Wednesday, June 03, 2009

e-Biosphere '09: Twitter rules, and all that

So, e-Biosphere '09 is over (at least for the plebs like me, the grown ups get to spend two days charting the future of biodiversity informatics). It was an interesting event, on several levels. It's late, and I'm shattered, so this post ill cover only a few things.

This was first conference I'd attended where some of the participants twittered during proceedings. A bunch of us settled on the hashtag #ebio09 (you can also see the tweets at For the uninitiated, a "hashtag" is a string preceded by a hash symbol (#), to indicate that it is a tag, such as #fail. It provides a simple way to tag tweets so that others interested in that topic can find them.

Twittering created a whole additional layer to the conference. We were able to:

Twitter greatly enhanced the conversation, noticeably when a speaker said something controversial (all too rare, sadly), or when a group rapporteur's summary didn't reflect all the views in that group. It also helped document what was going on, and this can be further exploited. For fun, I grabbed tweets from days 2 and 3 and made a wordle:
As @edwbaker noted @edwbaker @rdmpage The size of 'together', 'people' & 'visionary' is somewhat telling...... In case you're wondering about the prominence of "Knowlton", it's because Nancy Knowlton gave a nice talk highlighting the every increasing number of cases where we have no names for the things we are encountering (for example, when barcoding fresh samples from poorly studied environments). This is just one example of the huge disconnect between the obsession with taxonomic names in biodiversity informatics, and the reality of metagenomics and DNA barcoding. Just as worrying is the lack of resemblance of the taxonomic classification used by the Encyclopedia of Life and our notion of the evolutionary tree of those organisms. A systematist would find much of EOL's classification laughable. I don't want to bash EOL, but it's worrying that they can continue to crank out press releases, but fail to provide something like a modern classification.

But I digress. In many ways this was less of a scientific conference and more of an event to birth a discipline, namely "biodiversity informatics" (which I'm sure some would claim as been around for quite a while). So, the event was to attract attention to the topic, and assure the outside world (and those attending) that the field exists and has something to say. It also was billed as a forum to discuss strategies for its future. Sadly, much of this discussion will take place behind closed doors, and will feature the major players who bring money and influence (but not much innovation) to the table.

Symptomatic of this lack of innovation, in a sense, was the contrast between the official "Online Conference Community", and the twitter feed. When I asked if anybody on twitter had used the official forum, @fak3r replied tellingly: @rdmpage thought we were on it ;) #ebio09. As fun as it is to use the new hotness to conduct a parallel (and slightly subversive) discussion at a conference it's worrying that, in a field that calls itself "informatics" the big beasts probably had little idea what was going on. If we are going to exploit the tools the web provides, we need people who "get it", and I'm unconvinced that the big players in this area truly grasp the web (in all it's forms). There's also a worrying degree of physics envy, which might be cured by reading The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Data (doi:10.1109/mis.2009.36).

I tried to stir things up a little (almost literally as captured in this photo by Chris Freeland), with a couple of questions, but to not much effect (other than apparently driving to despair the poor chap behind me ).

But enough grumbling. It was great to see lots of people attending the event, the were lots of interesting posters and booths (creating a market for this field may go some way towards providing an incentive to provide better, more reliable services), and my challenge entry won joint first prize, so perhaps I should sit back, enjoy the wine Joel Sachs choose as the prize (many thanks for his efforts in putting the challenge event together), and let others say what they thought of the meeting.