Bio(and human)diversity

It’s been too long. Since I’ve last posted on April 16th, I’ve been to Atlanta, Chicago, Augsburg (GER), Bolzano & Venice (IT), Washington DC, Amsterdam (NL), London (UK), and I’ll let you guess which was work and which was pleasure. If you think that’s bragging, you can ask my colleagues where all they’ve been – we’ve all kept busy schedules, spreading the word and pushing ahead with work on our new agenda (although not all of us got as lucky as to have vacation time as well!).

dscf2499.jpgYou’d think somebody who has traveled that much would have a story or two to tell, and I’ll now take a moment to do precisely that. On my last trip, I’ve spent two memorable days in Amsterdam with old friends from the intrepid Resources Available in Natural Sciences (RAVNS) working group, and with new friends from ETI Bioinformatics and Biodiversity Information Standards (TDWG | yes, the acronym has absolutely nothing to do with their new name – fun, isn’t it?). Our task: to move ahead with finalizing the Natural Collection Descriptions specification (I’ve written about this here) for submission to TDWG and subsequent blessing as a standard this fall.

We spent a good bit of our time ensuring that our standard for collection-level description of natural history will fit into the emerging TDWG technical architecture, the framework for all standards ratified by this group. The framework creates an ad-hoc, bottom-up ontology which consists of all the object classes (concepts) defined by pre-existing TDWG standards. If a new standard has the need to express the same concept, for example a person’s name and contact information, it employs the ontology’s pre-existing definitions. In that way, TDWG aims to achieve a measure of interoperability across the wide array of existing, past and prospective standards in the natural history community.

As I think you can already appreciate, some of the discussions during our two day workshop became fairly complex. It’s a testament to the cohesion and open-minded spirit of this particular gathering that a couple of library directors, a systems librarian, a senior museum collection manager, and an archivist could have sustained and immensely productive conversations with the more technologically minded folks (ontologists, biodiversity informatics specialists and database administrators). On our last day, we live-edited an XML Schema version of the draft-standard, with the content folks providing feedback on what they need the specification to capture, while Markus Döring and Roger Hyam implemented the agreed-upon changes in real-time. I am still amazed that it worked!

Picture, left to right: Barbara Mathe (American Museum of Natural History, NYC), Doug Holland (Missouri Botanical Garden), Carol Butler (National Museum of Natural History, SI), Wouter Addink (ETI), Connie Rinaldo (Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard), Ruud Altenburg (ETI), Roger Hyam (TDWG), Markus Döring (Botanic Garden and Botanical Museum Berlin-Dahlem), Neil Thomson (Natural History Museum London), (the empty chair was mine!).

Our meeting was supported by a generous grant from the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation via GBIF.