Wednesday, September 14, 2011

I think I now "get" the Encylopedia of Life

The Encylopedia of Life (EOL) has been relaunched, with a new look and much social media funkiness. I've been something of an EOL sceptic, but looking at the new site I think I can see what EOL is for. Ironically, it's not really about E. O. Wilson's original vision (doi:10.1016/S0169-5347(02)00040-X:
Imagine an electronic page for each species of organism on Earth, available everywhere by single access on command. The page contains the scientific name of the species, a pictorial or genomic presentation of the primary type specimen on which its name is based, and a summary of its diagnostic traits. The page opens out directly or by linking to other data bases, such as ARKive, Ecoport, GenBank and MORPHOBANK. It comprises a summary of everything known about the species’ genome, proteome, geographical distribution, phylogenetic position, habitat, ecological relationships and, not least, its practical importance for humanity.
We still lack a decent database that does this. EOL tries, but in my opinion still falls short, partly because it isn't nearly aggressive enough in harvesting and linking data (links to the primary literature anyone?), and has absolutely no notion of phylogenetics.

In terms of doing science I don't see much that I'd want to do with EOL, as opposed, say, to Wikipedia or existing taxonomic databases. But thinking about other applications, EOL has a lot of potential. One nice feature is the ability to make "collections". For example, Cyndy Parr has created a collection called Fascinating textures, which is simply a collection of images in EOL (I've included some below):

What is nice about this is that it cuts across any existing classification and assembles a set of taxa that share nothing other than having "fascinating textures". This ability to tag taxa means we could create all sorts of interest sets of taxa based on criteria that are meaningful in a particular context. For example, egotist that I am, I created a collection called Taxa described by Roderic Page, which includes the one crab and 6 bopyrid isopods that I described in the 80's.

Putting on my teaching hat, I'm involved in teaching a course on animal diversity and could imagine assembling collections of taxa relevant to a particular lecture (either taxonomically, or based on some other criteria, such as all parasites of a particular taxon, or all organisms found associated with deep sea vents. Other collections could be built by people or organisations with content. For example, lists of top ten new species, lists of species for which the BBC has content, etc.

In this sense, EOL becomes a tagging service for life, a bit like delicious. The social network side of things is still a little clunky —there doesn't seem to be a notion of "contacts" or "friends", and it needs integration with existing social networks — but I think I now "get" what EOL is for.