Map of Life
A Jabiru stork at the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary

MOL Blog

Map of Life Dream Team (and, hey, we are ready to blog!)

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Map of Life has been chugging along for about 6 months now in its current configuration and now seems like as good a time as any to step back and consider how far we have come and what might be next. The team working on Map of Life is such an interesting one. Geographically we are spread out across the United States, from the East Coast (Yale University) to the Midwest (University of Kansas), Mountain West (University of Colorado) to the Pacific Coast (University of California, Berkeley). We are also diverse by country of origin (Australia, Germany, U.S.A.), academic training (computer science, ecology, evolution, informatics) and skill set (programming, systems engineerings, informatics, macroecology, systematics, etc). A gratifying part of the first six months, for me, is that these differences and diversity has translated into a strong working relationship and collaborative spirit, where the strengths of the group, not the weaknesses, have multiplied. I think this likely reflects a strong impetus to meet regularly, as often as three times a week, via cell or Skype, to synchronize efforts. Plus, good peeps and – turns out – we like working with each other!

So what have we accomplished with all this good will and great vibes? A lot, as it turns out! Much of that is “behind the scenes”. Andrew Hill and Aaron Steele have been bouncing great ideas back and forth about how to create an information architecture that is robust, scalable and efficient. We’ve put together a broad technological overview. As it stands now, and looking back, we have done a lot. First, we deployed a cloud-based copy of the Catalogue of Life, accumulated a large set of range maps for amphibians and mammals, checked taxonomy of those range maps against the Catalogue of Life database, and provided an initial mechanism to search those maps. Next we have developed the means to display range maps via Google Maps, using a map tiling tool named Mapnik, and developed some initial user interface frameworks and designs. We are currently polishing off access and display of species occurrence data points. All of this is great, but we are still treading in known waters. The excellent AmphibiaWeb project has also developed the means for displaying range maps and occurrence data points, for example.

Soon we will be pulling together some new types of distribution data such as “occurrence polygons” — places where species have been described via species list — and habitat preferences such as “wet broadleaf forests” or “shortgrass prairie”. These are new challenges for storage, query and visualization. An even greater challenge will be trying to provide all these sources of knowledge in a single search and user interface. Exciting times for Map of Life! We are looking forward to having some demonstrations soon, so you can try out some Map of Life features. Stay tuned (and thanks for reading).