Interview by Melissa Krenke, Rainforest Alliance
“In conservation, we are very creative in designing the instruments and methodologies to develop data, but we haven’t had comparable understanding of how to integrate and to share data with each other.”
Formed in 2005 from various efforts, the Conservation Commons is a group of non-governmental organizations, international and multi-lateral organizations, governments, research institutions, and the private sector which aims to ensure open access and responsible use of data, information, knowledge, expertise and technology supporting biodiversity conservation for the benefit of the global conservation community.
Tom Moritz has been involved in the information management and conservation community for more than 30 years. Currently serving as the Associate Director and Chief of Knowledge Management at the Getty Research Institute, Moritz has also worked at the American Museum of Natural History, helped to form the Conservation Commons, and sits on its Steering Committee.
Question: What reasons do most researchers give for not wanting to share data and results?
Moritz: Many researchers seem not to be aware that their data has an essential place in much larger collections of data or information — collections that are useful at national, regional, and/or international scale. Many individuals, organizations, and institutions put “copyright” on their information or data, which restricts or limits its use. Many conservationists unconsciously publish in for-profit or commercially marketed journals without recognizing that this excludes many colleagues in the global conservation movement.
For almost 20 years, IUCN has been putting a statement on its publications that says something to the effect of “if you’re not planning to use this document for commercial purposes or to make a profit, then you can take it and use it for free.” That’s an important thing to do, because every time we require someone to go through a permission process, we’re creating a barrier or a “transaction cost” that may discourage or inhibit use.
We also need to ask ourselves why conservationists publish data and information. One obvious reason is that we have a common mission or ethic — we’re all working for the good of conservation. But beyond that, people work for reasons of prestige and status within the community and want to advance their careers, and so there may be “selfish” motives for withholding data and information. And so, we have to find other ways to provide recognition and incentives to share both for individuals and for organizations.
Q: What are some alternate incentives for researchers to share their information?
Mortiz: When we provide open access to publications on the Internet, there’s evidence that citation of those publications increases dramatically — some data suggests a 300 – 500 percent increase. Citation is strong evidence of the usefulness and credibility of your work. Another indicator is the number of Web-links that people make to any given resource.
In January of 2006, while I was working at the American Museum of Natural History, we posted the museum’s entire document set online, going back to the year 1882. We posted fewer than 6,000 publications, and by June they had been downloaded 320,000 times. If that rate continues, there may be one million downloads of these documents by the beginning of 2007. This is very dramatic evidence of what happens when you make documents freely available on the Web.
Q: Do you think that there is a growing culture of information sharing in the conservation community? What are the signs?
Moritz: There are a number of really excellent projects, one of the most prominent being the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, or GBIF. It is an important model for developing open access to a very broad range of biodiversity data at global scale and includes both museum-based specimen data and observational data. There’s also an excellent set of best practices documents on the GBIF Web site.
Another useful model is the World Database on Protected Areas — for the first time we have available to the global community a comprehensive database of all of the protected areas of the world. Making these core datasets, such as protected areas data and species information, available to the global community is a really critical development.
As genetic information assumes a more prominent role in conservation decision making, the GENBANK database is becoming another primary example of data sharing across an international community.
But probably the most important example is the Web itself, an incredible open-access resource. It has become so pervasive that often, we don’t recognize it as the development that it is, but it is probably the most fundamental model for open-access that we have. Institutions and individuals have made huge investments in the Web simply because of the value of the data and information that’s available.
Q: Do you agree with those who worry that there are too many different conservation data portals, and people don’t know where to find the information they need?
Moritz: I think that we should all be working simply to expose as much data and information as possible, using best practices and community standards, so that search engines can then find it across the Web. The “Open Archives Initiative” provides one such model. However, we need better primary indices of scientific and common names for species as well as geographic indices, but fundamentally, the major tools are in place or under development.
Q: How does the Conservation Commons propose to improve open access to biodiversity data?
Moritz: We are conducting a global communications or educational strategy, going to meetings to talk about the value and importance of sharing data and information, and giving case studies of best examples. We’re trying to get the conservation community on a worldwide scale to be thinking much more about how it collects and disposes of its information. For example, there’s no reason that many organizations can’t post all of their publications online, as the American Museum of Natural History did.
