Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Encyclopedia Of Life

1. Watch this embedded video (4:00).

2. Consider watching this TED video of E.O. Wilson (22:35).

3. Take a look at the FAQ's for the Encyclopedia of Life. Here are a few:
What does Encyclopedia of Life seek to accomplish? What are its objectives?

Ultimately, the Encyclopedia will serve as an online reference source and database for every one of the 1.8 million species that are named and known on this planet, as well as all those later discovered and described. Encyclopedia of Life will be used as both a teaching and a learning tool, helping scientists, educators, students, and the community at large gain a better understanding of this planet and all who inhabit it.

What impact will this have on science? On society?

Encyclopedia of Life should be one of the most significant developments we have ever experienced in the life sciences. It can be a “macroscope” comparable in power for discerning patterns in large amounts of information just as the microscope is for zooming to the small. Just as the biotechnology industry has been built upon the existence of large genomic sequence databases (such as GenBank), Encyclopedia of Life will have an equally catalytic effect on comparative biology, ecology, and related fields. By harnessing the research, commitment, and hard work of scientists across the world, The Encyclopedia will serve as a truly global resource for information regarding life on this planet. Such a comprehensive resource of information has never been available to the scientific community or society at large before. It will provide society at large a tool unequaled in scope and convenience for policy makers, educators, and the general public.

Who is ultimately responsible for constructing the Encyclopedia of Life?

Encyclopedia of Life is a collaborative effort. Ultimately, the tens of thousands of people with expertise around the world and their predecessors are responsible. In terms of practical accountability, efforts are currently being headed by a steering committee of senior officers from Harvard University, Smithsonian Institution, Field Museum, Marine Biological Laboratory, Biodiversity Heritage Library consortium, Missouri Botanical Garden, and the MacArthur and Sloan Foundations. The Atlas of Living Australia is in the process of joining, and we look forward to more major partners from all regions during the next year. Numerous organizations have already contributed to the conceptualization and development of the Encyclopedia.

Who will do the writing?

Unlike conventional encyclopedias, where an editorial team sits down and writes the entries, the Encyclopedia will be developed by bringing together (“mashing up”) content from a wide variety of sources. This material will then be authenticated by scientists, so that users will have authoritative information. As we move forward, Encyclopedia of Life and its board will work with scientists across the globe, securing the involvement of those individuals and institutions that are established experts on each species.

How will you ensure information on this website stays current?

Encyclopedia of Life and its staff intend to work with leaders in the scientific community to ensure that all content is accurate and current. Each day, we learn more about the species with whom we share this planet. For the Encyclopedia to succeed, it must receive regular and continued contributions from the field – from scientists across the globe – to ensure it stays current. Advanced software tools are being developed to mine the scientific literature in order to provide regular updates. In addition, the scientific community will use Encyclopedia-developed tools in their own research endeavors; when they are ready, they can submit updates with the push of a button.

What are you doing to ensure functionality in different languages/cultures?

A primary goal is to ensure that the content on the Encyclopedia is available in a wide variety of languages, so it can be accessed and utilized in communities across the planet. This is a global resource, and the ever-evolving product will express that. The Encyclopedia will work with individuals and organizations around the globe to translate the content into local languages. Also, a great benefit of standard formats for web pages is that it makes them easier to understand. We put a premium on good visualization, so that even those who may not appreciate text can still extract a lot of information. Finally, we will design the content in ways that it can be accessed usefully on handheld devices as well as on desktop screens.

Is this just for the scientific community?

No. Encyclopedia of Life is being developed to serve as a comprehensive resource for everyone, scientist, teacher, student, media, any interested party. It will be developed in a wide range of languages. Once completed, we believe the Encyclopedia will be a valuable learning and teaching resource for anyone who has an interest in Earth’s species.

How will scientists use this?

As a reference library and as a macroscope. For decades now, scientists in the biological community have called for the establishment of a database similar to what the Encyclopedia will become. They have developed many partial encyclopedias, covering different plant or animal groups. But the Encyclopedia will be the first common resource where scientists across the globe can both access and share information on all species. Encyclopedia of Life will unite key scientific communities throughout the world, improving communication, information sharing, and collaboration. It will allow researchers to explore and perceive patterns too large or complex to have been studied effectively with our old tools.

How will students use this?

It will allow a student to browse all of nature. The site will provide students one common web location where they can learn about every species that has populated the planet Earth. This one-stop shopping unites mammal, bird, bug, plant, bacteria, etc. in one location, providing a clear understanding of how our ecosystem works and improving student learning. Students and educators will be provided with a wide variety of tools for using the information on the species pages as well as for feeding their own information back into the system. Wherever a species name occurs, there may also be a hyperlink to its page in the Encyclopedia. So if you read a name of a flower in a poem or about an insect affected by global warming, you will be able to get a species biography instantly.

How will the public at large use this?

It can be a handy field guide that people take with them on hikes on a personal digital assistant. It can tell you all the plants that might be found in your neighborhood. In recent years, we have witnessed the impact that a website like Wikipedia can have on humanity, providing a common location for information on all things great and small. Encyclopedia of Life has the potential to be a similar phenomenon, serving as a catalog, database, and learning tool about every organism that has ever lived on the planet. In the same way that dictionaries help literacy, the Encyclopedia can help biodiversity literacy.

What about Wikipedia?

Wikipedia inspired us. Wikipedia accumulated about 1.5 million entries in English in its first four years. That gave us confidence that our tasks are manageable with current technology and social behaviour, although the expert community in a lot of the subjects for pages in Encyclopedia of Life may be only a handful of people. Wikipedia has also created some species pages, as have other groups. Encyclopedia of Life will, we hope, unite all such efforts and increase their value. The Wikimedia Foundation is a member of the Encyclopedia’s Institutional Council.

4. Check out who's involved.

5. Think about how you - and your students - can use this (launches in 2008).

6. Think about how you - and your students - can contribute.

7. Think about what this - and other similar projects sure to follow - means for education. And for the world.


  1. This looks like an amazing resource. I hope that have links for kids. I would love to have my daughter be able to use something like this at an extremely simple level :) Is this already up and running?

  2. To me as a student, this looks very promising. As they said, Wikipedia became very successful very quickly. The fact they have a slider to change your level of experience is really inovational. I know that when it becomes fully functional I will certainly be interested in using it. It seems like they really strive for accuracy, and will also be able to capture the breadth and depth that wikipedia offers.

  3. Good idea and I wish you well. I am a little worried about other agandas impacting on this worthwhile and critical issue. I posted a short piece on "Greenwashing" recently and would be intereted in your views?