage the data we're amassing? Where will they hone the necessary skills?
Most of the projects mentioned in these talks, and many others across the globe, involve working groups. TDWG's working groups are part of this landscape. Is outreach part of your working group? Encouraging new people to join, and sharing the mission of the working groups with the broader community are key to encouraging standards adoption, digitization maturity, and more collaboration from everyone. This is yet, another of the socio-technical issues.
Henry Bart, gave us an update on efforts to mobilize participation and collaboration with sub-saharan Africa in biodiversity informatics. This community is eager to play an active role in TDWG and beyond. Participants from sub-saharan Africa are able to partcipate through funding from the JRS Biodiversity Foundation. Note to everyone, TDWG 2014 is in Nairobi Kenya. From the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), Michael Denslow explained how ideas from the engineering world have been used to design NEONs effort to capture data systematically from many places over a 30 year period. He emphasized the need to work together with TDWG and other groups to develop and enhance current standards as needed for their project.
Stanley Blum, anchored our symposium - bringing us the latest news from TDWG and looking behind the scenes at the numbers to tell us more about possible ways in which TDWG can help us, and how we can help TDWG. We need to continue to be involved, and spread the word about what TDWG does, and find out how we can contribute to TDWG efforts.
Dimitrios, in sharing key lessons from Vibrant, gives us a key word, Ambassador. We need global ambassadors for our projects and for our working groups. We need to be ambassadors for each other's projects as well. Antonio refreshingly reminds us of just how far we have come, but at the same time, how much farther we can go, if we work together, and asks,... "will we?"
*Taxonomic Databases Working Group
**Some talks recorded (request via dpaul AT fsu DOT edu)