PRBO Conservation Science
Quarterly Journal of PRBO Conservation Science, Number 138, Fall 2004: Long-term Data Sets at PRBO


PRBO's mountain of data is actually a vibrant component in the ecological data collected globally.

The Future of Long-term Data Sets

Grant Ballard

The Ecology of Change
Three Long-term Examples
Executive Director's column
The Future of Long-term Data Sets
Long-term Volunteers
Birding for the Record
John and Ricky Warriner
2004 Osher Symposium
Lasting Legacy Campaign

The number of days each year that PRBO Terrestrial Division biologists band birds has risen dramatically, reflecting the number of new banding locations added annually.
One of the main challenges PRBO currently faces is also our main asset: a behemoth of a database. To feed the behemoth, each year we send out a growing swarm of field biologists, armed with an increasingly complex array of devices, to sample a growing number of parameters in a growing number of ecosystems. Our year-round fieldwork adds exponentially to datasets already spanning 30-plus years. Make no mistake, PRBO is a data gathering machine (e.g., graph this page).

While most data are collected on a project specific basis, we can think of all of PRBO's data as a single, huge pile of information with thematic threads connecting the various components. The main threads may number as few as five: geographic and temporal scale, proximal and ultimate factors regulating populations, anthropogenic influences, the role of birds in ecosystem function, and training and methods development. Most of PRBO's contributions have traditionally come from these individual strands of the data pile: researchers who design individual projects usually capitalize upon the relevant data fairly quickly in the short term.

As the pile grows and the pieces become more diverse, tracking all the constituent parts of the database and the threads that connect them can be daunting. Advances in computer processing power theoretically enable us to stay on top of the data heap--to the extent that PRBO can take advantage of this emerging potential (to be enhanced greatly in our new headquarters facilities).

Looking beyond PRBO, our mountain of data is actually a vibrant component in the grand library of ecological data collected globally. Like the ecosystems we study, the global database we help construct and steward faces challenges to keep all its pieces functioning and integrated. In the past year we have partnered with researchers at U.C. Davis' Information Center for the Environment, the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, and other institutions in a spate of new projects aimed at tackling these challenges regionally, nationally, and globally. Many of the challenges are technological, involving new Web languages to accommodate the complex arrays of relationships in ecological data, high-bandwidth connections between data systems, and a new breed of "data mining" software that hybridizes statistical methods with Web-savvy data management processes.
New technologies (here, a radio-tag used to chart Western Sandpiper migration) open new realms of data collection. Photo by David Weintraub

At PRBO, we contribute to this global process on several levels: as data providers creating new data management and query tools; as expert field biologists applying and evaluating new technologies for observing animal behavior; as analysts recommending how to make data sets most universally usable; and as conservation scientists identifying what kinds of data access will address the most relevant questions.

An era is approaching when people will use ecological monitoring data much like we now use human census data, weather forecasts, and traffic reports. Regional trends in bird population numbers, survivorship, and fecundity will be constantly updated from myriad sources worldwide, correlated with annual and decadal climate cycles, and used for forecasting fishery stocks, agricultural yields, and insect or disease outbreaks. Data will be aggregated from an expanding array of semi-autonomous instruments, such as weather buoys, satellite-based remote sensing of primary productivity and climate cycles, radar systems for tracking migration, microphone arrays counting individual birds by vocalizations, and motes--tiny, networked sensors providing microhabitat and climate data and tracking the movements of individual birds.

These data will complement increasingly detailed reports from field biologists, entered to Internet-based data portals, all painting a dynamic portrait of ecosystem status. If all goes well, an egalitarian and benevolent Internet will deliver this powerful scientific toolkit to a global audience thirsty for discovery and concerned for their planet's living systems.

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