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Recent articles in Science highlight the possibilities of putting information about highly collectable rare and threatened species in the hands of poachers. Like the authors of these articles, TERN is grappling with this concern, becoming part of the national movement developing guidelines and tools that can help to reduce the risk.
Location data for highly collectable rare and threatened species—such as Australia’s most precious bird species: the mysterious night parrot Pezoporus occidentalis (above)—must be kept away from poachers.  For the latest up to date information on Night Parrot research and conservation, refer to the Night Parrot Recovery Team website (Image courtesy of Bruce Greatwich at Western Australia’s Parks and Wildlife Service).

TERN sees data as an invaluable resource to the ecosystem science community, which is why we work hard to collect and deliver access to a wide range of ecosystem data.

As publicly-funded national ecosystem data infrastructure, TERN proactively sets out to help researchers and managers overcome some of the technical barriers to more useful and user-orientated data publishing and sharing. This is evident on TERN’s website in articles such as ‘Data publishing continuum’.

The risks TERN lists on its website for publishing data include matters such as the potential for misuse of data in analysis and models. But the list is obviously incomplete in light of an issue aired recently through the prestigious Science journal, that is, the risk involved in making rare and threatened species’ data safe.

The articles on this topic in Science (see links below) highlight the possibilities of putting information about highly collectable rare and threatened species in the hands of poachers. Like the authors to the articles in Science, TERN is grappling with this concern, becoming part of the national movement developing guidelines and tools that can help to reduce the risk.

Making rare and threatened species’ data safe

“The issue of whether to divulge the location of threatened species has been bounced around for ages,” says terrestrial ecologist Scott Thompson.

“One argument says to protect the location details of highly collectable species to minimise risks of poaching and collecting and the other is to freely release the information so everyone can benefit and the species isn’t excluded from threatened species funding through lack of knowledge.”

“But, there’s one thing we can all agree on: highly collectable rare and threatened species’ data must be kept away from poachers.”

One way to achieve this is to not publish sensitive data at all. But increasingly, the world is turning towards a more operational approach guided by a country’s laws and regulations, and implemented in data management frameworks and secure data portals.

It is encouraging to see so much interest in open data and data publishing, considering the fragmented nature of ecosystem science data that existed until recently. Research and environmental management communities have rapidly embraced the global shift towards open access data and most data publishers, like TERN, responsibly publish sensitive data. 

National guidelines and tools for sensitive data
Irresponsible sensitive data publishing and insecure repositories puts highly desirable species at risk, such as the Australian Palm Cockatoo Probosciger aterrimus macgillivrayi (above), which can sell for tens of thousands of dollars on the black market (Image courtesy of Doug Janson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons)

Thanks largely to federal government investment via NCRIS in projects like the Australian National Data Service (ANDS) and the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA), sensitive data guidelines do exist in Australia.  ALA has data sensitivity policy and, whilst not specifically for threatened species data, ANDS provides a ‘guide to publishing and sharing sensitive data’.

In addition, there are also guidelines on sensitive ecological data access and management provided by federal and state governments, including the Australian Government’s Department of Environment and Energy and the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage.

So, data guidelines and tools exist to help reduce the risk, but according to Professor David Lindenmayer of the Australian National University they’re not always implemented robustly, and more resources are needed to prevent possible negative outcomes.

“Unfortunately, with very little effort almost anybody can find specific location data for rare and threatened species—including ones that are at very high risk of being poached,” says David.  “For example, it took my daughter about half an hour to find location data on almost 30 of the nation’s most poachable species.”

“The key issue is that the policy of data location protection is fine, but the current reality on the ground is the opposite—the policies are ineffective and simply not working.”

Because the states and territories are responsible for implementing and enforcing laws and regulations for rare and threatened species, national guidelines aren’t sufficient alone, says TERN AEKOS Data Publishing Manager, Dr Anita Smyth.

“One of the challenges in publishing sensitive data is thoroughly understanding all the states’ threatened species data policy, species list and staying up to date with their changes,” says Anita.

“Ideally Australia needs unambiguous, regularly updated guidelines on publishing rare and threatened species data so that the ecosystem science community can easily make decisions about what species are confidential. Online guidelines do exist, but what would be really useful is for scientists to review and regularly input into the guidelines from a risk management perspective.”

“Providing a decision web tool of the guidelines would also be useful especially if it incorporated the nuances of state and territory governments’ wildlife-related laws and regulations that govern rare and threatened species management. But first, the ecosystem science community needs to work with governments on the guidelines and decision points.”

TERN policies and secure repositories

State and territory governments are crying out for scientific expertise to be fed into their policies about managing risk surrounding sensitive data and the good news is that this is already happening.  Spurred on by this debate, a group of researchers are currently developing a framework from a risk management perspective, which will soon be released for peer-review and publication.

But in the meantime, the question remains: should you publish your sensitive data or not?  We’re not here to make that decision for you, but we are confident that if you do decide to publish your sensitive ecosystem data with TERN our policies and secure repositories will ensure it’s protected and kept away from poachers.

TERN advocates a precautionary principle where we can achieve making sensitive data discoverable at a minimum but not openly accessible until risks are sufficiently mitigated. TERN’s data licensing policy allows authors to partner with repository managers to identify and manage sensitive data in accordance with the legislation before publishing.

AnchorThis issue has been the topic of much public debate over the last two months, and you can read more at the links below to understand the issues. If you do decide to publish your data we look forward to hearing from you.

  • Do not publish, Science 26 May 2017 – “Increased data and information accessibility has many benefits, such as helping to improve repeatability in scientific studies and enhancing collaboration. However, such readily accessible information also creates major problems in the context of conserving endangered species.”
  • Scientists are accidentally helping poachers drive rare species to extinction, The Conversation 26 May 2017 –  “For the most part, the move towards making research freely available is positive; encouraging collaboration and driving new discoveries. But legal or academic requirements to publish location data may be dangerously out of step with real-life risks.”
  • Publish openly but responsibly, Science 14 July 2017 – A letter by some of Australia’s leading ecologists and data scientists to Science Magazine in response to “Do not publish”, and the subsequent response by the authors of “Do not publish”.
  • Publish and don’t perish – how to keep rare species’ data away from poachers, The Conversation 14 July 2017 – “Rather than withholding this information…scientists should publish such information through secure data repositories so that this knowledge can continue to be used to help conserve and manage the world’s most threatened species.”

Published in TERN newsletter July 2017

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