Living Atlases

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Map of ALA installations—4 Sept 2017
Map showing countries with installations or interest in the ALA infrastructure, as of 4 Sept 2017. Courtesy of Katia Cezón, GBIF Spain

The open-source software infrastructure initially developed by the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA) is now a critical component of GBIF’s international network. The adoption of this system by numerous GBIF national nodes has produced a connected infrastructure enabling staff to provide high-capacity data management and scientific services at both national and thematic levels. In the process, this effort has demonstrated how international collaboration can focus and improve data delivery and access, spread technological costs and risks, and adapt to varied settings and contexts.

Background

When it launched in 2010, the ALA became one of the first sites to aggregate existing national biodiversity data in one place, and the underlying infrastructure sought to address one country’s need for improved data services and access. Between 2007 and 2017, the Australian government invested AUD 56 million (€39 million) in the ALA, creating ‘one of the more advanced bioenvironmental portals in the world…appeal[ing] to audiences ranging from primary school education to citizen scientist to postgraduate research’ (Belbin & Williams 2015).

This comprehensive biodiversity data management system is now a world-class research tool. It helps Australian researchers respond rapidly to new discoveries, enables decision-makers to base planning and policy decisions on the best available data and feeds national data directly into GBIF’s international data index.

By 2013, its capacity for managing, analysing and visualizing biodiversity data had started to catch the eye of other GBIF Participants. In February 2014, the GBIF Secretariat and ALA invited external review of these tools to evaluate the possibility of adopting a streamlined core version to establish other biodiversity data portals. The effort to simplify, share and reuse this technology aimed to reduce development costs for GBIF’s nodes and expand capacity across the network through technology transfer and knowledge exchange.

This open-source platform offers a modular architecture enabling reuse of its tools in other countries and regions. ALA software is now installed and running in numerous countries and has become central to both informal and formal collaborations between many of GBIF’s Participants.

Data, standards and licensing

The Living Atlas software is designed around species names, taxonomy, occurrence based data and related data types. Future work will address supporting other relevant data types, and exploring more effective ways to spatially and temporally represent different data types (presence/absence etc). The ALA infrastructure applies international data standards as much as possible and wherever appropriate. These include Darwin Core (DwC), Darwin Core Archive (DwC-A), Dublin Core, ISO, OGC, and others.  All components of the Living Atlas are open-source software. This minimizes running and licensing costs and avoids potential complications with intellectual property rights.