From WAMU 88.5 and American University, I'm Sam Litzinger. You're in "The Animal House." Charles Darwin's theory of evolution resulted from a journey around the world, begun in 1831 to collect and document as many species of animals as he could find. But the drive to seek out and note the creatures with whom we share the planet did not end with Darwin. And in our own digital age, the quest continues with scientists, scholars and members of the public working to compile the world's most comprehensive data base of all living things.
Bob Corrigan is project manager and deputy director of the Encyclopedia of Life project. He joins us to talk about this ambitious project from a studio at WBEZ in Chicago. Bob, welcome to "The Animal House."
Thank you. Glad to be here.
How did the Encyclopedia of Life come about in the first place?
Well, the idea for an Encyclopedia of Life is not a new one. For a number of years, scientists have been hoping to find a way to create a repository for knowledge about biodiversity. Unfortunately, this is information that naturally gets scattered all around the world living in libraries, collections, in the minds of scientists, on CDs in their drawers. And so a few years back when an idea came about to create an Encyclopedia of Life, and a number of institutions came together, some foundations joined them, provided some seed funding, and the cornerstone institutions kicked in their own resources.
This was back in 2007. The program was under development for about a year, and the Encyclopedia of Life site launched in 2008.
When it's done, what's it going to look like?
It's going to be very big. (laugh) There are about 1.9 million recognized species. We suspect there are many, many more. Scientists disagree on just how many. I know that we expect to be adding information to the Encyclopedia of Life for many, many years to come, but more importantly we hope to be adding people to it, in that biodiversity really becomes interesting when it has a context, when people share why they're interested in certain species. Why they're interested in understanding them, and the information they bring to add to that understanding.
How does it actually work? How do you get the information?
Well, part of the challenge of this is that the information is everywhere. There are some very large biodiversity projects around the world, some such as Fish Base have very advanced databases and their own collection mechanisms for gathering this data. So for some of them we create connections using programming languages, and we harvest the data on a daily basis. There are some other collections that we upload, oh, for example, a set of pictures from one museum, and that's a one-shot deal.
We may have some scientists work with us to create information from their own collections and create collaborations that bring their colleagues together. We have a fellowship program at the Museum of Natural History called the Rubenstein Fellows Program. And these early career scientists bring their own studies, their own pictures, their own descriptions to EOL. And while that might not get us as much data in one shot, it certainly gets us very rich, very unique information. And over time, we're going to have many other ways for people to contribute data at different levels.
Some people may be comfortable contributing a photo. Other people may be interested to contribute a set of references, and still other people may be interested in writing descriptions.
We're talking with Bob Corrigan. He's a product manager and acting deputy director of the Encyclopedia of Life. Big project. He's also a member of the staff at the Smithsonian Institution's Natural History Museum. So how far along are we? I guess, as you say, it may be a little hard to tell, because there are so many different species out there. Do you have some idea of where you are along this very long road?
Well, we keep track every day of how much data we have, how many pages we've created that have pictures, that have text. We have about half a million species that are documented with text, with photos, with descriptions, with literature references. And what we expect is that over time the rate of addition is going to change. As we capture the information about the species that are most easily studied, as we gain access to information on those species that have been studied over the years, we're going to, I think, follow a pretty traditional power curve that the first 80 percent of the information we acquire is going to be the fastest.
And then over time, as we start exposing the opportunity to add information about less studied species, that's going to take a little bit longer. Another area that we're keeping score is watching how our usage increases over time, and how people use EOL.
Is there anything our listeners can do to help the project along?
One thing they can do is they can spend some time coming to EOL at eol.org. We're working on a new version of EOL that's going to make it easier for people to participate in the Encyclopedia of Life to become members of communities, to create their own collections, to take advantage of collections that other people create, and to have opportunities to bring bits of information that they may find. It's important to note that EOL really seeks to be a trusted resource.
We have curators who oversee the information we receive, and some of it maybe inevitably be less great in quality than other information. And that's why we're hopeful that EOL will attract people who are citizen scientists who are enthusiastic about biodiversity, devotees, for example.
Who's the end user for you, really? Is there somebody you imagine will be using the database maybe besides a professional biologist, or a professional geneticist or someone? For example, could I just look at it and get something out of it?
You absolutely can. In fact, when we think about who our audiences are, we really have, today, three major audiences. We do see the scientific community as being an important user of the Encyclopedia of Life. Another group that's larger in number than professional scientists, are a group that many people refer to as citizen scientists. And these aren't just people who might go to an orchid show on the weekend, but these are people who are really interested in making meaningful contributions to science, to having relationships with the scientific community.
And while they may not have Ph.Ds, these are people who can go gather information, who can analyze data. The astronomy world has been doing this for years, and very successfully. And the third is the general public. Educators, students, people well, like you and me, who really want to go find information they can trust, that they can get to easily, that they can expect is going to be increased in a thoughtful way over time, and find a way to explore the connections that exist amongst creatures.
Any surprises so far?
Well, a few of the surprises we've had so far are is how people seem to be getting interested in EOL this year a lot more than they had in the past. We're seeing usage on a daily basis up even in 2011 about 50 percent since the beginning of the year. So the level of enthusiasm for people coming and using the site is increasing. They're spending a bit more time on the site. They're providing more feedback. But one of the other interesting things that has really surprised us is how enthusiastic different projects are to use EOL as an ingredient.
For example, if you're creating a web application, or you're creating an app, there are ways that you can connect to EOL to draw information out of the Encyclopedia of Life and make it part of what you're delivering. And it seems that there's a hunger in the world at large from people in all kinds of different walks of life to have access to a consistent source of this information. To use it as part of the tools they create. And so a lot of the traffic over time that we expect to be coming to the Encyclopedia of Life is from these embedded applications, and that's very exciting.
Could you say a few words about kind of -- I guess he'd be the guiding spirit of the project, E.O. Wilson?
He retired a few years ago from Harvard, the Museum of Comparative Zoology. And while an idea for the Encyclopedia of Life has been around for a number of years and many scientists have talked about it, what E.O. Wilson did that really captured the public's interest, was wish for EOL in his TED Prize speech back, I think it was 2007. And in calling for the creation of an Encyclopedia of Life, he was able to communicate why it's important for us as humans, as inhabitants of this planet together, to gather all this information into one place, so we can actually make better decisions.
So we can be aware of the incredible diversity around us, and he encapsulated that wish so succinctly and so wonderfully, that I think it helped motivate the organizations who are part of EOL to come together and make it a reality.
Bob Corrigan is product manager and acting deputy director of the Encyclopedia of Life project, and a member of the staff at the Smithsonian Institution's Natural History Museum. Bob, thank you very much for being with us in "The Animal House."
Dr. Gary Weitzman will have answers to your animal questions in just a moment. Later on in the program we'll speak to best-selling author, Mark Kurlansky about his new book, "World Without Fish." Our fine finned friends are also the subject of this week's critter quiz. The Orange Roughy is actually a red deep water fish that gets the name from the color it turns after it dies. But how long can this fish live? The answer just before we close today's program.
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