New tools are available for the inventory of biodiversity, but further innovation and application could assist synthesis, manipulation, and analysis, and might help assess response to environmental change. Several speakers described the burgeoning capacity to secure vast amounts of data, especially on genetic diversity, as well as opportunities to place data of all kinds in a spatial context through the use of new kinds of instrumentation for global and regional scale remote sensing in combination with geographic information systems (GIS). James P. Collins described how new genomics technologies and cyber-enabled observatories, which he termed “game changers,” are leading to new programs for understanding biodiversity and ecosystems, including the National Science Foundation’s National Ecological Observatory Network, as well as global initiatives such as the Group on Earth Observations Biodiversity Observation Network, and the biodiversity component of the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (see Box 2-1).
The explosion of new data at multiple levels and across many scales calls for new approaches to process and make information available and to achieve more effective integration. Cristián Samper urged the development of cutting-edge information systems that would provide broad access to the research community and to policy makers, as well as for education and outreach activities at all levels. He and other speakers referred to the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL), the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), the National Institutes of Health genetic sequence database GenBank, and the Consortium for the Barcode of Life (CBOL) as examples of the many databases developed by specific communities and individual institutions that are using new technologies to organize biological data for broad access. Dr. Samper emphasized, however, that these efforts need to be sustained, intensified, and coordinated if they are to realize their full potential. Furthermore, he noted that these effects are complementary to, but not a replacement for, traditional methods of archiving natural history data in other ways, such as through reference and voucher specimens in museum collections.
Increasingly, data on species distributions are being combined with other knowledge (e.g., phylogenetic trees) or models (e.g., climate-change scenarios) to provide improved predictions and new kinds of insights. Using GIS approaches, they are also increasingly integrated with other data to model species distributions and their associated environmental parameters. José Sarukhán described how the Mexican National Commission on Biodiversity (CONABIO; Box 2-2) uses such tools to synthesize and analyze data and make them broadly accessible to citizens and decision makers.