South African National Biodiversity Institute (2012)

Mobilizing Africa's Biodiversity Data


Conserving Africa’s rich biodiversity in the face of profound socio-economic transformation is a critical challenge for the continent’s policy makers, confounded by a lack of accessible, relevant and reliable biodiversity data. Over the past decade, millions of biodiversity data records have been mobilized (the process by which data sets are compiled, digitized and published to render them accessible and useful) but crucial gaps remain. Strengthening the knowledge base to better inform policy and decision making in Africa, requires that data mobilization efforts are strategically honed towards addressing these gaps. Such a purpose-driven, policy-oriented approach constitutes a more efficient and effective use of limited conservation resources.

Key Objectives and Activities

The overarching aim of the project was to develop a Biodiversity Data Mobilization Strategy for Africa, while enhancing regional collaboration and capacity in biodiversity informatics. The key objectives were to:

  • define priority policy-relevant data;
  • conduct a gap analysis of priority data;
  • identify data-holding institutions;
  • foster collaboration and data-sharing between institutions;
  • develop appropriate online support tools; and
  • inform the development of academic curriculum.

To this end, SANBI proposed to work directly with a network of African biodiversity informaticians comprising representatives of governments, NGOs, universities and research centers.

Planned Outputs and Outcomes

  • A published toolkit for determining priority policy-relevant data to give Africa’s environmental leaders clarity on the type of biodiversity data that they should prioritize for mobilization.
  • An inventory of priority biodiversity data accompanied by a report on the barriers and solutions to data-sharing, to inspire and guide efforts to expand of the network, encouraging new partners to share their data.
  • Online tools to support African partners’ management and dissemination of biodiversity data. The goal of these tools was to enhance technical capacity across the continent and accelerate data mobilization.
  • University module on data mobilization to foster a new generation of African biodiversity informaticians.

Project Results

By the conclusion of this grant period, substantial progress had been made toward raising the visibility and importance of biodiversity informatics in African policy, and equipping countries to develop customized approaches for connecting data producers (researchers) and consumers (policymakers), given their respective contexts of needs, resources, and governance.

  • The proposed “Toolkit to determine policy-relevant biodiversity data” was published to help countries prioritize the most useful biodiversity informatics targets for guiding policy creation, bolstering the case for investing in data when other urgent priorities (e.g., reserve formation) also demand conservation resources. The toolkit will be a living document, updated with relevant guidance as it becomes available.
  • Three workshops were convened to build capacity in African countries for biodiversity data mobilization, and create a community of partners working across the continent. Delegates from each country in attendance discussed priorities and challenges for mobilization in their countries, building strategies and resources.
  • A substantial portion of the second project workshop, held in March, 2014, in Pretoria, was devoted to identifying national priorities for biodiversity data mobilization. This activity generated a list of more than 70 data-holding institutions across the continent. The list was partial however, as not all African countries were able to send representatives.
  • As of the end of this grant, the university module was under development.

The project culminated in a conference, Africa Rising: Mobilising Biodiversity Data for Sustainable Development, which convened 100 delegates representing 21 African countries and 10 international organizations in May 2015, to discuss the challenges of, and strategies for, increasing accessibility and relevance of biodiversity data for the policy cycle. The delegates produced a joint Declaration on Biodiversity Information for Sustainable Development in Africa, and a Plan of Action for Mobilising and Mainstreaming Africa’s Biodiversity Data. Additionally, the conference featured the launch of the EU-funded programme, Biodiversity Information for Development, which constitutes one of the larger investments in the mobilization of Africa’s biodiversity data. Africa Rising built on the accomplishments of entire project period, and afforded an opportunity to promote the project and its goals to wide audience, particularly in social media and news outlets.

To learn about results from the July 2014 meeting in Cotonou, Benin to design a training program and build a case for mobilizing policy relevent biodiversity data, please check out SANBI’s press release here.

Lessons Learned

The continental scope of this project provided ample opportunity to learn from the complex landscape of African national governance and conservation. African governments are at widely varying stages in managing their biodiversity data, so dexterity and inclusivity must be exercised to meet their differing standpoints. In addition, biodiversity informatics is a very specialized field not immediately comprehensible to those working outside of it. Effective communication is therefore of critical importance. Thus, though the project was very effective at identifying data-holding institutions, and helping countries set mobilization priorities, the lion’s share of the mobilization itself will require additional time and incentives to invest in the infrastructure and human resources required. In particular, it proved difficult to convince African governments to establish national data portals on their own accord without being able to offer enabling financial support. It is hoped that the timing of the EU BID program, which will provide such financial incentives, will effectively capitalize off the in-country capacity and momentum created by this project.

Notes from JRS

The JRS grant to SANBI is among the first grants in our portfolio to work on pan-African policy development to increase the access to biodiversity data and knowledge.  The project hoped to support national efforts in over a dozen countries to identify the data that is most important to achieve their national biodiversity conservation priorities. The project also aimed to generate lasting capacity within those countries for data prioritization and mobilization. Though this grant was awarded in 2012, delays in hiring key personnel led us to “reset the clock” so that this project effectively got underway in 2014; JRS is committed to collaborating with our grantees to adapt projects in the face of emerging challenges and new opportunities encountered during projects.

The project ended in late 2015 and proved to be a significant anchor of biodiversity informatics capacity-building and networking in sub-Saharan Africa over the last few years.  Participants in the SANBI mobilization project are also key actors in GBIF’s Africa nodes, training courses, emergent partnerships, and national efforts at biodiversity monitoring.  The project achieved its aims in only a handful of countries and suffered from incomplete commitments from others.  In addition, the participants, who were largely drawn from technical communities were not always able to forge partnerships with policy-makers.  We are particularly pleased with the outcome of the strengthened personal and professional networks among professionals in the region who share common goals and who might collaborate in the future for capacity-building and policy development.  In 2016, we expect to launch a follow on project that will use a competitive model and a prize mechanism to focus capacity building efforts on a small set of highly committed partners.

Last Updated: February 28th, 2017

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