Press Archive

SDSC Hosts Workshop to Establish U.S. Organization for Biodiversity Information

Published 04/12/1996

For more information, contact:

Ann Redelfs
619-534-5113 (FAX)

SAN DIEGO, CA -- As a first step toward making biodiversity information freely and seamlessly available to science and society, the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) is hosting the U.S. Organization for Biodiversity Information (US-OBI) Workshop April 11-14-1996. An international group of biodiversity experts from the Smithsonian Institution, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Cornell University, the University of Kansas, and many other institutions are meeting to establish the organization and set its mission and goals.

"Currently, there is no single institution, agency, society, or group responsible for this task," said Julian Humphries, a faculty member in the Division of Biological Sciences at Cornell who is soon to be director of the Kansas Environmental Informatics Laboratory. "This mission will require not only technical expertise, political leadership, and scientific vision, but also determination by the community to undertake this effort."

The importance of establishing a single institution or professional society to organize, link, and disseminate this information has been suggested by a series of reports dating back to 1989. The US-OBI will facilitate the dissemination of collections data for use by the nation's policy makers, environmental managers, scientific and educational communities, and the public to sustain terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems in harmony with land use and meet the informational needs of society at large.

The keynote address is being given by Tom Lovejoy, special assistant to the Secretary of the Smithsonian and a noted conservation biologist.

Other participants at the workshop include Diana Freckman, director of the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory at Colorado State University; Quentin Wheeler, professor of Biological Sciences at Cornell and president of the Association of Systematics Collections; Jorge Soberón Mainero, executive secretary of Mexico's National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO); Arthur Chapman, scientific officer for biogeographic information in Australia's ERIN Unit; Dan Janzen, professor of biology at the University of Pennsylvania and a world-famous ecologist and conservation biologist; Marvalee Wake, UC Berkeley professor and president of the International Union of Biological Sciences (IUBS); and David Wake, UC Berkeley professor and director of the museum at Berkeley.

The biodiversity and ecological data collected by U.S. institutions is estimated to consist of approximately half a billion specimens in museums and herbaria. But many existing collections have not been captured in electronic form. Those that have are not linked easily to one another because of the diversity of hardware platforms, applications software, and data protocols within and among institutions. Linking this information with databases and tools from other relevant disciplines has proven even more daunting.

The April workshop is bringing together approximately 50 collections personnel, information providers, technical specialists, and users to establish the US-OBI and determine its design and operating procedures. The workshop follows a meeting at the University of Kansas last September, the Lawrence Retreat, at which experts discussed ways to improve access to biodiversity information, particularly biological collections. SDSC also took part in this retreat.

"One of the goals of the NSF supercomputer centers program is to broaden the base of participation in the centers' activities," said Peter Taylor, SDSC deputy director for science. "The problems posed by the biological museum collections are very data-intensive and provide a strong driving force for many activities at SDSC. Furthermore, the issues of biodiversity that this conference is addressing are of fundamental importance to our international society."

The participants are discussing the challenges to achieving these goals by a community-based organization, the changing nature of information, and the technological solutions that can unite the vast biodiversity collections among the community members and with other disciplines.

The goal of the first day was be to produce a framework document that describes the necessary functions of an open biodiversity infrastructure, emphasizing feasibility, commitments, and costs. This document "sets the scene" for a subsequent plenary session by describing the informatics challenges that lie ahead for collections-based research institutions and the biodiversity community. Additional sessions will demonstrate how the US-OBI will affect ecumenical and community projects and solicit input from the participants in focused breakout sessions. The final session will synthesize the results of the workshop -- defining the US-OBI and its future.

For more information on the workshop, see the US-OBI Web page ( or contact Julian Humphries,, or Peter Arzberger, or 619-534-5079.

SDSC, a national laboratory for computational science and engineering, is sponsored by NSF, other federal agencies, the State and University of California, and private organizations; is affiliated with the University of California, San Diego; and is administered by General Atomics. For more information, see or contact Ann Redelfs, SDSC,, 619-534-5032.