Help build the Encyclopedia of Life

[Update 6/09/2011 – Of course I would post this blog entry with screenshots the day before they update their web interface. Have a look at the new version!]

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could go to a single resource and find out everything you want to know about a certain species of organism? The Encyclopedia of Life (EoL) aims to be just that: a “Wikipedia for species”. It does this by aggregating information that’s available on disparate databases and collections that are already online, and soliciting contributions from working scientists and members of the public.

The project kicked off in 2007 after Ed Wilson, the entomologist and evolutionary biologist (known, among other achievements, for building up the field of sociobiology), was awarded the TED Prize. The winner gets to make “One Wish to Change the World”, and his wish (video below) was to see just such an encyclopedia come into being.

It’s been gaining steam since then, partnering with institutions and projects like the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), which aims to digitize classic and out-of-copyright works of natural history and put them online.

At first, I was skeptical about how useful such a website could be, but now that it’s grown and matured, I’m starting to see the possibilities.

For example, let’s say I’m interested in a certain species. I type in its common name or scientific name, and navigate to its page. I can see its classification hierarchy (what family is it in? what other species in the same genus?), there are links to pages in digitized books and journals on BHL which mention this species, if there are molecular sequences or DNA barcodes for this species in GenBank I can directly click on the link, and so on. What’s more, users can contribute their own material which will be put online provisionally before being vetted by expert curators. In short, it’s acting as an aggregator service, with an additional layer of vetting by scientist and naturalists.

Many schools and colleges are assigning “make an EoL species page” as class assignments, which have been useful in expanding the range of information on EoL as well as giving students an opportunity to write something for a public audience.

Amateur (and professional) naturalists can also upload their photographs to Flickr and tag them for automatic harvesting by EoL, so that they’ll show up on the appropriate species page. This was part of the original vision for the encyclopedia, to crowdsource the production of multimedia. Where in the Victorian era, amateur naturalists would give their specimens to local museums and herbaria, today you can simply snap a photo, upload it, and tag it for all the world to see.

The same can be done for video, and that’s why I’m writing this today. I’ve joined the EoL’s Vimeo group and tagged my protist videos, making it possible for me to share this information that I’ve generated freely with anyone who cares to search for it. While my blog and webpage itself may not reach very many people, by linking its content to a widely-used aggregator, I can make it available to potential users who wouldn’t have thought to look on my website when it shows up in the search engine results.

There are many people in the Singapore nature community who’ve put lots of high-quality information, including photographs, videos, and write-ups, online (example, example, example). Since they’re already online, especially if you’re using Flickr to store your photographs, for a little additional effort you could be sharing this with a much wider audience and helping to plug your little bit of Singapore’s natural history into the rest of the World Wide Web. It’s a win-win-win scenario: you get more traffic, the EoL becomes more complete, and those who need the information get connected to it faster. Find out more about how you can contribute to the EoL here.

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