Global Ecology in the Era of Big Data: Challenges and Promises for Plant Ecology in the 21st Century
Friday, August 14, 2015: 8:00 AM-11:30 AM
308, Baltimore Convention Center
Naia Morueta-Holme, University of California Berkeley
Mark Schildhauer, University of California Santa Barbara
Jens-Christian Svenning, Aarhus University
The informatics revolution is transforming ecology. Global collaborative efforts are taking advantage of the technological advances in the era of Big Data to integrate millions of records of biodiversity data spanning unprecedented spatial, temporal, and taxonomic scales. This trend represents a move away from the 20th century paradigm, which was predominantly based on observations from a few sites by one or a few collectors. The major efforts in data integration and analysis are allowing for the revision of long-standing theories on the origin and distribution of species diversity, creating new hypotheses, offering novel ways to advance conservation planning and climate change adaptation. More importantly, recent approaches are quickly enabling synthesis across a broad spectrum of dimensions of biodiversity – from evolutionary processes and functional ecology to predictions of ecosystem responses under global environmental change. Yet, big data ecology does not come without challenges. There is the non-trivial task of integrating and standardizing data from disparate sources and correcting errors in georeferencing and taxonomy. Even after data cleaning, sampling biases may still be present in the dataset. On the analysis side, big data is dramatically changing the way we do research, requiring modelling, programming and collaborative skills that were previously not part of the basic training of ecologists. Finally, there is the risk of making major errors stemming from the disconnection between a deep ecological knowledge of a study system and the “dots on the screen”. Being aware of and addressing these challenges will ensure high-quality research, especially in a time where it is increasingly used for informing conservation and policy decisions. With a focus on multifaceted measures of botanical diversity and ecology this symposium will provide an overview of the major scientific insights gained from studies based on large data integration efforts. The session will give a historical and methodological perspective on the organization of botanical big data and the infusion of informatics into ecological research as well as cover novel scientific achievements and cutting edge informatics approaches within the different dimensions of biodiversity, spanning traits, phylogenies, and responses to climate change. Each talk will include considerations on the challenges and pitfalls faced when using big data, and how those were addressed – or failed to do so – behind the scenes. In sum, the session will provide a synthetic view of the challenges in informatics that need solving to advance the field into the next 100 years.