Friday, April 22, 2016

Biodiversity threat data gaps

Reducing rates of biodiversity loss and achieving environmental goals requires understanding what is threatening biodiversity, where risks occur, how fast threats are changing in type and intensity, and what are the most appropriate actions to avert them. A UN report proposed specific policy recommendations for mobilizing the “big data” revolution for sustainable development and environmental protection. The combination of crowd-sourced data, large-scale ground-based monitoring schemes, and satellite earth-observation missions is seemingly capable of unprecedented insight into global threats to biodiversity and how human interventions are altering those threats.

But, do we have the reliable and accessible data we need to understand the threats to biodiversity, where they occur and how quickly change is happening? It seems not. A new study shows those data are largely missing. We are lacking key information on important threats to biodiversity such as invasive species, logging, bush meat harvesting, and illegal wildlife trade. 

Over the past two years a consortium of 18 organizations compiled available global data on biodiversity threats. They reviewed 290 data sets ranging from remote sensing via satellites to citizen-science initiatives and marked them on five attributes required for conservation assessments. Datasets should be freely available, up to date, repeated, at appropriate spatial resolution, and validated for accuracy. 

Only 5% of the datasets satisfied all attributes. In some cases, the data needed for effective conservation policy already exists but are not accessible due to associated costs, commercial considerations or intellectual property arrangements. What's needed in such cases are agreements between conservation organizations and private companies, such as the one between IHS Energy and UNEP-WCMC that allow non-commercial use. The authors of the study consider governments as another  valuable future source of information. Some recent Open Government Initiatives e.g. in the UK and US have made more than 200,000 datasets freely available, including several that are relevant to environmental conservation. This should be adopted in other nations as well.

The colleagues also stress that filling these data gaps need not start from scratch. Several existing datasets, such as those dealing with invasive species on islands around the world, can be scaled up if appropriately resourced.

We were surprised that so few datasets met all of the five attributes we believe are required for 'gold standard' of data. We live in the age of Big Data, but are effectively flying blind when it comes to understanding what is threatening biodiversity around the world.

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