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Data portal leads with ‘smart’ search and display

The ÆKOS data portal, which has just been released for peer review, is the first of its kind for ecological data in Australia — and is one of very few in the world using innovative ‘smart’ semantic technologies.

It means that finding and using information about ecological data stored in databases dispersed across the country is now one step closer. 

Eco-informatics launched the initial, or ‘alpha’, release of the Australian Ecological Knowledge and Observation System (ÆKOS) data portal so that it can be tested and improved on before the ‘beta’ release, which is scheduled for June 2012. An instructional video demonstration has also been prepared to guide first-time users. 

The  director of all TERN facilities at Adelaide, Professor Andy Lowe, said reviewers had already indicated that the portal was a major step forward, due to its intelligent searching, complex data display and ability to provide contextualised ‘site level’ ecological data from unrelated ecological datasets for re-use and ‘fitness for purpose’ assessment. 

‘The delivery of this “first-pass” data portal is an enormous credit to the innovative abilities of the people at Eco-informatics on two levels,’ Andy said. 

‘The first technical challenge was to model data consisting of many different types of attributes, taxonomic classifications and collection methods which have been stored in different formats with different data structures. We had to find a way to consistently model this complexity before any data set could be ingested into the ÆKOS system. 

‘The second challenge was to implement the conceptual model for practical use via the ÆKOS data portal. 

‘Being the first to apply semantic technologies in the ecology domain and to demonstrate that it can be done is a notable scientific achievement, and will make discovery of and access to ecological data in Australia an order of magnitude more successful.’

To develop the portal, information on data schemas, data records and field manuals associated with ecological datasets are gathered. Doing this increases the diversity and richness of information that is made available to researchers. 

Professor Andy Lowe and Craig Walker launching the ÆKOS data portal

Eco-informatics director Craig Walker said that advances in semantic technology meant that it was now possible to represent ecological data consistently within an information framework that is flexible yet comprehensive. 

He said that Eco-informatics used ontologies to model all of the concepts present in the available ecological data sets and the relationships among those concepts. 

‘Using this approach, we can record the field observations consistently, provide structured descriptions to express the meaning and context of the data, and apply controlled vocabularies so that we end up with consistent labelling and values for semantic searches,’ Craig said. 

The data portal itself is powered by semantic indexing that is applied to traits or, in other words, keywords selected from controlled vocabularies.

‘All this means that semantic indexing enables more intelligent searching than traditional data portals. This provides for what we call “rich” searches, because it exposes key characteristics of the underlying information, not just the observed values. For example, a search on the family Myrtaceae will retrieve species presence at sites for genera such as Eucalyptus without the need to specify the individual genera or species.

‘However, the difficulty with using ontological models to represent ecological information is that, because there are many relationships among data items, it is a challenge to enable users to understand and navigate the structure of the information returned by the search. 

‘The ÆKOS data portal does this by depicting information in a network diagram (called a “graph view”) which represents a part of the ontological model for the site being viewed. All nodes in the graph view are dynamic, so a user can click on any of them to drill down into the information for more details. For example, clicking on a method node will bring up a brief description of the method used to collect the information for a specific observation at the site,’ Craig said. 

An instructional video about the data portal will be available on the ÆKOS website in early November. If you would like to submit a review of the data portal, please contact Eco-informatics for access to the alpha version. To learn more about the data portal, please visit the ÆKOS website

The data portal showing the search window (left), complex display of data components (middle window),
and more details results (windows on right). The diagram (or graph view) shows the richness of
Myrtaceae data for Site 9329.

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