Accessing Australia’s ecological data

Many emerging national environmental problems require a broad coverage of ecological data so we can adequately address them. Ecological data are data intensive, generally expensive to collect, and individual observations are often irreplaceable. Re-purposing existing data to address environmental challenges at the national level requires information to be accessible in a way that enables understanding of the data and supports easy data exploration.

Studies have estimated that researchers may spend up to 75% of the total project time obtaining, interpreting, and then reorganising and reformatting data to suit their particular purpose1. TERN’s Eco-informatics facility is addressing these issues, developing new cyber-infrastructure for Australia’s ecological researchers.

The facility’s cyber-infrastructure experts are working hand in hand with governments, researchers, educators and students to build e-research data infrastructure to support ecological research across Australia. The centrepiece is the Australian Ecological Knowledge and Observation System (ÆKOS), an online repository for Australia’s rich ecological data. By partnering with a range of institutional data custodians, they are working to make ecological ‘plot’ data (collected using, for example, quadrats, transects, pitfall traplines, cage-trap arrays) more widely available to researchers.

Their goal is to create a system that brings ecological and ecosystem data together at a national level. This will enable researchers to work more efficiently with integrated data so that they can devote most of their time to undertaking excellent science and producing novel outcomes that address national environmental challenges. For the first time, researchers will be able to access the full richness of existing data, including the knowledge necessary for understanding and re-use. In the future, ÆKOS will also enable individual researchers to store and publish their data.

A draft (beta) version of the ÆKOS data portal is scheduled to go live (i.e. become available to the public) on 21 December. It is a key milestone for Eco-informatics and will initially operate at a pre-production standard before morphing gradually into a finished product by mid-2013. Although care has been taken to minimise problems, at this early stage not all components may work perfectly. Eco-informatics welcomes feedback, which will be incorporated where possible into fortnightly updates of the portal. The ‘Welcome’ page of the portal describes how to provide feedback.

Some of Eco-informatics’s other products and services include:

  • a national information framework (including standards) for managing ecological data by using ontologies, index traits and description models
  • a long-term network of key data partners from government agencies and research organisations for sharing and delivering Australia’s rich ecological plot data
  • the Submission, Harmonisation and Retrieval of Ecological Data (SHaRED) tool to provide researcher data submission that meets the needs of researchers like those participating in TERN’s Multi-Scale Plot Network
  • the Soils-to-Satellite web data portal, which integrates with other National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy capabilities including the Atlas of Living Australia, combining spatial, multi-spectral, ecological plot and genomics data
  • Metadata for Australia’s ecological plot data in a format used by the Australian National Data Service (RIF-CS) that will be accessible via TERN’s central Data Discovery Portal
  • collaboration through attribution, citation and acknowledgement of all researchers publishing data in ÆKOS
  • an online library of all the ecological data collection methods used for data stored in ÆKOS
  • access to IP through open source publication of software and models
  • practical application of the TERN Data Licensing Policy to support and encourage Open Access.

More news about the ÆKOS portal, including innovative modelling of knowledge about ecological data and the technology underpinning the ÆKOS system, will be provided in the January issue of the TERN e-Newsletter.

For more information on any of the Eco-Informatics infrastructure and tools, please contact Anita Smyth or Craig Walker.

1 Revolutionizing Science and Engineering Through Cyberinfrastructure: Report of the National Science Foundation Blue Ribbon Advisory Panel on Cyberinfrastructure, 2003

Published in TERN e-Newsletter December 2012

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