Databases for nature conservation

Frank van der Most, 29 October 2021

A couple of weeks ago, I started making a list of databases for nature conservation. In part, I wanted to learn about this myself. In part it seems that there is no such overview. If one searches for nature conservation databases online, one finds them as a hit list of possible databases. It is a start but not an overview. Also, overviews do not show up, or they are very limited. So I started to make a list which I am trying to expand weekly. One can find it here. After a some of hours collecting, a couple of things started to become abundantly clear, which I want to share here, as a heads-up for those interested. Also, it will help making the list into an overview.

It is overwhelming

The amount of data that is available on nature is enormous. It becomes clear from just browsing the internet in search of databases. Data comes from all kinds of sources : satellites, scientists who roam the earth or spend their time in laboratories, citizen scientists and volunteers, drones, camera traps, weather and other sensors on land, in the air and in the waters. And lot of that data is made available on-line, publicly available or for a fee.

There are so many databases out there, that there are databases that try to capture and aggregate data from other databases. I call them database aggregators. And then there are websites and other digital tools that aim to provide data in forms that humans can understand, through dashboards of visualizations and metrics. Because one can find out where for example Bullfinches have been seen, but a list of sightings is not so easy to understand as a map with dots.

Bullfinch (photo by Pixabay)

But all that does not cover all of nature

What also becomes clear from simply browsing in search of databases, is that some topics and species get more attention than others. Birds and turtles are popular among the general public, insects and micro-organisms less so. Snakes and other reptiles are somewhere in the middle, I guess. I assume that it is the same for NGOs, scientists and governments : they are more interested in some aspects of nature than others. The result is that the overwhelming amount of data that is available on nature is not, probably by far not, covering all. Perhaps not even all that is necessary for nature conservation.

Worse, nature conservation is even bigger than that …

So far, I have been writing about databases about nature. However, nature conservation is not only about nature. It is also about people and what they are doing and not doing. One only needs to dig into the details of even the simplest nature conservation project, to understand that nature conservation is about laws, regulations, the economic situations of people involved, companies, technology, NGOs and their projects, funders and their programs, governments and their policies, supra national institutions trying to coordinate internationally, cultural habits, scientific research, technological innovation, social innovation, and on and on.

… and thus more complex

Nature conservation is insanely complex. Just digging into a database or two is not enough. Moreover, one should realize that those databases are part of humanity’s work on nature conservation, and thus have a complex context and a history that make them what they are. One should be aware of that when one consults them, or run the risk of drawing the wrong conclusions from the data.

For the time being, I’ll be busy just listing the databases, until I stop drowning.

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