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New Capabilities for the Conservation of Biodiversity

The Avian Knowledge Network

Steve Kelling

We asked Steve Kelling, a lead partner as PRBO helps develop the Avian Knowledge Network, to discuss that project here. Steve is also the principal designer of Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology's "eBird" program (see page 5).--Grant Ballard

Birds provide a window into the natural world, allowing us to explore the complexity of natural systems and achieve insights into how we can conserve biodiversity. This is because there are over 10,000 bird species; they occupy all terrestrial and most aquatic environments, show a remarkable responsiveness, engage in spectacular long-distance migrations that demonstrate biological integration of disparate systems, and most importantly are easily observed and studied.

Much knowledge of birds' distribution patterns is based on observations by individuals--non-specialists who participate in citizen science bird-monitoring projects. In fact, observational data on North American birds constitutes one of the largest and longest-running resources of biodiversity data in existence.

Advances in the information sciences are allowing us to organize such data resources into a unified collection, enabling researchers, policy-makers, students and educators to access, visualize and analyze these data via the Internet.

The Avian Knowledge Network (AKN) is a network of data contributors, biologists, computer scientists, statisticians, educators, and conservation biologists throughout the Western Hemisphere. Together we are using information, the Internet, and high-performance computing to create the framework for sharing conservation data and add to our understanding of biodiversity.

The AKN takes advantage of four fundamental advances that have created a revolution in how we access information. First, computers are ubiquitous. Second, fiber optic networks have "flattened the world," creating global computing networks. Third, the Internet and web-browsers have created a worldwide standard for information access and dissemination. Finally, information description languages, data management processes, and software application integration provide a seamless workflow for access, manipulation and processing of massive data resources.

The result ( is a resource that allows anyone to discover the data of the bird-monitoring community. Experts in data visualization and presentation are developing tools that allow users to view the dynamics of bird populations at scales that range from the backyard to the entire hemisphere. Researchers and students in computational ornithology, computer sciences, and statistics are also working at the vanguard, using bird- monitoring data to develop entirely new analytic techniques.

Only two years old, the AKN is already providing results. 1) It is the largest data provider to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (, furnishing access to more than 20 million records. 2) AKN data allow disease modelers and virologists to predict and map the potential spread of Avian Influenza across North America ( visualization). 3) Researchers have been able to model the patterns of occurrence of more than 100 species of birds across North America and are beginning to identify regions and migration corridors essential to bird populations. 4) In new work based on AKN capabilities, computer scientists can explore how variables interact, applying (and improving) analytical techniques previously not used in conservation science. 5) The AKN is allowing us to discover the patterns of bird distributions relative to those of human populations (urban to rural) at a scale uattainable before now.

The AKN is a hemispheric consortium of providers, users, educators, students, and researchers, across a variety of disciplines, who are using information on the distribution and abundance of bird populations. Along with the new scientific capacities already stemming from this effort are important new capabilities for the conservation of biodiversity.