Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Biodiversity informatics = #fail (and what to do about it)

The context for this post is the PLos markup meeting held at the California Academy of Sciences over the weekend (many thanks to Brian Fisher for the invitation). PLoS are launching a "biodiversity hub" and were looking for ideas on how to implement this. The fact that nobody -- least of all those attending from PLoS -- could adequately explain what a hub was made things a tad tricky, but that didn't matter, because PLoS did know when the first iteration of the hub was going live (later this summer). So, once we got past the fact that PLoS operates with a timeline that says "cool stuff will happen here" then sets about figuring what that cool stuff will actually be (in retrospect you gotta admire this approach), we then tried to figure out what PLoS needed from us.

That's when things got messy. It became very clear that PLoS wanted basic things like, you know, information on names, being able to link to specimens, etc., and our community can't do this, at least not yet. Nor can we provide simple answers to simple questions. For example, Rich Pyle, gave an overview of taxonomic names, nomenclature, concepts, and the horrendous alphabet soup of databases (uBio, ZooBank, IPNI, IndexFungorum, GNA, GNUB, GNI, CoL, etc.) that have a stake in this. You could see the look of horror in the eyes of the PLoS developers who were tasked with making the hub happen ("run away, run away now"). And this was after the simple version of things. In a week where taxonomy was in the news because of the possibility that Drosophila melanogaster would have to, *cough*, change its name (doi:10.1038/464825a)1, this was not a great start.

At each step when we outlined some of the stuff that would be cool, it became clear we couldn't deliver what we were actually arguing PLoS should do. For example, we have millions of digitised specimen records, and lots of papers refer to these specimens by name, but because individual specimens don't have URIs we can't refer to them (instead we have horrific query interfaces like TAPIR, see Accessing specimens using TAPIR or, why do we make this so hard?). We're digitising the taxonomic literature, but don't provide a way to link this to modern literature at the level of granularity publishers use (i.e., articles).

Readers of this blog will have heard this all before, but what made this meeting different was we actually had a "customer" rock up and ask for our help to enhance their content and create something useful for the community...and the best we could do was um and er and confess we couldn't really give them what they wanted2.

Think of the children
It's time biodiversity informatics stopped playing "let's make an acronym", stopped trying to keep taxonomists happy (face it, that's never going to happen, and frankly, they'll be extinct soon anyway), and stopped obsessing with who owns the data, and instead focus on delivering some simple, solid, services that address the needs of people who, you know, will actually do something useful with them. Otherwise we'll be like digital librarians, who thought people would search the way librarians do, then got their nose out of joint when Google ate their lunch.

It's time to make some simple services, and stop the endless cycle of inward looking meetings where we talk to each other. We need to learn to hide what people don't need (nor want) to see. We need to be able to:

  1. Extract entities from text, e.g. scientific names, specimen codes, localities, GenBank accession numbers.

  2. Lookup a taxonomic name and return basic information about that name (rather like iSpecies but as a service).

  3. Make specimen codes resolvable.

  4. Make taxonomic literature accessible using identifiers and tools publishers know about (that means DOIs and OpenURL).

We're close to a lot of this already, but we're still far enough away to make some of this non-trivial. And we keep having meetings about this stuff, and fail to actually get it done. Something is wrong somewhere when E O Wilson has his name on yet another call for megabucks for a biodiversity project (the "Barometer of Life, doi:10.1126/science.1188606). At what point will someone ask "um, we've given you guys a lot of money already, why can't you tell me the stuff we need to know?"

Let me just say that I'm a short term pessimist, but a long term optimist. The things I complain about will get fixed, one day. It's just that I see little evidence they'll get fixed by us. Prove me wrong, go on, I dare you...

  1. Personally I'm intensely relaxed about Drosophila melanogaster remaining Drosophila melanogaster, even if it ends up in a clade surrounded by flies with other generic names. Having (a) a stable name and (b) knowing where it fits in the tree of life is all we need to do science.

  2. At the meeting I couldn't stop thinking of the scene in The West Wing where President Bartlett walks up to the Capitol for an impromptu meeting with the Speaker of the House to sort out the budget, and is left waiting outside while the Speaker sorts out his game plan. By the time the Speaker is ready, the President has turned on his heels and left, making the Speaker look a tad foolish.