East Africa is home to unique and diverse plant communities. Ethiopia is rich in plant diversity, hosting more than 6,000 known species, almost 20% of which are found nowhere else on Earth. However, no centralized, publicly-available portal exists to collect, aggregate, update, synthesize, disseminate, and visualize plant species occurrence and diversity data for the region.
Key Objectives and Activities
This project aimed to develop an online Living atlas of East African Flora (LEAF) to integrate new information (e.g., species occurrences, plot data, and traditional ecological knowledge) with legacy data. As an initial effort, the atlas was to be populated with Ethiopian data, and in doing so, the project aimed to train the next generation of students on its use to foster regional ownership, system investment, growing data contributions, and continued participation. Data summaries were planned that would guide conservation actions and outcomes. The hope was that this globally accessible system would grow with continued participation; that its open participatory nature, combined with rigorous occurrence data, would inform biodiversity research and yield tangible conservation outcomes in Ethiopia and regionally across East Africa.
Planned Outputs and Outcomes
The project planned that all data would be freely available for re-use and citable to credit the project, contributors, and funders. This would provide ecological data and metadata to support theses, dissertations, and publications. Potential outcomes stemming from the creation and use of LEAF included:
identifying hotspots of Ethiopian plant diversity,
developing baseline data pertaining to the status and trends of endemic species,
continually updating species profile information with local knowledge, and
sharing online plant species diversity maps based on known, vetted occurrences useful for predicting species distributions and suitable habitat.
The overall aims of these conservation outcomes were to prioritize areas of potential conservation concern, identify hotspots of rare and endemic species, guide future construction projects to minimize impacts on regional flora, facilitate data discovery and exchange with other global informatics efforts for large-scale conservation planning, and build an extensible platform capable of supporting the biodiversity informatics needs related to East Africa.
Primary Software Platforms
As of the conclusion of the project period in 2016, the following had been achieved.
Launch of the Living atlas of East African Flora (LEAF), hosted by CSU. The prototype system organized and shared 59,527 plant species occurrences, 34,495 species, 17 plant collections, and 10 projects. The system allowed anyone anywhere to become a project coordinator and create their own project to contribute additional plant biodiversity data. The prototype system dynamically displayed projects and species and supports dynamic data entry sheet design and deployment customizable to project needs. Dynamic species profile pages afforded users easy access to any selected species’ detail information with tabs for: (1) Overview, (2) Photo Gallery, (3) Names, (4) Taxonomic classification, and (5) Resources.
Training of 20 Ethiopian stakeholders at workshops in Ethiopian universities and government ministries to teach potential users how to contribute and obtain data from LEAF for use in conservation work. In particular, the project focused on training their in-country partner, Dr. Habitamu Taddese, a professor at Wondo Genet College of Forestry at Hawassa University, who was an invaluable project champion, conducting many additional LEAR trainings.
Development of additional in-country partnerships to sustain LEAF into the future including: (1) transfer of hosting and maintenance responsibilities, possibly Wondo Genet College of Forestry; and (2) administrator of the LEAF system taxonomy by Dr. Sebsebe Demissew at The National Herbarium at Addis Ababa University.
The team acknowledged that they learned several valuable lessons about developing data portals, and hoped that, by sharing them, other potential grantees might profit from their experience. Particularly for projects where the grantee is situated outside of the project country, up front investment in developing in-country partnerships is an essential component of the project plan. In addition, very careful consideration must be made to the intended users of a data portal, and challenges and enabling conditions to their access to the data. In the team’s own words:
“First and foremost, we learned that it is important for those proposing to develop portals to first reach out and meet with collaborators in-country before writing or submitting any proposal. Doing this will ensure that initial collaborations are formed, that any proposals developed are co-created together in collaboration with those intended stakeholders and potential users of the proposed portal, and that the portal will truly be beneficial for the intended stakeholders.”
“We learned that it is best to have the stakeholders develop and host the portal, despite Internet connectivity challenges and to (as a backup plan) devise mirroring and redundancy approaches with hosting services elsewhere that have possibly more reliable up-time.”
“…be careful to know your users’ browser support needs before deciding on a given [user interface] design framework. Some users require older browser support whereas others do not. New modern frameworks help ensure responsive design for use on smartphones and tablets in addition to larger desktop monitors.”
“We also learned that many countries (in our case Ethiopia) have specific laws governing the sharing of local knowledge and that grantees must take time up front to understand these policies and the ramifications of these policies with respect to sharing biodiversity information online.”
Notes from JRS
The Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory (NREL) at CSU, a center of excellence in ecosystem science since 1969, is recognized for outstanding accomplishments in ecology with a rich history in Africa. JRS has a strategic focus on Eastern Africa and we have efforts on the biodiversity informatics for endangered plants in Tanzania and invasive plants in East Africa as well as efforts on the flora of the Andes and Amazon. Our grant to Colorado State University will build upon their expertise in citizen science and participatory ecology projects as well as emerging partnerships in Ethiopia. An area in which JRS hopes to learn more is how to foster partnerships and capacity building with African institutions that ultimately result in sustainable efforts, infrastructure and expertise within Africa. The project has pointed to the importance of establishing partnerships in advance of project work and the need to build adequate start-up time in the initial year of project. JRS is excited that 2014 will be an important year as this program hits full stride and builds datasets, the web portal, and partnerships.