Friday, June 29, 2012

Planet management, GBIF, and the future of biodiversity informatics

Earth russia large verge medium landscape

Next week I'm in Copenhagen for GBIC, the Global Biodiversity Informatics Conference. The goal of the conference is to:
...convene expertise in the fields of biodiversity informatics, genomics, earth observation, natural history collections, biodiversity research and policy needed to set such collaboration in motion.

The collaboration referred to is the agreement to mobilise data and informatics capability to met the Aichi Biodiversity Targets.

I confess I have mixed feelings about the upcoming meeting. There will be something like 100 people attending the conference, with backgrounds ranging from pure science to intergovernmental policy. It promises to be interesting, but whether a clear vision of the future of biodiversity informatics will emerge is another matter.

GBIC is part of the process of "planet management", a phrase that's been around for a while, but I only came across in the Bowker's essay "Biodiversity Datadiversity"1:

Bowker, G. C. (2000). Biodiversity Datadiversity. Social Studies of Science, 30(5), 643–683. doi:10.1177/030631200030005001

Bowker's essay is well worth a read, not least for the choice quotes such as:

Each particular discipline associated with biodiversity has its own incompletely articulated series of objects. These objects each enfold an organizational history and subtend a particular temporality or spatiality. They frequently are incompletely articulated with other objects, temporalities and spatialities — often legacy versions, when drawing on non-proximate disciplines. If one wants to produce a consistent, long-term database of biodiversity-relevant information the world over, all this sounds like an unholy mess. At the very least it suggests that global panopticons are not the way to go in biodiversity data. (p. 675, emphasis added)

I have not, in general, questioned the mania to name which is rife in the circles whose work I have described. There is no absolutely compelling connection between the observation that many of the world’s species are dying and the attempt to catalogue the world before they do. If your house is on fire, you do not necessarily stop to inventory the contents before diving out the window. However, as Jack Goody (1977) and others have observed, list-keeping is at the heart of our body politic. It is also, by extension, at the heart of our scientific strategies. Right or wrong, it is what we do. (p. 676, emphasis added)

Given that I'm a fan of the notion of a "global panopticon", and spend a lot of time fussing with lists of names, I find Bowker's views refreshing. Meantime, roll on GBIC2012.

1. Bowker cites Elichirigoity as a source of the term "planet management":

Fernando Elichirigoity (1999), Planet Management: Limits to Growth,
Computer Simulations, and the Emergence of Global Spaces (Evanston, IL: Northwestern
University Press). ISBN 0810115875 (Google Books oP3wVnKpGDkC).

From the limited Google preview, and the review by Edwards, this looks like an interesting book:

Edwards, P. (2000). Book Review:Planet Management: Limits to Growth, Computer Simulation, and the Emergence of Global Spaces Fernando Elichirigoity. Isis, 91(4), 828. doi:10.1086/385020 (PDF here)