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Building the BioFresh freshwater biodiversity database

October 3, 2011

The River Thames in London, a river that has seen a remarkable rise in freshwater biodiversity in recent years thanks to conservation efforts. Image: Wikipedia

Tom Turnbull, a new member of the BioFresh communications team at The University of Oxford summarises the key points made in the articles on assembling the BioFresh freshwater biodiversity database published over the last few weeks.  Please feel free to add comments or questions below, or email us:

Access to data is vital in assuring that we can fully understand and protect the rich biota contained in global freshwater ecosystems. If freshwater conservationists had access to all existing knowledge on freshwater biodiversity then modelling and analysis could be carried out at a level of sophistication which could enable a massive increase in research productivity and discovery.  As such, BioFresh is attempting to collate, curate and disseminate all relevant European data to enable access to a wide audience of scientists, policymakers, planners and practitioners, with the intention of providing a centralised European dataset that can be used as a collective resource to assess and protect freshwater systems.

The first step in this process was to survey the quantity and types of data available. In February 2010 freshwater research organisations were contacted and asked to provide details as to the characteristics of their data, a form of data referred to as ‘meta-data’. These initial attempts have not been wholly successful, as it appears that the integral importance of meta-data is not fully appreciated by some organisations. They have not adequately curated or communicated the characteristics of their data. In other cases, factors such as intellectual property rights, institutional restrictions, and jurisdictional complexity mean that this information is not allowed to be shared, or is not available.

As such, the BioFresh team are beginning research into understanding and addressing barriers to the sharing of data, and communicating the proven benefits of transparency and collaboration in science. This work is vital in order that the environment, contributors, researchers and governance organisations can gain the utmost value from existing and on-going research. As it stands, the data architecture is in place, a portal has been developed that provides access to over thirty two thousand species and their environment and occurrences. This has been possible as a result of the data provided by the Freshwater Animal Diversity Assessment (FADA) and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF). However, the project does not yet know the full extent of pan-European data that could feed in to this structure.

Data driven discovery is the new scientific paradigm, and freshwater biodiversity science can be part of this if protocols for interoperability and collaborative work can be established. However, the BioFresh team remain sensitive to the social factors that may cause friction when data disclosure requests are made. The intention is to use our experiences in carrying out a collaborative data collation project in order to explore these frictions and see if it is possible to overcome them, or whether they are characteristics of collaborative work which must be accommodated.

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