Establishment of Identify Life

A Project Funded by the Moore Foundation

Executive Summary

This project is to develop Identify Life, an innovative and flexible means of delivering taxonomic identification services via the Internet to a wide audience including conservation managers, scientists, students and the general public. It is a globally scaleable, accessible, cascading solution to the problem of biological identification, with the potential for revolutionising and internationalising the process of creating identification and diagnostic keys.

Correctly identifying organisms – species of conservation concern, new species, ecologically important species and invasive species – is a critical need in many fields. There is considerable international investment, particularly through the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, in the creation of global taxonomic services that provide users with on-line, accurate information on species and other taxa, including their biology, distribution, management, conservation significance etc. However, to access this information, users need to know the scientific name of the specimen of concern, and the name is often a difficult thing to determine.

Solving this critical constraint to widespread access to biological information requires the provision of cheaply produced, effectively distributed and readily accessible identification keys. While considerable progress has been made in recent years to make the identification process easier (such as through the interactive matrix and pathways keys produced using the Lucid family of products), keys are still costly to produce and often difficult for users to find and access.

Identify Life will provide a mechanism for producing web-based identification keys more rapidly and at much less cost than is currently possible. This will be achieved by pooling data from many disparate sources such as printed keys (using the Lucid Phoenix software tool), published and unpublished taxonomic databases, phylogenetic data files and natural language descriptions into a web-service database (See Fig 1.). We estimate that it will be possible to produce a two- to three-fold immediate increase in productivity, with greater gains as Identify Life matures and is expanded.

The work plan of this 18-month project consists of three elements –

Development of the Identify Life distributed database system and a suite of middleware tools that will allow contributors to easily upload data to Identify Life, and users to create customised Internet keys on the fly.

A proof of concept will be provided by creating an Identify Life dataset for around 550 palm species of the neotropics, as well as for an additional 1500 taxa from various taxonomic groups.

In the final stages of the project an international workshop will be organised with other agencies, with the aim of demonstrating Identify Life in operation and preparing action plans concerned with the continued development, funding and use of Identify Life.