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Harvard Forest Symposium Abstract 2009

  • Title: 'Space' in Biodiversity Databases
  • Primary Author: Ayelet Shavit (Tel Hai Academic College - Israel)
  • Abstract:

    The objective of this research is to examine the implications of multiple different concepts of ‘space’ for usefully recording species’ location in biodiversity databases.

    I argue that ‘locality’, perhaps the most mundane term in ecology, holds a basic theoretical ambiguity. One concept of space, as something “out there,” unaffected by the organisms inhabiting it, is embedded in representations of ‘locality’ in a biodiversity database via the use of an exogenous regular grid of latitude and longitude or an exogenous political grid of counties, states and nations. This concept is inevitably in tension with a view of space as a dynamic organism-environment relation embedded in representations of locality recorded in narrative or other context-sensitive descriptions. Both concepts of space are necessary for a rigorous resurvey to “the same” locality in the field, yet are committed to different practices with no common measurement. The question is whether the tension stops the work or can be productively resolved.

    I examine this question by comparing data and metadata interoperability within and between four long-term online databases that track species’ location on multiple spatial scales. Two of these projects – led by Prof. Aaron Ellison at Harvard Forest, MA and by Prof. Moshe Shachak in Israel – assume a dynamic, “interactive” concept of space – while two other projects – led by Prof. Craig Moritz at Berkeley, CA and by Prof. Martin Wikelski at the Max Planck Institute, Germany – assume an exogenous concept of space. All four databases also attempt to provide reliable and operable data to mitigate the consequences of global change. As part of this attempt, a single metadata standard is often assumed as the most practical way to store, use and retrieve data originating from different sources, questions, model organisms or technical know-how. If this assumption were correct, disregarding multiple meanings of ‘location’ will usually improve data usage across databases. However, if the ambiguity in ‘locality’ is important for biological reasons, than juxtaposing different metadata standards for ‘location’ is often expected to improve this line of work. Given the extensive effort already invested in online databases and their lack of interoperability nonetheless, the relevance of this question is obvious.

  • Research Category: Historical and Retrospective Studies, International Research Projects