The Conservation Commons has been encouraging people to take advantage of GBIF’s best practices documents to organize their own data and information and share it. I think that with respect to data, GBIF is a pretty good model for how we can share information at a global scale. At the national level, we have the National Biological Information Infrastructure in the United States, CONABIO in Mexico, and INBio in Costa Rica. None of them is perfect, but they represent a national effort to start to share information more effectively.
Q: The Conservation Commons Web site states that its four programmatic focus areas are open GIS and remote sensing; institutional policies and guidelines for implementing open access; tools, protocols, and standards for developing common data and information sharing architecture; and publications, grey literature, and conservation knowledge. What is the Commons doing in each of these areas?
Moritz: In the GIS realm, we’re developing tools and access models for sharing geo-referenced data, as well as mapping — GIS tools.
With respect to institutional policies and guidelines, we’re trying to convince organizations and institutions that it is in their interest to share much more openly. There’s a lot of resistance to the idea there are alternative models for how materials can be made available other than the standard copyright model. The increase in citations when things are openly available can be a powerful incentive, particularly for a science-based organization.
With tools, protocols and standards, we’re looking for case studies or best practice examples. One is the Protected Area Learning Network, or PalNET, a project of IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas which posts protected areas management plans. With these types of Web sites, the next step will be to find ways to pull out valuable pieces or components of that information and further analyze it.
The publications, grey literature, and knowledge focus is really a question of people investing in digitizing their material and making it available. Also, text capture is now easily creating documents that can be searched word by word, as opposed to an image of the page.
Conservation knowledge is difficult to capture – there is a philosopher who says “we know much more than we say”, and that’s certainly true in conservation. Senior conservation people who have spent 20 or more years out in the field have very rich and very detailed knowledge, and yet it is often expressed only “informally” — for example, in situations where they are posed with challenging questions. We need to be more clever and effective in capturing and transferring that knowledge because when a senior conservation person retires or leaves, we inevitably lose a lot of that experience. It is also the case that many local people have a great deal of knowledge applicable to conservation but lack the means to share that knowledge. We should simply encourage people to publish case histories and case studies, but also remember that the Web offers many new methods for sharing.
Q: Do you think that anecdotal evidence derived from project experiences, such as lessons learned, are just as important to share as hard scientific data? When the Commons refers to “conservation knowledge”, is this what it means?
Moritz: Absolutely, but it’s really difficult to get good, accurate descriptions of project experiences. There are a number of problems. One is that very few of us want to talk about mistakes or failures that we’ve had — we want to talk about our successes. And yet, of course, we often learn more from our mistakes, we need to create a culture in which it is “safe” to expose our mistakes.
The other challenge is that we need better management of our project data. The funding community would greatly benefit from having a thorough index with abstracts of projects, including — if possible — very objective evaluations of successes or failures. Many foundations or agencies maintain records of their own projects for their own use, but a comprehensive listing available to the entire community would be very useful.
Q: That collection of project experiences is what the Eco-Index aims to do in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Moritz: I am really amazed at how much good work you’ve done. I think it’s a really good model of the kinds of things that we should be doing more broadly.
Q: We ask project directors to indicate their lessons learned, and sometimes they are very candid and provide very useful information about their experiences — we believe they are becoming more willing to talk openly about things that didn’t work, and the things they wish they had the funding to do. Do you think this is valuable information to capture and share?
Moritz: Yes, we need objective reviews and assessments of conservation practices — our community’s adaptive fitness is dependent on our ability to get good feedback and to learn from successes and failures. And yet, there are obvious cultural reasons that individuals or organizations do not provide that kind of feedback, it’s an interesting problem. I’ve always thought it would be useful to do “blind” studies of projects, so that people didn’t feel that their personal reputation was on the line. The mistakes that we make are really crucial, and sharing them can save us huge amounts of time and resources — but devising a method for such blind studies is not at all easy.
Q: What have been some of the challenges in creating this broad-based network of international partners?
Moritz: What the Commons is really calling for is a paradigm shift, a major change in the way we think about our conservation competence with respect to knowledge and experience. A lot of our work is convincing people to understand why sharing is important and to make the best tools for sharing readily available. In conservation, we are very creative in designing the instruments and methodologies to develop data, but we haven’t had comparable understanding of how to integrate and to share data with each other.