University of Kansas Center for Research
Biodiversity Informatics Training for Africa and the World
Biodiversity informatics covers the creation, improvement, integration, analysis, and interpretation of data on biodiversity, with considerable importance in applied dimensions of biodiversity science (conservation, public health, agriculture, etc.). Research in this field includes many new and evolving techniques that are nowhere well summarized; indeed, textbooks and syntheses are only beginning to appear, and few opportunities exist for advanced training. The JRS Biodiversity Foundation has a focus upon Africa due to regions of high biodiversity on the continent yet relatively low capacity for the biodiversity informatics that is essential for the conservation and sustainable use of natural resources.
Key Objectives and Activities
Following on a series of courses that the Project Director organized for the Global Biodiversity Information Facility that focused on niche modeling, the team will carry out nine detailed, in-person training sessions across Africa by teams of experts covering most major themes within the broader field of biodiversity informatics. These sessions will directly train cadres of biodiversity researchers in major regions of Africa, but impacts will be broadened by recording presentations and digitizing resources, making them available online, worldwide.
This project aims to lower barriers of access to the informatics tools and methods via detailed training efforts across the field, both in person, to relatively small numbers of trainees (training courses in multiple African countries), and via the Internet, to the global community. The overall goal is to equip young scientists and conservationists across Africa and globally with the intellectual tools to develop their own biodiversity analyses, position them to become trainers themselves, and equip them to harness biodiversity data for research and policy analysis in their own regions.
The proposed project aims to provide detailed in-person training to approximately 180 scientists, decision makers, and conservation biologists from across Africa (9 sessions, 20 trainees each), as well as Internet-based training materials accessible globally. Each training session will be captured digitally, supplemented with reading materials and practice data sets, and made available via the Internet, generating a comprehensive, centralized resource library with modular curricula on biodiversity informatics. Topics will range from data capture, integration, and improvement, to data analysis, and interpretation.
This project aims to solve the information-and-tools gap at least partly for Africa, a continent with particularly significant needs. While major progress is being made in making biodiversity data more available, the human resources capable of using that information effectively in situ is largely lacking across the continent. The trainings and curricula will create a network of trainees at diverse levels who will make possible ‘endemic’ biodiversity analyses, as well as downstream training that will further magnify project impacts. As a consequence, many African countries will be better able to develop their own evaluations of biodiversity phenomena, effectively empowering them for locally-based decision-making.
Key Challenges in Informatics
Last Updated: February 28th, 2017
Results to Date
The BITC project has successfully completed all 9 in-person courses, the videos, curricula, and materials from which are published online, and freely available to anyone. Each of the courses brought expert instructors from around the world to South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, Ethiopia, and Uganda. More than 140 students and research scientists from 22 African countries have participated in person, some of then returning to become course instructors themselves. The planned curriculum was expanded to include an online course in Public Health Applications, and course modules on funding and publishing research. The BITC also hosts frequent webinars (currently up to 29) as part of a global online seminar series focusing on skills in and background on Biodiversity Informatics. Ongoing work focuses on translating the 500+ videos into as many languages as possible, to broaden their utility and impact worldwide.
Via trainings and content dissemination, the projected has cultivated an active community of biodiversity informatics trainees and professionals; managing a YouTube channel (>880 subscribers, 86,000 views), Facebook group (>2,800 members) and Google+ (275 subscribers) page that facilitate direct communication about tools, training, and techniques; launching an open access, online journal, Biodiversity Informatics, in part as a venue for research resulting from course participation.
Primary Software Platforms
Originally, this project considered using Moodle, the open-source learning platform. However, some pilot exploration indicated that this platform was not sufficiently accessible to potential users in parts of Africa. Therefore, the project opted for a relatively simple HTML site to host materials and curriculum, supplemented by extensive integration with video content on YouTube.
Even after doing homework and background research on platforms, there were still new lessons to be learned about the best ways to ensure the materials were truly globally accessible. In some regions, for instance, You Tube is not universally viewable, so the project is exploring disseminating content via USB keys. In addition, videos are now being translated and subtitled by crowd-sourcing to expand the potential audience. Several uncertain political situations, and the Ebola outbreak in west Africa, forced the cancellation of some of the courses, but the team adapted by holding an online course focused on Public Health Applications.
Project Director Biography
A. Townsend Peterson is University Distinguished Professor at the University of Kansas. He works in close coordination with global colleagues (current collaborations in 21 countries), both individuals and research groups, including in Nigeria, Egypt, South Africa, and Kenya. He is author of more than 370 peer-reviewed research articles, and a recent first book-length synthesis of niche modeling, entitled Ecological Niches and Geographic Distributions. Peterson has presented biodiversity informatics training courses in Mexico, Poland, India, Brazil, and the USA, and seminars and workshops in many other countries; he is considered an authority on primary biodiversity data and mapping biodiversity.
Notes from JRS
JRS recognizes that availability of experts to generate, curate, communicate and use biodiversity information and knowledge is a key constraint that limits scientific research and the decision-making needed to conserve biodiversity in Africa. Technical training in biodiversity informatics is a very important component to capacity-building in addition to experiential learning through applied projects, work experience, and engagement with key stakeholders in biodiversity information and its use. We are keenly interested in the results this effort. We already see that the course attendees are forming collaborative relationships with each other and with the course instructors and JRS’ own grantees are forming networks and exchanging information. The assessment of training is challenging and we hope that this project lets JRS move beyond merely the numbers of course attendees and post-course evaluations and toward long-term evaluation of the impact of training upon the students’ daily work and upon new professional opportunities and projects.