UF, UN And Smithsonian Team Up To Launch New Biodiversity

By:
Ed Hunter (352) 392-1773 x 278

Source(s):
Richard Lee (941) 956-1151

LAKE ALFRED — A homeowner curious about a strange weed in his garden, the fifth-grader writing a report on the Monarch butterfly and the horticulturist stumped by an unfamiliar plant disease all have a new source of information on the World Wide Web.

The University of Florida, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History have launched EcoPort , a free, one-stop encyclopedia of information on every known plant and animal on the planet.

Developers of EcoPort predict that it will become what is known in Internet lingo as a “portal” — organizing biodiversity information for Web surfers similar to how well-known portals such as Yahoo! organize general information.

Richard Lee, professor of plant pathology at the Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred, said EcoPort will bring together information that is currently scattered across the Internet on individual researchers’ or universities’ Web sites. He said it will create a one-stop source of ecological knowledge for members of the public interested in biodiversity or the environment or working in natural resource management and conservation.

“One of principles behind EcoPort is the ‘knowledge commons,’ the recognition that a lot of people are experts in their areas,” Lee said. “They can contribute their expertise and other people can benefit from that and share the knowledge.”

Lee spent a sabbatical year at the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome working on EcoPort and its predecessor system, the global plant and pest information system. That system was designed to keep track of plant, pest and host information, but Lee said it suffered from several limitations, the biggest being the lack of flexibility to record ecological information and interactions between organisms.

Unlike other similar Web sites, EcoPort stores all its data in one database that is accessed through one Web site. Lee said that allows EcoPort users nearly unlimited flexibility.

“One of big advantages of having information on one database is that if you make a hyperlink, it works and it’s always there,” Lee said. “But if you are using the World Wide Web and you link to another database, the information might not always be there.”

Lee said the information on EcoPort will be made freely available to the public, provided individuals don’t profit from its use. And he said planning organizations have taken steps to make sure that the information is accurate.

“We have a system set up where an organization such as a research center or university becomes an affiliate and is responsible for assigning editor passwords,” Lee said. “All the information that goes in will be peer reviewed and will go under more scrutiny than in some journals.”

Lee said organizations that add information to EcoPort will be able to display banners similar to typical Internet advertising banners. Web surfers will be able to click on the banners to visit the Web sites of these organizations.

EcoPort users can search for a plant or animal in a number of ways, including both a species’ common and scientific names. For example, a search for species beginning with “ant” yields 196 different entries ranging from Antennaria neglecta, a plant know as the field pussytoes, to the common ant that has been the bane of many a summer picnic. A click of the mouse brings up a page of detailed information about the desired species.

In its early stages, the information on EcoPort is mostly limited to land-based plants and pests, with the majority of the 49,000 records containing only name and taxonomy information. Even still, the system already contains more than 6,000 pictures, 27,000 glossary terms and more than 120 “hypermemes” — complete presentations of methods to deal with specific problems including illustrations, references and glossary terms.

Lee said the amount of information will grow rapidly once worldwide experts start contributing to the database. Lee said the management of the EcoPort site is shared jointly by the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and the other two partner organizations. While UF currently has some funding for the project, he said the next step is to secure private funding to ensure its continued operation and growth.

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