Seminar: "Of Bible, Bees, and Babbage: A historical and socio-technical look at data-centric biodiversity research"

Dr. Sharif Islam, Data architect at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center (Leiden, The Netherlands)

Date and Location

When (Date/Time)

February 24, 2020, 9:00 AM - 10:00 AM


107 Forest Resources Building

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Recent biodiversity research has been propelled by a veritable explosion in the availability of data describing the distribution, function, and history of life on earth. In addition to new observational data, various projects around the world are in the process of digitizing massive amounts of plant, fungal and other biological and geological specimens deposited in natural history museums. These specimens, along with other historical records such as field notes and illustrations, provide data spanning decades and sometimes centuries. At the same time, advances in genomics, data analytics, machine learning techniques, and the availability of customized software packages are enabling new data-centric, computational and algorithmic approaches of unprecedented scope, speed and scale.

However, the availability of data and computational and analytical capacities are by themselves not enough to deliver a renewed understanding of the variety, distinctiveness and complexity of all life on earth, let alone issues of biodiversity loss, climate change, etc. To take full advantage of these new capacities, data need to be properly identified, contextualized, historicized, curated, linked, cited, and archived. The organization and historical complexity of maintaining research infrastructures must also be considered.

In this talk, I provide an interdisciplinary overview of how modern biodiversity research (and by extension modern scientific research) came to be and its place in our data-centric, algorithm- and quantification-driven society. I trace a trajectory from the Biblical/Adamic naming of the animals (Genesis 2: 19-20) through Linnean Systematics, colonial expeditions (as a result of which flora and fauna travelled between Europe and Asia in a myriad fashions), and scientific revolutions, to our current pre-occupations with data science and Artificial Intelligence. Building on this historical context, my critical socio-technical theoretical background and years of experience working internationally with large computing and data infrastructures, I outline a nuanced approach to a data-centric biodiversity research agenda. I show that such an approach is essential if we are to understand not just the natural world but also the social, material, and cultural worlds and the interdependencies and interactions between these worlds. To develop such an approach, we need not just robust data infrastructures and domain expertise but also to understand the historical and socio-technical aspects of data-related technologies in biodiversity research.