Bringing It Together: The National Biological Information Infrastructure

By Maurie Caitlin Kelly

"Nothing happens in living nature that is not in relation to the whole."
Johann von Goethe
There are few things more challenging than searching for and accessing biological information.For many reasons, this information has traditionally been the purview of field scientists and academic researchers - frequently lost in the backwaters of an age old technology - the filing cabinet.

Historically, an even greater challenge to the information seeker is actually finding a resource that is not only in digital format, but also GIS compatible.With the advent of the Internet and the growth of data clearinghouses has come an opportunity to change these historic truths.The US Geological Survey is spearheading an effort to make biological data widely available to anyone with an Internet connection. This effort, the National Biological Information Infrastructure (NBII) is the sister component to the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) and is now home to a wide variety of biological information - from fish to coral reefs.

NBII Overview
The NBII is a broad based international partnership among federal, state, international and local government agencies, academic institutions, non-profit organizations and private industry.

Figure 1.The National Biological Information Infrastructure Home Page.(Click for larger image)

Its premise is similar to that of the original NSDI - to identify, document and provide access to biological information.Unlike the NSDI, which relies on partners who operate and are funded by external entities such as state or local governments, the NBII has developed direct partnerships and, in some cases funding arrangements, with data providers, in this case called "nodes." These nodes are divided by either themes such as fisheries and aquatic resources or bird or by geography - the mid-Atlantic region for example.Each node is managed at the USGS by a node coordinator who develops partnerships, promotes the node and works to acquire resources for the node providers.

The NBII As A Digital Library
The NBII, much like a digital library, maintains a vast array and diversity of types of information.Photographs, scientific data and GIS data sit along side each other and are equally accessible, allowing the NBII to serve a wide audience and distinct skill levels and interests. The NBII, through what is called the resource catalog approach, also provides for curriculum resources for teachers, links to expertise databases, a biocomplexity thesaurus, access to online journals, and identifies museum collections that are accessible via the Internet.

Figure 2.An NBII Resource Catalog entry documenting the URL, creator, publisher and content type of the information.(Click for larger image)

Most importantly, like any good digital library, NBII has a major metadata and clearinghouse component.The NBII metadata standard is similar to the Federal Geographic Data Committee Content Standard for Digital Geospatial Metadata except that components have been added to the standard, called profiles, to accommodate the needs of biological data (e.g.a field for taxonomy was added for NBII purposes).There is also a metadata clearinghouse which serves as the primary portal for searching for biological data on the NBII.It is this function alone that begins to bridge the biological information gap and underscores the role of the NBII as a true digital library.

Geographic Nodes
The NBII has begun developing geographic nodes that link data from distinct geographic areas together.These nodes are not limited to a particular topic but try to provide a broad view of data available about a region - integrating thematic disciplines with geography.One of the newer geographic nodes is the Mid-Atlantic Information Node (MAIN).According to Gabrielle Canonico, the MAIN program manager at USGS, the MAIN node "encompasses Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia because the Mid-Atlantic region is unique in its ecological breadth, and is experiencing a range of biological resource problems and stressors from a number of sources, not least of which is its large and rapidly growing human population."

According to Canonico, "Issues such as pollution, endangered species, overabundant species, invasive species, acid precipitation, fragmentation, urbanization, transportation, sprawl, prime farmland loss and water supply are the subject of public debate in the region. All of these elements combine to create a strong need for coordination and collaboration among the many localities, management agencies and non-government organizations involved in biological resources management."

Thematic Nodes
Some of the most engaging and informative nodes in the NBII are the thematic nodes and those that are devoted to biodiversity issues.These nodes cover diverse topics in biological information including bird conservation and biodiversity and even amphibian declines and malformations (cleverly called Frogweb).

Figure 3.The FrogWeb NBII node promotes education about the impact of negative environmental factors on amphibians.(Click for larger image)

One of the primary thematic nodes, the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (FAR) node, is hosted by Penn State Institutes for the Environment.The FAR node is comprised of numerous partners, regional and international, including FishBase Americas hosted at Kiel University, IABIN, and the Conservation Management Institute among others.The node staff at Penn State work directly with the USGS Northern Appalachian Research Lab and the USGS FAR Node coordinator in Reston.

Figure 4.The Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Home Page.(Click for larger image)

These partnerships have allowed the FAR node to expand beyond just providing access to data and links to resources.FAR has embraced GIS as one of its primary emphases.

GIS and the NBII
The FAR node has developed numerous Web GIS-based applications.These applications have been developed using ESRI ArcIMS and ArcSDE and are all WMS/WFS compliant for easy interoperability.The US Fish Explorer is one of the first web GIS applications developed by FAR.The Fisheries Explorer, which was developed by Ryan Baxter and James Spayd of the FAR node, allows users to select from hundreds of species of fish and view their distribution by watershed or river basin.There is also a companion Pennsylvania Fisheries Explorer that was developed using Aquatic GAP data for Pennsylvania.

Figure 5.The US Fish Explorer search interface.(Click for larger image)

Another web GIS feature of the FAR node is a catalog of NBII Internet Mapping Applications.This was developed as a mechanism by which users can easily and quickly identify map services and other web GIS applications available through NBII nodes.This was developed using the ESRI metadata server and functions similarly to the Geography Network.

Figure 6.The Catalog of NBII Internet Mapping Applications has both a browse and search capability similar to that of the Geography Network.(Click for larger image)

The NBII has only touched the tip of the iceberg where GIS is concerned.Many of the nodes are developing map services and Web services.Several of the geographic nodes maintain access to GIS data - such as the Mountain Prairie Information Node and the Southern Appalachian Information Node (SAIN).The MAIN, according to Canonico, will also be developing extensive GIS capabilities throughout the next year.

In general, the NBII initiative provides the long awaited data and information access needed by scientists and citizens alike.As the NBII grows and partnerships expand, this effort could truly begin to fill the information gap and bring biodiversity and nature into our homes and easily into our work with just a few clicks of a mouse.

Published Saturday, June 25th, 2005

Written by Maurie Caitlin Kelly

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