Collaborating on Ecological Health
But documenting biological data in a common form so others can use it is time-consuming, and without a strong incentive, most field scientists won't do it.
"You ask people to do something for posterity, they may be very well-meaning, but in point of fact, these are very busy people," says Judith Cushing, a computer science faculty member at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. "You need to provide immediate value."
Cushing is working on new data infrastructure and informatics tools to not only make documentation of ecological information simpler, but to make the field data collector's job easier.
Cushing's Canopy Database Project focuses on forest canopy research, an emerging ecological subfield with deep implications for questions such as global warming. The role of forests in cleaning water and generating oxygen is well-known, but the precise mechanisms are still poorly understood.
Suspended on ropes high above the canopy, researchers are charting the architecture of trees in Pacific Northwest conifer forests ranging in age from 70 to 880 years. Tree structure shifts over time – for example, an older tree may have lost its tip, leaving what was once an auxiliary branch to assume the job of leader. Different tree shapes in turn influence the forest's capacity to clean the air and retain water, processes strongly related to global warming, biodiversity and flooding, Cushing said.
Through a National Science Foundation Digital Government planning grant, Cushing and her collaborators - including International Canopy Network president Nalini Nadkarni, also at Evergreen - are looking for ways to facilitate collection and documentation of this spatial data about tree architecture.
"Many people think GPS is solving all these problems, but it isn't yet," Cushing said.
For example, one researcher might measure a tree branch from the trunk out, while another charts its location on the tree.
Cushing is designing database technology that will identify and document the general spatial constructs underlying the measurements so they can be generalized for comparison with other data sets in the future.
"Scientists would be able to supply the modeling algorithms for comparisons, and we would include those in the system," she said.
Current ecological field research still follows a laborious path of pad-and-pencil recording, electronic data entry, modeling and analysis, finally - if at all - archiving. Cushing is sending scientists into the forest with handheld PDAs. Graffiti-writing their stats, the researchers can produce instant 3-D models to review, so they can visually spot and correct mistakes before they leave the field.
Cushing is working with archivists at the Long Term Ecological Research Network (LTER), a collaborative effort involving more than 1,100 scientists and students investigating ecological processes over long temporal and broad spatial scales, to establish the scalability and versatility of her ecoinformatics. Five information managers, including James Brunt, at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, plan site visits for feasibility studies in the near future, she said.
Cushing plans to follow her planning grant with another to further develop the research. Eventually, she would like to see database design integrated into the earliest research design phase of canopy research.
"We're still working on that research and hope it leads to more fundamental computer science in the area," she said.
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